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Though The Widower's Sons falls far short of that earlier mark, it still captures the individual class-struggle that is Sillitoe's strength. His latest book deals with William Scorton, a sargeant major's son, who through relentless work and discipline, rises to the rank of colonel and marries a brigadier's daughter. England's Great Depression era army becomes his life, starting when his widowed father drills him in cartography at the age of seven and ending with the disintegration of his civilian marriage over 30 years later.
The best parts of the book deal with William's effort to escape his origins--from his father nurturing his ambition to his own snobbery and self-imposed discipline. Sillitoe describes his hometown:
At woodwork classes in school the boys made book-racks and took them to homes where there weren't any books. They sweated and felt pride over fancy rollers to hold lavatory paper where only newsprint was used. But it kept them busy, and that, the teacher swore, was next door to happiness.
William overcomes all the stumbling blocks created for men raised in mining districts. His father tutors him for a scholarship exam to go to a better grammar school in order to escape the treadmill of working class education. He attends a military school at the age of 14, already a "sowjer" and at 18 enlists for 21 years.
Sillitoe contrasts his military prowess and civilian naivete through his sexual initiation with two sisters. His treatment of the two shop girls and their family is both comic and penetrating. Later, when retired colonel Scorton manages a bowling and billiards hall, Sillitoe again shows his feel for common people through his description of the clintele. His portrait of Scorton's underling, named Oxton, is the book's best characterization. The retired gunner is a lovable bachelor dependent on the need to serve.
The military becomes more of a metaphor for Scorton's life than running was for the delinquent in Sillitoe's earlier book, sometimes to the detriment of Widower's Son. Sillitoe tries to convey the idea of a gunnery officer's precision-oriented life with the most heavy-handed, redundant descriptions in the book. The emotional emptiness of William's retreat into the army, however, is that he retains a nostalgia for his home town but always feels the needs to be "mobile," usually desires to go overseas where, he believes, a soldier belongs.
Never having had a sister, mother or female friends in military school, he believes the older soldier's explaination of sex as "shoving your cock into a tin of worms." His responses to women are sexual and unemotional until he meets the brigadier's daughter. Then Scorton's emotional intensity seems somewhat inconsistent with his previous behavior. The stormy relationship with his wife, which takes on all the atmosphere and language of a battle, lacks the same color and strength of his dalliance with the two sisters.
William's relationship with his father compensates for this weakness. The sargeant-major joined the army after surviving a coal mine accident in which his best friend slowly died. After campaigns in India, Africa and Europe, he comes back to his mining town still practicing army life. As is so often the case of frustrated fathers, he channels his ambitions into his son, determined he will learn trigonometry in order to be a gunnery officer and French in order to be a gentleman. Sillitoe's literary talents are fitted to this type of relationship.
Sillitoe deals with problems that are more institutionalized in England than they are in the United States. A British soldier does not spend a few years in the service as a means of learning a trade or gaining a few benefits. It is not the avenue of class mobility it has turned out to be for many Americans. It is a 21 year hitch with little future for those who did not go to Sandhurst. Sillitoe deftly analyzes the problems of a stratified society where its decaying economy constantly reinforces its rigidity.
Despite its shortcomings, Widower's Son explains the pains a man must go through to challenge such a system. Thomas Hardy dealt with the struggle in highly pessimistic works: George Orwell chronicled working class life with hope. Sillitoe captures both the struggle's agony and a general understanding of people with a realism and a compassion rarely matched.
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