Rachel Goss has done a fine and thoughtful job of braiding fiction with history in her debut novel, Driven by Conscience (Tarkus Imaging). The cast of characters demonstrate patriotism during a time when governments are making decisions with cataclysmic repercussions. It is World War II. Uwe Johannes, a young German physics student, is called to fight in a war he doesn’t believe in, but evading the draft is not an option. His parents, considered dissidents for their humanitarian efforts, would most certainly suffer for their beliefs. “I can’t be responsible for the consequences if I left now,” he tells his sister.
What follows is an intricate journey involving the work of theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, German prisoners of war, Nazis, patriots and United States civilians who participate in a clandestine military project. As the plot unfolds, Goss includes just enough factual information about the war and its far-reaching effects in unexpected places to keep the story grounded and her readers thinking about how close to fiction real life is.
Uwe, stalwart and honest, offers to carry scientific data from Heisenberg’s lab to keep it out of the hands of the Third Reich. He tucks the paper into the War Merit medal that his father was awarded in 1914 and carries it on his person throughout his time as a combat soldier and, when his troop surrenders to the Allies, as a prisoner of war.
The story of Uwe and the part he plays in the eventual development of the bombs that ended the war are creations of Goss’s imagination, but readers may be surprised to learn that the POW camp in Arkansas where Uwe was sent after Germany surrendered is real. According to Goss, by 1945, Arkansas alone housed about 23,000 German and Italian prisoners. Over 425,000 were held in the U.S.
Uwe is badly beaten by fiercely patriotic Nazis in the camp because he refused to attend a birthday party in honor of Hitler. Saved by a “victory girl” with a tire iron, Uwe is shipped out to a hospital and then enlisted to live and work in a private home on a secret research program for the United States Army. His knowledge of math and physics is greatly needed and appreciated, but Uwe knows the real knowledge is folded and stored in the medal, which he has hidden in the house.
A fifth-generation Arkansan, Goss’s depiction of life in Little Rock rings true. The extended family with whom Uwe lives, minus the young men who are serving their country, is a stereotypical Southern unit with their traditional hospitality extended even to an enemy soldier. Uwe is embraced by the locals and encouraged by his new work, but the peaceful balance is tipped when the Russians send spies to ferret out what information they can. The medal is stolen, discarded and lost, then discovered again. Uwe is fast on its trail, accompanied and assisted by Fredericka, the housekeeper’s lovely daughter. It’s a dangerous game; they’re down South and Fredericka is Black. As a biracial couple, they’re turned away; they must split up and reunite. They’re chased and shot at by the Russians. Local boys, a dog, mama and a blond-haired ingénue all get involved. Above all, Uwe must keep Heisenberg’s data from the wrong hands.
Goss has written a story that’s rich in plot with memorable characters, and leaves the readers wanting more. “I will find you,” says Uwe, and readers will hope he does.
Driven by Conscience is available for purchase.