Tag Archives: World War Two

And No Birds Sang, Farley Mowat

Plucked this one off a second-hand store shelf after recognizing the author’s name.  Canadian Mowat had come to my attention for his naturalist-memoir, Never Cry Wolf, first encountered as a successful feature film in the early 1980’s, and read sometime thereafter.

Regarding this present slender volume, I find it somewhat uncomfortable that ‘charming’ is the first word which comes to mind in summarizing a book whose main intent – and emotional effect – is to honestly portray the utter brutality of war.  It is a testament to the author’s personality, his innate positivity against all odds (a characteristic evident in …Wolf, as well) and his ability to view whatever is before him with innocence and wonder despite its negative aspects, that reading his memoir is not a depressing experience.

The book chronicles a brief period in Mowat’s life in which he transitions from eager and idealistic youth to terrified veteran of a selection of humanity’s habitual horrors, as evidenced during the Allied invasion of Sicily in the Second World War. In the process he displaces conventional notions of glory and heroism with harsher truths of luck, desperation, endurance and the sometimes-terrible adaptations of which the human heart and mind are capable when required to cope with – and, if fortunate, survive – extreme situations.

Right after reading the book, I wrote that “In its own way, this belongs on the shelf with Wiesel’s Night, Krakauer’s Where Men Find Glory, Shehan’s A Bright Shining Lie and Moore and Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once, and Young.  It’s that Good.” 

Looking up Mowat’s bio just now though, to check my memory of his bibliography, I come across a very serious criticism that places that judgement in a different light.

Mowat, it seems, was dogged during his career by allegations that his environmentally-themed works were actually more fiction than non-.  Wolf researchers hotly contradicted the supposed observations and experimentation in Never Cry Wolf, and even the simple timing and circumstances of his visits to wolf-country were not borne out by available records.  Experts on indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic were equally damning on his supposed adventures among those tribes, as were better-credentialed historians on his conjectures about pre-Norse explorations by a people he called ‘The Albans,’ for whom no other record exists.   What there apparently are records of, on the other hand, are a quote of Mowat saying that he “never let the facts get in the way of the truth,” and something of a personal motto, found among the author’s papers, that “…when the facts have particularly infuriated me, Fuck the Facts!”

Attending a different author’s reading some years ago, I was dismayed to hear her make a similar admission regarding a magazine piece about travel adventures (the genre in which she had made her name).  Her excuse was that people go to travel magazines seeking a certain sort of release from mundanity, it was her job to provide that, and since the reader would never know which parts were truth and which fabrication, there was no harm done.

To me, labelling any work as non-fiction (which includes presenting it in a publication not identified as fiction) is to make a claim of authority and factuality; it creates a certain covenant between writer and reader.  Encountering in fiction an event or insight which is not familiar to them, the reader evaluates it speculatively, and forms an opinion of whether or not it represents actuality, doing so largely in light of whether it conforms or not to the reader’s own experience.  Encountering the very same piece of information in a work presented as non-fiction, we are explicitly being directed to take that information as superseding any counter experience or belief we may have – ‘this is the truth, accept it.’  Such a claim of authority must properly be earned by a certain amount of rigor, and self-discipline which includes, as its lowest bar, not simply ‘making shit up’.

I’m just sayin’…

In the end then, And No Birds Sang gives a reader cause to ponder not just one but two weighty, and yet very different, themes: the experience of fighting in a war, and the experience of reading about any other person’s experiences.  Pretty good payoff for fewer than 200 pages.  

City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert

Most famous perhaps for her new age-y self-help memoir Eat, Pray Love, Gilbert is also and initially a novelist and this, her latest, is no slouch.  Substantial at 465 pages, it covers the mid-Twentieth Century through the life of upstate New York ingenue Vivian Morris, who receives an education and much more once she relocates to the city of the same name.  Sex and alcohol fuel much of the raucous early going, till the story abruptly shifts locale and tone around page 300. Disconcerting, that; and a serious disappointment to this reader, until a few chapters later when the narrative returns to its previous location and regains some (but only some) of its attitude.  From there the tale matures along with its protagonist, moving from girlish dalliances to womanly relationships and thoughts.

