Fifteen-year-old Caleb Brown struggles through his adolescence in a tumultuous setting: Georgia during World War II. He’s waging wars on five fronts — his Jim Crow-ruled town, his father who whips him when he transgresses those rules, his spiritual calling as a healer, himself and his own emotions, and the world war itself, which has taken his beloved brother overseas and brings a German POW into his life.
To spite his carpenter father, Caleb asks the ruling family for a summer job and becomes dishwasher at The Dixie Belle, a new whites-only restaurant in town. It’s there he meets Andreas, a German POW from a nearby camp, who is brought in for his kitchen skills and free labor. Andreas has lost a brother in the war and wants it to end with a Nazi defeat. He treats Caleb with respect and becomes his first white friend. When Caleb gets baptized, largely to please his mother, he hears a call from God that disturbs him. Asked to lay hands on an arthritic friend and his boss’s mother whose mind is fogged by dementia, both respond with dramatic shifts in health. But he is powerless to keep his brother from being severely wounded in Europe. As tensions build within him, Caleb takes a stand that’s before its time as he demands service as a customer at The Dixie Belle.
The attitudes of the new generation as represented by Caleb and his brother contrast both with his father’s fiery anger and his mother’s religious stoicism towards their life’s realities. Although buoyed by strong characterization and sometimes rising to poetic heights, Caleb’s Wars was also plagued by plot turns that made this reader feel manipulated.