The following is a guest post by Associate Editor Jim Bessent on his (early) spring reading.
It’s coincidence that the last three books I’ve read dealt with World War II. Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is a biography, set mostly in the Pacific arena. Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts takes place in mid-1930’s Berlin. And Gail Tsukiyama’s novel Street of a Thousand Blossoms is set in Japan. Just reading about the horrors of WWII is sobering. My father experienced it firsthand. After his cousin went down in the U.S.S. Quincy in 1942, he signed up for the Navy, got trained at Great Lakes, Illinois, and got sent to Okinawa, where the Marines were finishing off the messy part. So for me, it’s secondhand, but still personal. These three authors do an excellent job of revealing something new about this defining period in our history.
In Unbroken, Hillenbrand recounts the astonishing survival tale of Louis Zamperini, a gifted sprinter who aspired to Olympic gold. Zamperini followed a similar course to my father, except he chose a different branch, the Army Air Corps. They trained him to be a gunner in a bomber. He and his crew flew a few missions out of Hawaii in some pretty temperamental aircraft. (As Hillenbrand notes: There were more noncombat casualties than combat for airmen during WWII.) In their next-to-last mission, Zamperini and his crew’s plane got majorly shot up, but everyone made it back. Shortly thereafter, Louis and the guys got assigned to search for another crew that had gone missing—in one of the worst planes available. Not surprisingly, they had to crash land in the Pacific.
Only Louis, his close buddy, the pilot, Allen Philips, and one other crewman survived, not without injury, however. They managed to get themselves on a rubber raft and spent the next 47 days drifting in the ocean in blazing sun, among ravenous sharks, with no provisions. They drank rainwater. They managed to improvise fish hooks and catch an occasional fish. The third guy didn’t make it, but Louis and Allen drifted 2000 miles, and made landfall on a Japanese controlled island where other prisoners were being held. They spent months there, on starvation rations, enduring ongoing, sadistic abuse. When they were finally transferred, it was to conditions even worse. And as the war went more against Japan, conditions grew corresponding worse for the POWs.
If this story is even half true, that Zamperini and Philips lived to tell it is testament to a kind of determination that is rarely seen nowadays.
A few years before Zamperini’s adventures, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany watched in disbelief as a leadership cadre of criminals and madmen steered Germany—and the world—into a global bloodbath. William Dodd was an academic at the University of Chicago, an historian accustomed to winnowing fact from nonfact—hyperbole, propaganda, deceit, outright lies—in an attempt to approximate the truth. He was a somewhat retiring man in his early sixties when FDR made him ambassador. Dodd was no fan of the Hitler regime, but he figured the German people would eventually wake up to the lies. Time and again, he witnessed blatant atrocities go unchallenged. As Edmund Burke remarked, “The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing.” Dodd thought the Nazis were clowns, children, fools. They were. And look what happened.
Dodd took his whole family over to Berlin, and his daughter, Martha, seems to have proven more suited to the diplomatic lifestyle than her parents. Larson tracks Martha’s adventures simultaneously with her father’s. It’s interesting to speculate whether she or Dodd exercised the greater influence.
Erik Larson, also author of Devil in the White City, possesses a unique talent for picking and developing stories from unexpected sources—and extracting powerful lessons from people and events that other writers would consider already overmined.
The Street of a Thousand Blossoms gives us a much different take on life and war in Gail Tsukiyama’s story of two orphaned brothers growing up in pre-war Japan. This one is fiction, but Tsukiyama spins a tale of joy, triumph, tragedy, tradition, disappointment, love, pride, and hope. She uses two of Japan’s most prized and enduring cultural achievements—Sumo wrestling and Noh theater–as a framework for enlightening us on the meaning of “Japanese.” The story follows many characters, men and women, young and old, all gifted and flawed in different ways, over a considerable span of time. It is an intricate thing made all the more intricate by the development of militarism and war. Seeing what was going on from the Japanese perspective changes and fills out substantially the message in Unbroken. The losses cut both ways, as did the gains. War is never a win-lose affair. There are lessons and joys even in misery, and disappointment and emptiness even in success.
Jim Bessent is an Associate Editor at AMACOM. He works in the production department and sees finished manuscripts through the various stages of production: copyediting, proofing, indexing, all correction cycles, etc. Prior to joining AMACOM, Jim worked as an editorial freelancer and had a small collectibles business. Visit our website for freelance editorial opportunities.