Living in the soot-stained darkness that was Pittsburgh in 1941, John is keen to enlist after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He doesn’t view it as a choice or an option; it’s something he has to do. There is one problem, one impediment to enlisting: his age. His mother asks him–pleads with him–to wait, to not follow in his friends’ footsteps and lie. He begrudgingly acquiesces, and in the meantime winds up falling out of an idling bus and falling for Ginny, the beautiful girl standing on the sidewalk. When she learns of his plans, Ginny urges John to go to Canada instead, before the draft can catch up to him. As persuasive as first love can be, John refuses to retreat. He enlists, gets shipped off to the front lines, and precious little time passes before the boy he used to be is gone, erased by blood and bombs. He realizes just as quickly that the man he’s become might never make it home.
The reader is exposed to glimpses of the war through John’s lens, and those glimpses are brutal, merciless. Woven through his wartime experience are stories, conveyed through letters, about what is happening on the homefront, the struggles his family and friends are experiencing. As much as John’s eye-witness account shook me up, his sister’s story also lodged in my throat. For a slim novel, I Had Seen Castles is hugely affecting, packing a punch that knocks you back and leaves you with heartache rattling around in your chest.