The Angel of Bastogne
The Angel of Bastogne
By Craig von Buseck
CBN.com Ministries Director
Chicago newspaper reporter Ben Raines is a full-fledged cynic trying to bypass what he feels is the least wonderful time of the year. But his plan to escape Christmas on an overseas vacation is foiled when he's assigned to write the big front-page holiday story. In a humbug twist, Ben decides to sour the sugar coatings of December 25th with a piece that will debunk a World War II legend involving his father and an angel at the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne, Christmas Day, 1944.
Craig von Buseck: I was fortunate to spend two weeks in Europe as a teen and we stopped at the site of the Battle of Bastogne. Since that time I've always been fascinated with the battle. I've seen remarkable footage and how grueling it was, yet how many heroic acts came out of that intense final offensive by Hitler and the Nazis. What was it about this battle that inspired you to write a novella?
Gilbert Morris: Like you, I've always been fascinated by the Battle of the Bulge. That was the biggest effort that Hitler made, except maybe for his attack on Russia. But it was a tremendous effort and caught us completely off guard.
von Buseck. What gave you the idea for this particular story?
Morris: I had been thinking about writing something about this for a long time. Then when I read an article in the paper that this was the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge, I thought that you have to be as old as I am, or a history buff to remember to know what Bastogne is, or where it is. I thought it would be a good thing for the men that fought that battle and for those that are fighting today to honor our servicemen this Christmas by reminding people of the service given then.
von Buseck: How did you come up with the idea of the angel at the battle?
Morris: When people find out that I've written 208 novels they ask, "How did you think of all that?" Well I answer, "How do you not think of it?" I see a gum wrapper on the ground and I think, oh a Russian spy probably dropped that. I just think like that and those thoughts go through my mind constantly. I have about 50 great ideas, with gusts up to 80 or 90, and about one out of a thousand works pretty well. How did Beethoven write his symphonies? He did it, but he I don't think he could tell anyone how he did it.
von Buseck: Talk to me about the character in the book named Ben Raines. How did he emerge?
Morris: He is the opposite of the main character in 'It's a Wonderful Life' -- an anti-George Bailey. I thought about a fella who is just a 'bah-humbug' sort. I wanted to bring him through an experience that would restore his faith, not only in his father, as he did in this book, but in Christ and in the meaning of Christmas.
von Buseck: Now he goes off to basically disprove this story that he's heard all of his life. What is motivating him? Is he just so angry with what he considers to be the myth of Christmas and the myth of the story of an angel in this battle so he decides to go and disprove it?
Morris: In the story, Ben's father is wounded at Bastogne, and he's not able to work very much. So the only way he can work is to buy an old news stand, and Ben has to man it most of the time. So he misses out on ball, he misses out on dating, and he has to give his youthful years, what should be good years. He is bitter about that. Then he sees the movie 'It's a Wonderful Life' and he hates it, because he says, "Life is not like that." I think that's where I was headed with that.
von Buseck: Did you interview people who fought in the battle?
Morris: I have a cousin who was in the battle and I've talked to him a lot about it. He was in the Eighty-second airborne and he came in on a glider. I talked to him about the kind of guys he was with and what it was like to go through training with them and what it was like to get shot -- he was wounded over there. So he was my live source. I also read all of the Stephen Ambrose' books and watched Band of Brothers and things like that. But we're losing World War Two veterans at a thousand a day now.
von Buseck: What was it about this Willy Raines character? You wrote that his men felt like they owed him their lives. Why did you write that?
Morris: You write five different things and none of them work and then suddenly something does and you ask yourself, "Why did that last one work?" I think that's the way the artistic mind works. All writers and artists of all kinds often don't know why things work. Nobody sits down and says, 'Well, I'm going to write a bad book.' They sit down to write a great book, but it doesn't always turn out like that. The writer may do his best and still write a so-so book and other times it just flows easily. But I don't know how you can control that.
von Buseck: What do you think are some of the elements that work in this book?
