The Frozen Hours: A Novel of the Korean War, by Jeff Shaara

Nine stars

Shaara returns with another blockbuster piece of war fiction that is sure to impress many. Turning away from many of the well-documented wars and battles that fill school textbooks, Shaara creates a well-balanced story about the Korean War, nicknamed the ‘Forgotten War’. It becomes apparent early on why this was a war that many forgot about or do not adequately understand. Originally a United Nations effort to return North Korea to their geographic borders, events soon became quite America-centred, with UN (read: mostly US) forces being controlled by General Douglas MacArthur. Admittedly, MacArthur spent most of his time in the theatre’s home base, over in Tokyo. Shaara offers up three strong character perspectives in the novel, allowing the reader to learn more about the two sides involved and the advances made (as well as the retreats that became necessary) throughout the 1950 segment of fighting, which proves interesting as a snapshot for the overall conflict. What began as an attempt to help the South Koreans soon became the first test of Cold War politics. North Korea was happy to turn to its ideological and political ally, China, to assist with defending their outposts and keeping the Americans at bay. In an era when China was still a new force (the attentive reader will remember that Mao only surged the victory the year before, creating Red China), there was certainly a Soviet presence in the area, if only as observers and major weapons suppliers. The Korean Conflict could easily have turned into World War III, had cooler heads not prevailed, turning the Peninsula into an ideological battleground with both sides thirsty to repel others and in full possession of the Bomb. Shaara illustrates the battles and bloodshed, but is intentionally slow to introduce the enemy of both sides; the weather. Deemed the coldest winter in four decades, the battles fought had the added struggle of bitterly cold weather, which is the most unpredictable and vicious of foes. Guns that would not fire, oil that turned to sludge, and limbs that succumbed to various forms of frostbite pepper the narrative, as they surely did the landscape. While both sides were used to battles in more temperate climates, not being able to cover limbs effectively only added to the horrors. Limbs were frozen to gun barrels, toes came off when socks could be removed, leaving soldiers destroyed and armies decimated. The only small blessing came from wounds that froze before they could kill a soldier. Encapsulating that first year of the war, Shaara does not seek to clearly delineate the war in its totality, but the powerful narrative gives reader a strong sense of what transpired, perhaps in hopes of making this war a little less forgotten. Brilliantly crafted, with a mix of historical accuracies and personalized fiction, Shaara shows the reader why he is the master of the genre. Perfect for the curious reader that finds pleasure in historical fiction, particularly of the war variety. 

Any reader who has a long relationship with Jeff Shaara and his war-fiction will be enthralled with this piece. Those who might be expecting some light-humoured M*A*S*H* episode best look elsewhere, for these novels seek to get to the core of the battles. Steering away from the electoral and military politics of the War, Shaara seeks to focus on those who played a daily and key role in the war efforts. Shaara keeps mention of General MacArthur and President Truman to a minimum, but presents the soldiers as the most important players in Korea. General Oliver P. Smith allows the reader to see some of the military insights of a commander in the field. Smith was not sure what to expect, though likely no American forces really knew what to expect on the Korean Peninsula. As Smith sought to advance the troops, he discovered that there were many enemies that lay before him, the terrain being but one. Private Pete Riley represents that military character that Shaara likes to pepper into each of his novels; the ‘wet behind the ears’ newbie who does not know what to expect. It is during the novel that Riley is able to shed his peach fuzz and become a man, both on the battlefield and in life. Shaara shows Riley’s development and the sobering experiences he faces as he learns the horrors of war, pairing the loss of friends with that unknown enemy, the weather. To offer a well-rounded narrative, Chinese General Sung Shi-lun plays a central role and his narrative voice emerges throughout. Shaara effectively utilizes Sung and the entire Chinese Army effectively in the novel, exemplifying a completely different mindset to war. As mentioned before, Mao’s Red China was still fresh in the minds of many who arrived in Korea and the feel of the gun barrel remained a calloused sense to many of these soldiers. Where the two sides differed greatly, besides being somewhat ready for the frigid temperatures (though Shaara does show that the Chinese struggled greatly as well), is the inner momentum to win. While the Americans are fighting for glory and dominance, the Chinese appear to have a sense of seeking to please Mao and upholding the communist ideal. Shaara weaves this throughout the fight and shows how military hierarchy pushed the “Mao factor” onto the soldiers, who soon fell into line. This brilliant contrast allows Shaara to show yet another layer of the war, one that is likely not clearly delineated in textbooks or superficial narratives. Pulling all of this together, Shaara masters his arguments and leaves the reader wishing there were more. History has much more to offer on this war, though Shaara opens the novel commenting that he is not clearly tying himself down to a trilogy at this time, though there is surely room for it, should time and interest permit. And with Shaara, there is no doubt that if he chooses to return, it will be yet another stellar novel.

Kudos, Mr. Shaara for entertaining and educating in equal measure. I cannot tell you how excited I am whenever I see you have published something else. This was another piece of pure gold and I hope many find time to pick it up for themselves.