Thursday, March 8, 2012

Be ready to keep reading.

A cliched method of describing how great book is "you can't put it down." That cliche quite possibly fits C.S. Forester's The Good Shepherd (1955) more perfectly than any other book.

Seriously. You literally can't put the thing down simply because there's no good place to pause before you get to the end.

The Good Shepherd is told entirely from the point-of-view of Commander George Krause, captain of the American destroyer Keeling during the Second World War. Krause is also in command of a convoy consisting of 37 merchant ships and three additional escort vessels crossing the Atlantic during the height of the U-boat menace. The story begins on a Wednesday morning, when Krause is called to the bridge when one of the escorts gets a sonar contact.

It ends almost exactly two days later. During that time, Krause (except for a few trips to the head and to conduct a quick burial-at-sea ceremony) never leaves the bridge. The convoy sails into a wolf pack. The Keeling charges forward after a radar contact--probably a sub on the surface. It comes back to the convoy to join with another destroyer in stalking another U-boat. It zips to the rear of the convoy to cover the designated rescue vessel while the crew of a torpedoed ship is taken aboard. It stalks yet another sub. It dogfights a damaged sub that has been forced to surface. The depth charge supply is low. One of the escorts is critically low on fuel. It's all non-stop. There is literally no significant break in the action as the reader follows along with Krause's thought processes as he makes one on-the-go tactical decision after another.

The tension is incredibly high from start to finish, punctuated by moments of high excitement, such as the destroyer vs. sub surface fight or the moments when Keeling is chasing a sub through the convoy in the pitch dark.

And Krause is a great character--a devoutly spiritual man for whom duty is everything. Despite having spent twenty years in the Navy, this is Krause's combat baptism, but it's a role he's born for. He's a lot like Forester's more famous hero, Horatio Hornblower, in that he's very unemotional and logical in dangerous situations and very critical in self-analysis.

We can't help but admire and respect Krause. We get to know him intimately in a very short period of time, with the prose efficiently detailing his thoughts as he quickly weighs the pros and cons of each decision he makes. And, driven by his high sense of duty, he usually makes the correct decisions.

The clear prose also gives all us landlubbers a firm grasp of the always-fluid tactical situation--we understand what's happening at any given moment and therefore we have all that much more sympathy for Krause while he's making spot decisions that could get his ship killed if he's wrong.

Forester even uses small human details to make the story work. Krause's constant lack-of-time to leave the bridge for a few moments to use the head or his hunger after he realizes he hasn't eaten for hours are all things that give the story an additional sense of realism.

So if you read The Good Shepherd, give yourself the time to finish quickly. There's literally no good stopping point anywhere before the end.

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