War is hell, the old saying goes, and But Soon It Will Be Night, by Stacey Danielle Stephens, expertly exemplifies this. The story of the October 1943 bombing run on a ball bearings factory in Germany is fraught with tension and gruesome reality. Stephens’ description of the days leading up to the run and the mission itself is delicious with stunning detail, both of the toll it took on the men as well as the technical details of a bombing run. I felt the fear the men felt as they took off and faced the enemy, the horror as they saw their brothers in arms fall prey to enemy fire and sometimes just bad luck. Stephens does not whitewash the reality of sexism, racism, or homophobia among the fighters either. We get several well-written episodes where the attitudes of the time, among white men, show that though these men were brave, they were also fallible humans, some more noble than others.
The dialogue was snappy, revealing, and sometimes viciously funny. Stephens’ definitely captured the irreverent way men sometimes talk knowing that that day might be their last on earth. The “doughnut girl” scenes at the end were heart breaking and symbolic of the waste of war. I also enjoyed the great cameos by Keller, Vonnegut, and Nat King Cole.
My only complaint is that the ensemble cast sometimes made it hard to follow who was who in what plane, although a few of the characters stuck out enough to make their experiences wrenching and personal. I think the book would also have been served to have more of Kohl (whose memoir book ends the novel) front and center with the others’ viewpoints peppered throughout.
All in all though, this book is masterful and powerful, packing an emotional punch, which is made more poignant in today’s world of nearly impersonal war and combat.