“The Art Students’ War,” by Brad Leithauser, is an historical novel that gives a fascinating glimpse of Detroit during the ten years between 1943 and 1953. The story tells of one of a family caught in the personal and national drama of World War II.
It is also about the evolution of an artist as a young woman and an historical portrait of Detroit.
The auto companies were busy full-time, providing tanks and making the 1942 Ford, the last model for several years. In 1943, in the midst of World Ward II, there was a race riot on Woodward Avenue, demonstrating the racial tension in the city. The economic struggle and wartime stress, as well as an influenza epidemic, are balanced by the problem of the place of art in a time of national emergency.
Everyone is living scared but wanting to do their part in the war effort. Bianca Paradiso is 18, just out of high school, and taking courses at the Institute Midwest Art School. An emotional girl prone to bouts of crying, she is raw from all the war talk. With her artist’s eyes she observes things other people might miss. Her father, an Italian immigrant, runs a house-building crew and is a man of very few words. Her mother is moody and has lately been accusing her husband of not loving her enough.
Bianca’s brother, Steve, 13, is obsessed with playing war games in the alleys. Bianca’s sister, Edith, at 11, is very serious about knitting scarves for the soldiers. At art school Bianca meets a dashing young man, Ronny, who loves to banter with her. They have a wonderful time laughing together, but Bianca is not sure she is in love with him. His father owns a chain of drug stores in Detroit, and Ronny’s mother is in all the society pages. Ronny comes from a life she has never known.
Bianca, like her sister, wants to do something for the war effort. One day her professor asks her to volunteer at the hospital doing sketches of wounded soldiers. The author’s own mother-in-law did volunteer sketches during the war, and there are included in the book some enchanting photos from that era.
As Bianca meets and talks with the soldiers, she is drawn closer to the stresses of the war. At home, one Saturday, at a family picnic, her mother declares her own private war on Bianca’s aunt. The sisters have a history of jealousy, but have still always been each other’s best friend. Their husbands are also best friends. Suddenly the sisters are not speaking, and Bianca is drawn into their private war.
Mr. Leithauser’s novel about Detroit, its history and some of its people gives the reader a vision into the depth of that city’s grand past.