The Coldest Night

Written by Robert Olmstead
Review by Jessica Brockmole

It’s an old story – boy falls in love with the wrong girl and runs off to escape the longing. But Robert Olmstead’s The Coldest Night is so much more. A war story, a love story, a coming-of-age story – it’s a simple theme spun into a novel heartbreaking in its stark and stunning prose.

Henry never had plans in life beyond finishing high school and working in the stables across the river. He certainly never planned on falling for Mercy, the privileged daughter of the town’s most powerful man. When her father discovers the relationship and threatens Henry, Henry and Mercy run off to New Orleans. But things aren’t the same there. Mercy is uncertain, she’s nervous and, when her brother and father catch up, she’s gone. Not knowing what else to do, Henry joins the Marines and ships off to Korea.

He arrives at the turning point of the Korean War, the fierce 17-day battle of the Chosin Reservoir. He isn’t prepared for any of it: the brutality of the war, the harshness of the landscape, the mistrust in his own ability. A vicious ambush leaves Henry alone with only one other marine, forced to venture through enemy territory in search of their column. Through their trek, he feels around for self-confidence and remembers Mercy, the one person who believed in him once upon a time.

This is the kind of war novel I love. A boy forced to grow up on the battlefield, then realizing he’s grown too big and too strong for the world he once knew. Back home, no one fully understands what Henry was doing over there. He’s left much on his own to recover and assimilate in a town that has moved on without him. Novels about the Korean War are few and far between, and this is a strong offering in that category. Recommended.