William Wharton

A Midnight Clear

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A Midnight Clear Summary

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A Midnight Clear (1982) is a historical fiction novel by American-born author William Wharton. In wintertime, near the end of World War II, a small squad of young American soldiers is ordered to an abandoned château in the Ardennes Forest to reconnoiter the strength and position of German troops. There, the squad encounters a group of German soldiers who are strangely disinclined to fight. Wharton was a World War II veteran and suffered injuries at the Battle of the Bulge. A Midnight Clear draws on his own wartime experiences. The Chicago Tribune praised A Midnight Clear saying, “In its power to surprise and to haunt us, it ranks among the best of our celebrated war stories.”

Nineteen-year-old Sergeant William Knott, known as “Won’t,” is the novel’s first-person narrator. After a losing half of his 12-person I and R—Intelligence and Reconnaissance—squad, Won’t and his five surviving men are sent by their superiors, Lieutenant Ware and Major Love, to investigate an old château and hunting lodge which are believed to be German observation posts. Won’t’s group, known as “The Whiz Kids,” is barely out of high school; the oldest among them is only 26. They play fiercely competitive advanced games of bridge and chess and run their own book club. They are far from being professional soldiers. Won’t describes them as “princely orphans left on the wrong doorstep, maybe bastards of the blood.”

Recently made sergeant, Won’t admits he is “scared all the time.” He suffers from crying fits and digestive problems. Won’t is an artist, and drawing is his “private joy.” He carefully carries his cherished 4B carpenter’s pencil with him everywhere and draws on the inside of K ration boxes. Drawing “makes things more real; at the same time, not so real.” Won’t intersperses his narrative with memories of home, training camp, and the graphic deaths of his other team members.

Also in Won’t’s squad is “Father” Paul Mundy, who acts as the group’s moral compass. Mundy left seminary school because he thought he wasn’t good enough to be a priest. Stan Shutzer is the group’s “Jewish avenger and aspiring millionaire advertising executive.” Melvin Gordon is a health nut who successfully gets the others to quit smoking—at least in front of him. He is the team’s de facto doctor. Bud Miller is the team’s “child poet” and mechanic. “Mother Hen” Wilkins is the only married man of the group. He is a neat freak and rides the others to keep clean.

When they arrive at the château the squad isn’t sure what the date is, but they are sure it is near Christmastime. They have the sense that the war is winding down, and they are all thoroughly sick of it. Wilkins, especially, is starting to crack from the strain and fear. Driving up to the house, Wilkins shoots a German soldier standing beside a tree in the snow. They stop to investigate and find the soldier was already dead. Exploring further, they come across two frozen corpses, one American and one German, propped up together in a dance embrace. The discoveries put the team on edge.

The château is large and beautiful, like something from “a French fairy tale.” Won’t organizes guard posts and rigs up the field phones. On their first night watch, they hear a German patrol howling like wolves, taunting them, and wishing them good night. Won’t takes a three-man patrol to find the German command post; they are surprised by the Germans who could easily kill them, but instead, turn and walk away. The two sides have a snowball fight. Shutzer builds a snowman with a Hitler moustache, and the Germans erect a scarecrow with a Hitler face and holding a map. The Germans put up a Christmas tree and exchange presents with Won’t’s team: sausage and schnapps in exchange for wine and sardines. Won’t and his crew think the Germans want to surrender, but they also fear a trap.

Won’t meets with the seven German soldiers who look even more beat up than his own crew. They are older and recently back from the Russian front. They do not want to be a part of the next big German offensive. They will surrender but want to make it look like they were caught fighting, so their families don’t suffer, and they don’t face discrimination after the war.

Won’t and his team want to give Wilkins the credit for capturing the German patrol, so they don’t tell him the whole plan. Leaving Wilkins behind to man the radio, the squad meets the Germans and starts a fake firefight, with both sides shooting into the air. Wilkins arrives unexpectedly and thinks the Germans are attacking. He fires on them. The Germans return fire, believing they were double-crossed. Mundy dies, and Shutzer is badly injured. Six of the seven Germans are killed. Won’t is disconsolate. He and the squad vow not to tell Wilkins the truth and let everyone think he saved them. Lieutenant Ware and Major Love arrive and take Shutzer and the surviving German back to the regiment, which is preparing to retreat before the Germans launch their last major attack. They leave Won’t and the remainder of his team at the château.

Won’t, Miller, Wilkins, and Gordon retrieve the Germans’ Christmas tree and take a bath for the first time in months. Won’t realizes that what is important in life is “really being alive” and doing what you love. They “turn off the war”—until German forces begin an artillery barrage. Won’t and his men, carrying Mundy’s body, escape the château. Their jeeps are wrecked during the pursuit. Disguising themselves as medics, the squad makes it back to their regiment on foot. Won’t learns that both Shutzer and the German prisoner are dead.

A movie version of A Midnight Clear, starring Gary Sinise and Ethan Hawke, was released in 1992.