I Had Seen Castles


I Had Seen Castles by Cynthia Rylant is the story of John Dante at the time in his life when he is just reaching adulthood. The story takes begins as the United States is forced in WWII after the attack upon Pearl Harbor by Japan. John, like many of the other young men at the time, feel compelled to join in the fight and enlist in the military. John faces the opposition of his family (who would prefer he is wait at least until drafted) and his love Ginny (who  opposes war entirely) in this decision, but feels he must enlist out of patriotism and a demonstration of bravery.

John’s involvement as a solider in the war changes him and his view of war in many ways. In fact, everyone is changed as a consequence of the fighting: “That Sunday, December 7, our lives were completely altered. We were under siege of war, and we knew we were in trouble, and nothing we did -rising, working, sleeping- would be done quite the same way again.”

John’s experiences on the front line are graphic and disturbing. Rylant lets the reader experience John’s transformations by transforming the thoughts and the world view conveyed through John’s eyes. In many ways, the war took a lot of “life” away from John and the soliders like him that managed to survive the front lines – their sense of innocence, inner peace, dreams, thoughts, and ability to return to contentment in everyday existence were left, mortally wounded, on the battlefields next to their fallen comrades.

I found John’s story to be a sad one. He never is able to reunite to Ginny, and never seems to have the type of life we all seem to hope for with a family, stable job, love, and happiness. This was only to be compounded by the fact that the last blank twenty or so pages of my edition of the book left me even more restless and wondering. I starred at the blank pages imaging what John’s life could have been like, or perhaps should have been like. I was also left questioning my own views of war and peace – having a father who in the military was always a source of pride for me, but this book left me feeling a bit disgusted at the way humanity has turned to war to “resolve” our issues.

Rylant’s writing style is consistent in this story with many of her other words. Her writing excudes sentimentality and pulls the reader in close to her character’s and their thoughts through her narrative. In the following excerpt where John is describing his first date with Ginny, you can see Rylant’s use of beginning a sentence with a conjunction, her use of commas, and her use of a stylistic syntax in her selection of word order: “But when we finally emerged from that hot, tight bus into the life of the city, we breathed easily and laughed and began taking those small steps by which we might find each other” (35).

The following passage really stuck out to me – I feel that it captures the essence of what this time was like for the people who lived in it. We often take for granted things we feel are guaranteed to use in the future, and at the drop of the hat, or a bomb, we could be living in a way that is very much in the now because the now is all we may have: “We all made such enormous leaps of faith in that time. I believe it had everything to do with our unreliable futures. We could not plot out this many years for college, then work, then marriage, then children, and so forth. We lived with a powerful sense of the present, and we could not postpone anything” (53-54). This passage really allowed me as a reader to relate to John and the other character’s actions and decisions at this time and increased my sense of empathy for them.

The story had undertones of politics regarding war, and I wondered about what kind of issues that created in schools or communities. Toward the end of John’s time fighting on the front lines, we see him transform into someone fighting out of abstract ideals like patriotism to someone who had to kill to prevent himself from being killed:“I killed to keep from dying. I killed to protect the boys in my squad. The history books would eventually say that I killed for the ideals of human liberty. But the history books would be dead wrong” (75). I found this thought provoking when considering how these stories become presented in the textbooks that we use to capture our histories. As someone who has had limited exposure to the devastations of war on this level, the way our history books are written allow us to forget the pain of these times. Perhaps if texts to include more of the realities of war, we would have a lot less violence in this world.


2 Responses to “I Had Seen Castles”

  1. 1 leslie

    I, too, found myself questioning my own attitudes toward war. Going home over Easter, I had the opportunity to talk to my family about my grandfather, who had fought in World War II and who also lived in the Pittsburgh area. My grandfather grew up in the coal mines of Pennsylvania, where most of the Italian immigrants worked. Although I never met my grandfather, I felt connected to him through this book. I felt like I was able to get a glimpse of what it was like for him, and how difficult it was returning home. After returning home from war, I learned that he devoted more time than ever to working…maybe that was his release, his sanctuary.
    Rylant did an amazing job capturing the life of a soldier. We can’t generalize that all soldiers react, feel, and heal in the same ways, but it does provide us more understanding of the realities of war and the battlefield than a textbook does.

  2. 2 Amy

    Rylant demonstrates the ability to draw the reader in through the genre of historical fiction, in an accurate, meaningful way. While an outsider, she writes from the perspective of a young boy at war; though she has never experienced it, her Uncle Joe whom she was very close with, went off to war for quite some time as mentioned in her autobiography But I’ll Be Back Again. It is apparent that Rylant’s most moving life experiences put up in most of her literature, as it is up to the reader to analyze its connection.

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