REVIEW: Stockade by Jack Pearl

Ed Remington goes about the business of soldiering by keeping his nose clean and minding his own business. If he has a creed it is the vague, passive one of live and let live. This formula for survival is not really put to the test until he is assigned a burdensome but seemingly innocuous forty-eight hour duty in the prison stockade. The brutal persecution, the sheer evil in this unreal world strike Remington with horror and revulsion. As he continues to watch the stockade commander whimsically deciding between legal punishment and sadistic torture, even between life and death, Remington finds himself acting- finally- and setting loose an unalterable chain of events.

Warnings: Graphic violence, Racism, Sexism, Rape, Slut-Shaming, Homophobia

Category: M/F

Stockade is a military courtroom drama from the 60s, and a very interesting exploration of human violence, depravity and bigotry, and what happens when good men do nothing. While I believe it was well intentioned as a kind of…. Military version of To Kill a Mockingbird, it is by today’s standards quite problematic in a whole lot of ways. I also absolutely forget every character’s military rank so please bear with me as I try to stumble through explaining who these people are. Let’s get into it.

The writing is actually very engaging. It’s a well written book, that flips through the POVs of an ensemble cast of military men in the 50s. Its plot follows a few different people; various soldiers of different rank, as they are sent on a three day job to man a military prison stockade. While there, three of our main characters bear witness to unjust atrocities committed by Black, the man who runs the stockade, culminating in the murder of a prisoner. Although our protags at first decide to let it be swept under the rug unchallenged, eventually things come to a head when White, a black man, is falsely accused of raping Black’s sister. (Yes the white man is named Black and the black man is named White, which isn’t nearly as cute or clever as the author no doubt believed it to be.) Cue the killing of Black by Remington in defence of White, and the resulting court martial drama over the murder of Black wherin Remington must defend his actions.

It’s hard to become emotionally attached when every character in this book is, well, awful. Of course, these are military men and the book is trying to portray military culture. I have no doubt that it does so with some measure of realism as well; military culture is not known for being especially socially progressive and this is Texas we’re talking about. As the reader we are asked to sympathize with some of the worst examples of humanity here however, and not from the villains, who do not get POV chapters. Our heroes- protagonists, really, since their ‘heroic’ nature is debatable, are just teeming with toxic masculinity oozing from every pore. The book starts with one such character meeting a lady at a bar, hitting it off well enough, but becoming immediately angry and resentful the second he finds out she is not interested in having sex with him. Incidentally, there are exactly two female characters in this book, and both are rape victims during the course of the narrative, their experiences fodder for the eventual legal battle. The main characters treat this with a predictable level of seriousness; ie almost none at all. It’s one thing if this seemed like it was a critique or indictment of toxic military culture, but if it was intended as such it certainly doesn’t land.

The crux of this story, and the scaffolding of its world and setting, is the topic of racism and bigotry, and what happens when people are silent in the face of injustice. It takes place at this prison stockade that is run by a violent sadist who is exceptionally racist, and loves abusing his position of power. Obviously the book is attempting to make some kind of anti-racism point, or at the very least an anti-injustice point. Its world is run by violent bigots, and is challenged by our protagonists, who must learn to stand up to violence and bigotry. And maybe it made that point well in the time it was published; not really sure on that count, but it certainly fails to make it today, since so much of the prose is taken up with self congratulatory “racism is mostly a thing of the past”ing (not true today much less in the 60s) and with dubious portrayals of POC characters inner monologues wherin black characters express gratitude at white characters for treating them as equals, or acquiescing to the idea that “a lot of black people are just too sensitive” which made me slam the book down in frustration more than once. Its also definitely the white saviour trope, featuring oh-so-heroic white people standing up for a black man. Ugh.

Let’s talk about sex in this narrative. As already noted, this book has an awful relationship with women and sex. There are two instances of sex in the book, both rape, which is bad enough. But the book has almost a constant bombardment of sex-talk, as the men in the story talk dirty about any woman they happen to come across. In fact women seem to only exist in the story for the men to be lewd about, the kind of locker room talk that you might expect from military men. Again, it isn’t that it struck me as unrealistic, but it did strike me as distasteful and not at all criticized by the narrative. It became exhausting the amount of slut-shaming done by the characters and the excuses made for sexual assault if the girl was known to be too free. There’s also some mild homophobia (again, not surprising, but not enjoyable to read either) as the main racist villain tries to blackmail one of the soldiers into sexual favours, so we have some lovely “gay villain” tropes going on as a nice little cherry on top. (Incidentally, the thing he blackmails the guy over is considered “a minor infraction”; which was catching him spying on his sister while she was changing so you know, totally not a big deal at all.) Ultimately this book has an extremely troubling understanding of sex and consent and it can be very upsetting reading.

I do not hate that I read this book; it did have it’s interesting moments and it was a fascinating look into the ways of thinking of its time. Ultimately its a less well done and less well conceived To Kill a Mockingbird, which also features problematic tropes by today’s standards but at the very least has the decency to not undermine its own premise. I was hoping for far better from it, overall, but while I was disappointed in it I think its important to wrestle with and understand the troubling mindsets that honestly aren’t that far back in our history, and as a book that was attempting to be progressive at its time this is an interesting exercise in historical understanding.

Have you read Stockade? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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