Off the Shelves: War-Torn PagesLast Edited:
War novels and veteran memoirs are good reads ahead of Memorial Day at the end of this month.
Maybe I want to know, maybe I don’t want to know. It feels like last night, when I spied police and ambulance lights flashing as I approached home. From a distance, it wasn’t clear. Then I could see it was a car accident. Would it be bad? Would a loved one be involved? Both answers were thankfully negative, but it felt like something tough I needed to face, real and right in my path.
It is that way with war books. Whether they are true or historical fiction, as we approach Memorial Day, I find them worthy of reflection. It’s a way to honor the real dead who fought in real wars.
I’m reading March by Geraldine Brooks, a Pulitzer Prize winner. Though beautifully written, I approach the war descriptions with dread. I am thankful that authors routinely give readers moments of reprieve with backstory. This is the tale of Mr. March, the father in the Louisa May Alcott’s fictional family of Little Women. March’s letters home to his wife gently allude to his circumstances, omitting the horror of the war.
World War II vet Dr. Newel Comish of Woodstown died recently at age 94. Comish had volunteered for Officers Training but was drafted into the infantry and fought in both Germany and France. His was a story of three—in his three years of service, he was wounded three times and received three Purple Hearts. Throughout the war, Comish kept a journal, even though it was forbidden. He told his comrades that if he was shot, to take the journal and send it to his mother. His daughter, Dr. Lori Talbot of Bridgeton, says, “The war made a huge difference in his life; it was just a major factor. He went in as a kid and came out as a man. He really was the greatest generation.” He came home to live a full and long life, raising a family, working as a professor, and he was an avid reader, devouring three books a week.
Comish had recalled that war became a great melting pot, throwing together all different classes, races, and regional groups. Talbot says her dad enjoyed reading Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II by Arthur Herman because it gave him more of the big picture he missed while in the infantry.
Though he did not talk about the war while she was growing up, Talbot says the memories were still raw as he had lost some good friends. She and her siblings encouraged him to write about it, which he did just seven years ago, penning an autobiography for his family. Two stories stand out for Talbot. Her dad headed up a hill in Germany and as he crested, he faced two German soldiers. “He said he thought he was going to see his maker, but they ended up surrendering to him.” Her dad also served in the Red Eye Convoy, a job he received because he’d learned how to drive a truck on the farm. Comish believed that skill saved his life. The constant truck route delivered munitions after D-Day; drivers would drive four hours, rest four hours—without headlights, following the little red lights of the truck ahead of them. If he hadn’t been driving in the convoy, he’d have been in the Battle of the Bulge.
Besides March, I have four to recommend from my stacks. The Things They Carried is tough in content but a fantastic read. Written by Vietnam veteran and author Tim O’Brien, the book is semi-autobiographical, relying on what O’Brien calls “story truth” more than happening truth.
The Six-Day Hero by Tammar Stein (2017) is a young adult book about an Israeli soldier and his family in the 1967 war. It gave me a new perspective on the heightened state of war readiness in Israel. A Very Long Engagement by Sebastian Japrisot is a literary French novel about WWI, which was made into a movie. Last but not least, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is the hefty true account of runner and WWII Japanese concentration camp survivor Louis Zamperini. It’s also been made into a movie.
Just as Memorial Day is a somber moment before the unofficial start of summer, a war book might be the right choice to commemorate the holiday.
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