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John Hall explores war, ethics and relationships in his debut novel

John Kyle Hall is the author of a new work of historical fiction, "Rare Encounter: A War Novel," based on real events.

At the center of the novel are two Army commanders, one of whom is John William Hall, J.K. Hall’s own father. Hall the character meets Roger Lincoln Shinn, and the book follows the two men and their work as company commanders in World War II and, specifically, the pivotal Battle of the Bulge. This was one the most important battles of the war, as it marked the last major German offensive campaign on the Western front.

011322RTR-John Kyle Hall Excerpt

John Kyle Hall reads an excerpt of his novel, "Rare Encounter" on River to River.

J.K. Hall joined River to River to discuss the book, his pivot from journalism and what it was like to write about someone you already know and love.

On understanding the characters

“My (J.K Hall's) father was a hard -bitten bourbon drinking southern rifle champion, and Shinn was kind of the opposite — thoughtful, intellectual, a bit fussy, I think. But what first drew them together was books. My father was an avid reader. He was reading on the ship going over, and Shinn approaches him and he says, 'what are you reading?' And they start a discussion about books and reading. And from there I think both men had very agile minds, and they started talking about things other than the weather. They started talking about war. What was going to happen in war, why they were going to war. And so I think it was this interchange between two very interesting characters that started their relationship going.”

In the book, the two characters maintain their friendship and intellectual relationship and discuss what it means to be ethical in wartime. In one passage, Shinn begins to question Hall’s actions as a commander: “my father said that he considered phosphorus bullets the worst weapon in the army for ground troops. So he's put into a situation where a contingent of about 70 German troops are charging his position. This is after his task force haul has been depleted, and there's probably about a dozen men left. They have a half track, it's an armored half track, which carries personnel, and all of the troops are behind that half track, kind of protecting themselves from from the German fire. Roger Shinn is there as well, and Hall sees this coming, and he asks his sergeant, his best gunner, to man the machine gun and load it with phosphorus shells. And Shinn's in the back, and he can't believe his ears, he can't believe that Hall would use this kind of awful weapon on human beings. So the sergeant does this, and the Germans begin their their charge, they're charging to the front, and Hall says, 'I want you to tell the sergeant, I want you to fire the phosphorus over their heads and try to move them into into a column as they charge.' The sergeant can't believe this, but he does, and he fires the phosphorus over the heads of the Germans, and the Germans see the phosphorus igniting the bushes and trees on the icy slope behind them, and they become sort of catatonic. They fall to the ground and then the German officer behind them says, tells them to get a move on and to continue the assault. Hall has the shells fired closer and closer to the heads of those onrushing Germans. And finally, they drop to their knees and surrender."

On balancing facts and fiction

A former journalist, J.K. Hall is accustomed to research and reporting facts. His novel, while based on actual events, is historical fiction, a new challenge for him. “The story was there. And so what I did was try to add flesh to that, to that architecture. Most of the stories, save one in the war sections of this book, are based on truth or very close to the truth, both with Shinn and with Hall. What I did was try to make the characters live in the minds of the readers and try to get them to to understand not just the bare facts of war and the movements and the strategy, but to understand what goes on in the men's minds.”

Although a work of fiction, Hall says he tried to stay true to the people who inspired the characters. “What I understood from my father after reading something that he wrote not too many years ago, and also from Shinn, whose books I read, I got a good sense of what was not only going on in the action of these events, but also what they were thinking, and that's where the fact and fiction kind of merge, so that there's really, I hope, a very true picture of what went on during this time.” He also collaborated with Shinn’s family in an effort to capture a realistic portrayal of the man. “I talked to both of his daughters in the writing of this book, and I sent them excerpts from the book and then the full manuscript when I had it done. I think I got a very good sense of who he was from them and made some important corrections to the narrative."

Lessons from the past

In a passage of the book, the character Hall says, "Human decency is damn thin. Ice on an Oklahoma pond in spring is sturdier. Come to think, maybe it's more like eyesight. Once diseased, it turns into blindness. Can't see right from wrong. And then there is not a damn thing we can do about it."

Such a message may resonate today, though "I think the message actually comes out of their experiences," says J.K. Hall. "I think the message is that civilization has a very thin veneer, and we have to be careful about how we treat humanity and how we live our lives. Otherwise, we end up sending young men and women into war and nothing, nothing is resolved.”

You can hear the full interview with J.K. Hall here.