Launching a new series, spec fic author Grant (Gone series) gives us an exciting World War II action novel with an alternate history twist – in 1940, the draft was extended to all American citizens, regardless of gender. The novel follows three young women who enlist in the army in 1942: white Rio Richlin from rural California who goes into the Infantry as a sharpshooter, African American Frangie Marr from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who becomes a medic, and Jewish Rainy Schulterman from New York City who lands up in Army Intelligence. We spend a little time establishing their home lives, then go through basic training with them, and finally, in the second half of the book get to the “blood and guts” as they all end up in the battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.
The characters, and their motivations, are well-developed. Numerous secondary characters are introduced and while some stand out, many are just a name and a hair and/or skin color. Each young woman has a romantic interest or two, though this is not really a significant part of the book
Though the book, told in the present tense, is lengthy, it moves quickly, particularly once the action moves to North Africa. The details of the fighting, the injuries and death, and the speed with which a situation can change, are captured, and though Grant does not spare the gory details he does so in flat prose which takes some of the horror out. Kasserine was the first major American offensive on that side of the Atlantic, and the lack of experience, particularly among the officers, is shown effectively.
Rio faces challenges, as a female in what has traditionally been all male territory, from the petty slights to the entrenched attitudes and chauvinism; and this is increased for Frangie who also has to face racial prejudice and for Rainy facing anti-Semitism as well. The harshly prejudicial language used is of the times, though, perversely, punches are pulled with what would undoubtedly have been the ubiquitous curse words.
For me, the big question is what’s the point of the twist? Yes, it’s a significant change that American women were on the front line in WWII – but nothing else is different and their presence doesn’t seem to make a difference. And it seems to me that the experience of the main characters is pretty similar to that of their male counterparts. Perhaps it feels a little more shocking that Rio finds a grim satisfaction in killing the enemy, but none of the other female characters, lead or otherwise, are shown to have that cold instinct, and neither Frangie nor Rainy, despite being in battle, are armed. In his author’s note, Grant highlights Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Disney Hyperion, 2012) – not as an influence, but as something he aspired to – but CNV is a fictional account of something that could actually have happened. So Front Lines feels a bit gimmicky compared to that.
But it’s timely, with the Senate very recently passing a bill that would require young women to register for the draft. It could also be a great way to get American teen readers interested in World War II, and as it is largely historically accurate, that’s not a bad thing.