Which may be the author’s point.  While the title seems for a time to refer to the young women of the early chapters, and later to a play of the same name which becomes prominent for a while, it becomes ultimately a shorthand for all the different relationships between women which sustain these characters and the few social arrangements which care for and value them – the men in Gilbert’s telling being almost universally disappointing to the women, and often just as much so to themselves.  Her one male exception is introduced very near the end, a terribly-damaged creature with a heart of gold, who is, tellingly, an even greater disappointment to himself than any of those who preceded. 

Another indication: the two wronged women who get tossed out of Vivian’s life are both sorely missed and the reader spends the rest of the novel hoping they will be brought back for some dramatic rapprochement.  On the other hand, the one male who drops out is not missed in the least, despite being her close relative and a tragic victim of greater events.

Overall, and thanks almost exclusively to the quirky women Vivian meets in the big city, one comes away with the impression of a life lived off the beaten track and outside the generally accepted definitions of success and happiness, yet more successful and more satisfying at its end than many which better fit the traditional definitions.  A theme well in keeping with Gilbert’s other writings and a quite satisfying ending to a charming journey.

(BTW, the above description of Eat Pray Love is not meant to put it down. In addition to being on-trend, it is also deeply felt, thoroughly entertaining and insightful.  I read it some 13 years ago with under-liner in hand and closed the book feeling more optimistic about my own life than I had in ages.  Which is one reason I picked up City of Girls, though a reading of Gilbert’s 2000 first-novel, Stern Men, during the intervening years was also instrumental.  Either way, I am glad I did, and ready to read more of this author any time.)

(Illustration by Eleanor Davis for N. Y. Times review)

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson

A splendid telling of Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of Britain, 1940 to 1941, as the vile German war began its malignant blooming.  Drawing from the absurd wealth of diaries, letters and official records which exist from that time, Larson shows us the British Bulldog’s personality, character and lifestyle, as well as those of his family and closest confidants, while epic episodes of politics, drama and suffering provide the footlights’ glare.

Whatever else one may think of WSC, he was certainly an individual; his willingness to exhibit personal idiosyncrasies – and even his unclothed person – suggest someone who had been raised under the gaze of servants and caretakers, grown up in the glare of the media and by old age must simply have assumed everything about him was already public, so why hide it.

On a less salutary note, it is impossible to dismiss the luxury of British upper class existence, even in the midst of The Blitz.  Debs debut and the posh pose in clubs, gardens and elegant dining rooms even as soldiers die in far off places and civilians around the block.  Churchill has his preferred vintage of bubbly and brandy, his cigars and twice-daily baths and weekends at a country house to entertain family and friends – along with those officials whose cooperation he ensures by such bonding.  Most creepy of all, are the civilians in their gardens, lying back on the grass to follow aerial battles between friend and foe.  Forebears of us all, perhaps, watching disaster footage on the TV or internet from an even greater remove.

The greatest impression for this reader, given the date and place of reading (August, 2020, USA) is the contrast between one larger than life character and another. Where Trump demeans everything he touches, Churchill raised Britain from nation to ideal, elevated Beaverbrook (for just one example) from greedy industrialist to miracle worker, and uplifted each casualty of the war from cipher to symbol of heroic sacrifice in a just cause.  His speeches raised not only the ‘rabble’ but thinking minds as well and were driven not by hatred of the enemy but by love of its victims.  A subtle difference, perhaps, to some, but a crucial one. Would that all leaders had such character.

How splendid and fortuitous that the Eurocentric world had a leader like Churchill ready to step up when the future turned so very dark and cloudy.  And how splendid that later generations have authors like Larson to show us yet another angle from which to appreciate their value and their stature.