Morris: What I was happy with was finding somebody for Ben to relate to that was a Christian that could be influential to change his mind. It turned out to be the daughter of one of the men who Willy saved at Bastogne. She's a doctor, a pilot, and they are thrown together. She's a devoted Christian. She's also a very pretty woman, and he likes that, but he doesn't agree with her. So as they meet these various members of Willy's squad that are still alive, I tried to write each one of them a bit differently. Only one of them is a success, as far as the world is concerned, but Ben sees how those who did not become millionaires were not failures. This changes his whole insight.
von Buseck: One of the key moments in the Battle of the Bulge when Commanding General Tony McAuliffe was asked to surrender and responded, "I surrender, ah nuts!" What was it about that was so inspiring to those guys?
Morris: It was just so American. Here's this Nazi S.S. type who thought the battle was won and he was just going to roll over the Americans, so he very formally said, "We're going to give you a chance to surrender." And this American, like somebody at a ballgame, said 'Nuts!' That's just so American.
von Buseck: Did that come up in any of your conversations as you were talking with the veterans?
Morris: Oh yes, yes. Everybody talks about McAuliffe's response -- and it was a tough, tough battle.
von Buseck: Yes, I think the response kind of typifies the American stance -- they got pushed back, but the bulge didn't break.
Morris: That's right, and just the toughness and the resilience of those soldiers, that comment just pinpoints it. I always loved that response.
von Buseck: Talk to me about Christian fiction and where it's heading. Why did you choose to write a novella instead of a full novel?
Morris: I didn't. The publisher decided that. They wanted a Christmas book, which is almost by definition a short novella. All of my other novels have been full-length and I must say that it's easier to write a full-length novel. If you go wrong in a novel you can straighten it out in the next chapter. You don't have any room to do that in a novella. That was their choice, and I think it was a good one.
von Buseck: Is this a trend, these novellas?
Morris: Yes, they have been very popular the past ten years.
von Buseck: How is it different writing Christian fiction as opposed to mainstream fiction? What are some of the advantages or disadvantages?
Morris: The publishers of mainstream fiction, I hate to say this, but they're anti-Christ -- that is they don't want to hear about Jesus. They're just not in that mode. They see that name 'Jesus' in the manuscript and they just automatically turn it down. And you can check this because you just look at mainstream fiction. In Christian fiction you can introduce the Christian ethic and values. That's something you can't do in mainstream -- there are exceptions to that, there have been a few good books with a Christian viewpoint. But very few of them make the New York Times bestseller list, though.
von Buseck: Talk to me about the state of Christian fiction. There has been quite a growth spurt in the last five to ten years.
Morris: Well it has changed almost completely. When I first started writing it was almost all historical romance. That's what I started writing and I got in on the ground floor. That's why I've been able to write two hundred novels of this type. But about ten years ago the tide started turning and now the bulk of Christian fiction is contemporary. It's suspense -- medical suspense, legal suspense, even horror suspense. This novella is contemporary, but I've only written two in that vein.
I've got a new historical novel coming out from Broadman and Holman. Everybody likes wagon trains for some reason and I've written several novels concerning the Oregon Trail and so forth. I'm writing a series of wagon train books -- the first one will be called Sante Fe Woman. Christian romantic and nostalgic fiction is still alive. It's like the westerns in the movies -- they disappear, but they come back pretty strongly at times.
von Buseck: Any final thoughts on The Angel of Bastogne?
Morris: Well, I think this is a book that honors of fighting men and women, and I think that needs to be done. I'm very aware of the need for support of our troops. I would like to send a copy of this book to every soldier in Iraq -- I wish I could. That was my purpose, to glorify the Lord and to thank and honor these men who fought so well for us.
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Gilbert Morris is among the most popular Christian writers at work today. His books having sold nearly six million copies worldwide. He specializes in historical fiction and won a 2001 Christy Award for the Civil War drama Edge of Honor. Once a pastor and English professor who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas, Morris lives with his wife in Gulf Shores, Alabama.
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