The Young Lions Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1948

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: War

Time of work: 1937-1945

Locale: The Bavarian Alps, New York City, North Africa, England, France, and Germany

Characters DiscussedChristian Diestl

Christian Young Lions, TheDiestl (DEES-tehl), a former ski instructor, now a sergeant in the German army. Handsome, rugged, and cynical, he is determined to enjoy and to survive the war. Too worldly-wise to accept Nazi ideology but eager to prosper, he enthusiastically fights in Germany’s early victories and tastes the spoils of war. As the tide of battle turns against the Nazis, Diestl prepares to save himself rather than die for a lost cause. Trapped in a concentration camp by a mutiny, he disguises himself as an inmate and kills a German officer to escape. As he flees toward Switzerland, he fatefully crosses the paths of two American soldiers.

Noah Ackerman

Noah Ackerman, a university student drafted into the American infantry after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Born poor, physically slight, and Jewish, he is a target of suspicion and contempt. At boot camp, he must fight his own platoon mates, who want a scapegoat for their prejudice and an outlet for their aggression. He emerges a tough, hardened soldier who performs heroically and skillfully in combat. He fights not so that one nation can defeat another but so that ordinary citizens can live free of ideology. He is one of the soldiers whom Diestl ambushes and kills.

Michael Whitacre

Michael Whitacre, a successful film and stage writer with easy duty in a photography battalion. Well off, and accustomed to comfortable living and cultured acquaintances, Whitacre enlists after a messy divorce but finds infantry life too demanding. Feeling only slight guilt, he uses his influence to secure a safer billet in the war effort. He is content to play soldier behind the lines in London while others fight and die. After being injured in an air raid because he is drunk, he meets Ackerman and is moved by the man’s loyalty to his platoon. Following Ackerman to France, Whitacre experiences real combat for the first time. After Diestl kills Ackerman in the ambush, Whitacre stalks and slays the stormtrooper.

Hope Plowman

Hope Plowman, Ackerman’s wife. She is a sensitive, sensible, and sensuous woman attracted by Ackerman’s sincerity and intelligence. Over the objections of her Protestant parents, she marries him. Through her, Ackerman learns to express his passionate, poetic nature. After his unit departs for Europe, she gives birth to their child.

Laura Whitacre

Laura Whitacre, a beautiful actress married to Michael Whitacre for several years. Like her husband before the war, she cares more for private pleasures than for politics. She regards the war as a rude intrusion into a comfortable life. During Whitacre’s absence, she readily finds another man and files for divorce.

Gretchen Hardenburg

Gretchen Hardenburg, the wife of Diestl’s commanding officer. Left alone in Berlin, she lives a frantic life of self-indulgence; her beauty, sophistication, and availability quickly attract the attention of politicians and officers stationed in the capital. When Diestl visits her to report that her husband has been seriously wounded, she takes him as a lover.

Johnny Burnecker

Johnny Burnecker, Ackerman’s best friend in the platoon. A simple Midwestern farm boy, Burnecker yearns only to go home and till the soil, as his ancestors have done. Admiring Burnecker’s sense of family and land, Ackerman treats him as his spiritual brother and fights fiercely to protect him. Burnecker’s death makes Ackerman bitter and reckless.

Colonel Colclough

Colonel Colclough, Ackerman’s superior. An officer by virtue of his birth and a stickler for rank, he is in charge of his men, but he does not lead them. Concerned neither for patriotism nor for his men, Colclough wants only for his unit to obey orders and perform well so that his own career will be enhanced.

BibliographyGiles, James R. Irwin Shaw. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Giles provides a critical and interpretive study of Shaw with a close reading of his major works, a solid bibliography, and complete notes and references.Shnayerson, Michael. Irwin Shaw: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1989. Shnayerson reconstructs Shaw’s life from his days as a playwright through his career as a screenwriter and novelist. Shnayerson’s biography offers insights into Shaw’s personality and his times.
Categories: Characters