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Tag Archives: history

What a Notable–“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand

Finally, I’ve read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. I’ve heard so many people comment on this nonficiton story of Louis Zamperini, a runner on the US Olympic team who became a World War II hero by surviving for weeks on a life raft, and months in Japanese Prisoner of War camps.

And it was good, one of the titles on this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list.

Laura Hillenbrand (who has an interesting story of her own) follows up her stellar “Seabiscuit” with this compelling story. She tells it straightforwardly and chronologically. Hillenbrand has that gift for telling the story in a way that is clearly shaped and considered, for example, in how people are introduced and then brought back into the story, and yet her style gets out of the way of the story.

What I’ll remember from this book is both the evil behavior of many of the Japanese captors, and the survival of the prisoners. How DO people maintain their dignity and selfhood in the face of so many attempts to break them? In Zamperini’s case, he was made a target of beatings and cruelty because of his fame. Yet he survived. I knew that the sections set in the POW camps would be horrifying, but I found myself especially touched by Zamperini’s return to home. He was beloved, a hero, and yet he was falling apart, drinking himself nearly to death, before he turned himself around at a Billy Graham event.

I noticed how Hillenbrand goes out of her way not to judge the behavior the men who were stranded, or were prisoners. She works hard to set a context where every rule and every expectation are turned upside down, where people survive by doing things they never thought they could do. She also makes a point of developing characters, not allowing all Japanese or all American people to be presented a certain way.

I finished this book on Independence Day. It seemed an especially fitting day to reflect on the people who have been called the “greatest generation.” I’ll recommend this to a lot of people–fiction readers will appreciate the strong story, history fans will find sound information, and people who enjoy “extreme” stories of survival certainly will find much to value. I think that many people have avoided reading this because they shy away from the depictions of the camps, and I understand that. And yet I’d still encourage people to read this with open eyes and mind. The book’s subtitle, “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” reflects Hillenbrand’s success in showing that even out of this horror, goodness survived.

An Especially Good Nonfiction Notable–“Destiny of the Republic”

Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard is subtitled, “A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of A President.” In this American Library Association Notable book, Millard tells the story of President James Garfield, who was elected in 1880 and died in 1881.

Some readers may recall Millard as the author of “The River of Doubt” which was a One Book One Lincoln finalist a few years ago. That focused on an episode in the life of Theodore Roosevelt. She excels at writing history as story.

Millard opens this story with a prologue that introduces us right away to Charlies Guiteau. Guiteau survived a collision between two steamships in 1880. His own survival when others died led him to believe that he was saved for an important purpose, and when that belief combined with his mental illness, it twisted itself into his intention to kill President Garfield.

Chapter One picks up at the United States’ Centennial Exhibition in 1876, where James Garfield, a congressman, strolls the grounds with his family. Millard uses this event to introduce two key angles that will be highlighted when Garfield is shot–the work of Inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, and pioneering work regarding antiseptic procedures in surgery.

Millard spends enough time with Garfield’s remarkable rise from poverty to presidency to set the context of the time, and to tell the parallel story of Guiteau’s descent. The events following the shooting take up a good deal of the book, yet she doesn’t lose the narrative’s momentum.

I appreciated how much I learned in the course of this book. This takes several forms. The sense of the United States shortly after the Civil War, the personalities engaged in politics, the dirtiness of the politics, and the lack of cleanliness as it impacted Garfield, are staying with me.

This may not be the book for serious students of American history, but for readers who have a general interest in the time and who are unfamiliar with James Garfield, Millard unrolls a fine story. I’ll recommend it both to those with that interest in American history, and also to fiction readers who are willing to try nonfiction “when it reads like a story.”

A Nonfiction Notable–“The Last Stand” by Nathaniel Philbrick

I heard Nathaniel Philbrick speak in June, and so I was especially interested in reading his “The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn,” one of the nonfiction titles on this year’s Notable Books List.

The Last Stand presents a daunting narrative–the history of US treatment of Native Americans, especially those of the Northern Plains, of Chief Sitting Bull, of General Custer, of the officers under Custer’s command, of the thousands of people who were in Sitting Bull’s village along the Little Big Horn, of all of the movements of officers and Native people.

I’m not familiar with the details of the Last Stand, and found it difficult to keep up with descriptions of the military movements. My guess is that those who’ve studied it previously would not have difficulty here.

As a general reader, my main complaint is that I didn’t sense a strong enough narrative thread. Philbrick has so many people and actions to describe that it was hard sometimes to stay connected to the story.

That said, I learned a lot. Among Philbrick’s themes are the remarkable jealousies in Custer’s officer corps, the clear sense of an impending “last stand” for Sitting Bull’s people given the demise of buffalo herds, and the overall impact of a flamboyant personality such as Custer’s at the helm. While Philbrick includes the narratives of Sitting Bull and many Sioux people, I sensed the story as primarily Custer’s. And even in the middle of the battle, people were beginning to shape how that story would be told.

I was reflecting on what Philbrick said in regard to writing this book, and I was especially struck by his descriptions of studying the battlefield from horseback, getting a sense of how a person of the time would have seen the land.

I’ll recommend this to people who enjoy American history, especially history of the Plains, of Native Americans, or of the nineteenth century.

“Citizens of London”

I’m continuing in my annual trek through the American Library Association Notable Books List. Over the Presidents Day holiday, I finished reading “Citizens of London: The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour” by Lynne Olson.

This book exemplifies what I love about each year’s Notable List–it brings forward splendid books that got little attention.

“Citizens of London” also allows me to get up on my soapbox to encourage America to read more nonfiction, or to read it at all.

Lynne Olson does a great job of creating a narrative thread in this book, even as she weaves in necessary information to create context. In this case, the story is about the Americans in London, primarily a small group of men, who worked long and hard to promote the British case for the United States to become involved in World War II.

Readers may recall that many in the United States held a strong isolationist stance in the late 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the lend-lease program to assist Britain, but it was seen in Britain as not nearly enough, at too dear a price. Journalist Edward R. Murrow, Ambassador to the Court of St. James Gil Winant, and Lend-Lease representative Averell Harriman became “citizens of London” and promoted the position that the United States had to do more to support England against Germany.

Of course, much changed with the United States entering the war after Pearl Harbor. Olson takes this story through the end of the war and just past, showing how these three men continued to play a role in maintaining the relationship between the United States and Britain. The story begins fairly simply with the focus on the three men, and as the war progresses, more people enter the picture as joint military campaigns must be agreed to and staged, and finally a post-war world shaped.

I’m left with much respect for these three, and for Dwight Eisenhower, who was placed in the position of having to make a joint command work.

I’m also left with Olson’s gift of connecting these world-changing events to the everyday lives of common people in London during this time. Her ability to tell a specific story that illustrates a wider point is what made me enjoy this book so much.

I’ll recommend this to readers who enjoy history, and to that large group of people with special interest in World War II. I’ll also recommend it to fiction readers who are willing to dip into something a little different, into a nonfiction book that still follows the thread of a compelling story, and that develops interesting characters.