Burt Zollo’s debut novel is set in Le Mans, France in 1945. It is the story of a 19-year-old Jewish American POW camp guard, Sandy Delman. Delman, a college football star with poor eyesight, draws the unenviable assignment of guarding an ever-increasing number of German POWs.
Taunted by ethnic slurs, Delman punches a POW. He loses his sergeant’s stripes and is re-assigned to Sgt. Mueller, a German American with strong German sympathies. Mueller torments Delman, but Delman holds himself in check as he devises a plan to get himself out from under Mueller’s thumb.
The camp is seriously low on supplies, and the POWs are taking the brunt of the deprivation. Supply depots are unresponsive to the CO’s requests. Delman proposes to lead a convoy directly to the depots hoping that will get them what they need. POWs must drive the trucks with only Delman, two guards, and a mechanic to supervise them. The CO, Colonel Nelson, agrees and puts Delman in charge, returning him to the rank of sergeant. Mueller’s last attempt to sabotage Delman’s military career almost succeeds as he attaches a dangerous POW, Josef Heinrich, to the convoy. The action picks up as the convoy is first challenged by French partisans then threatened by Heinrich’s escape. The ending is fast-paced and satisfying.
In spite of its setting, Prisoners is a quiet book, most of the narrative taking place in the characters’ minds as each tries to figure out what the other is thinking and tries to make sense of his situation. Prisoners is also a coming of age story – where an idealistic and rather self-righteous young man learns that “everyone’s fighting his own small war plus the larger one.” Recommended as an honest look at life in the military.