Two World War II books, two divergent reviews
I’ve been silent when it comes to blogging recently, due to extensive travel and dealing with some health issues. However, that hasn’t kept me from reading. The two books which I completed reading most recently are about the Second World War. One sits atop the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction at the moment, while the other is relatively obscure. The former is co-written by a person well-known to TV watchers, while the author of the latter is an unknown. Yet, if I were to assign grades to the two, I’d give a “C” to the best-seller and an “A” to the obscure book. Here are my reviews of the two books:
Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (H. Holt & Co., 2014)
As one who lived through World War II as one of Europe’s “hidden children,” I am always interested in reading another book about the war. On the positive side, I found many of the vignettes from before and during the Battle of the Bulge interesting. While I was aware of the fact that the Allies were confident that the war would be over by Christmas and thus were unprepared for the final German offensive, I did not know about some of the subplots described by the authors: Patton’s warnings, animosity between Patton and Montgomery, politics being played by Eisenhower, the exclusion of Great Britain from post-war plans, etc. I suspect that, while many of these were true, some of the stories–just like Mr. O’Reilly’s TV shows–are “based on fact,” rather than facts themselves.
With respect to the death of the general–which, after all, is the major point of the book–I beg to differ with many of the authors’ critics. I didn’t feel that the book led us to a conclusion. The authors presented the story of Patton’s death as a series of incidents, statements of those who were present, and backstories showing that there were powerful people on all sides (German, Soviet, and American) who hated the general. I felt that the authors left it to the reader to decide whether Patton died as a result of an unfortunate auto accident or if he was murdered. My own conclusion: I have no idea.
My biggest criticism of the book is this: while there are many mundane and nearly-trivial stories which attempt to get us inside Patton’s head, there is a huge piece missing–perhaps intentionally. That is: Patton’s virulent anti-Semitism. The man was a brilliant military strategist and a brave man, but he had no idea what he was fighting for–aside from his personal glory. He admired the Nazis as fighting men, and he hated the Jews (for whatever reason). He declared that “Jews are lower than animals,” and, when he was in charge of post-war DP camps, he treated the Jewish refugees as if they were still in concentration camps. For this, he was reprimanded by both President Truman and General Eisenhower. How could the authors have omitted this?
In conclusion, despite the above unforgivable omission, I enjoyed the book. However, knowing the background of the main author, Bill O’Reilly, I read it as “historical fiction.” It should not reside on NY Times’ nonfiction list.
Adventurers Against Their Will by Joanie Holzer Schirm (PeliPress, 2013)
As a Holocaust Survivor–one of Czechoslovakia’s “hidden children” during World War II,–I was intrigued when I found out about this book. The promo stated that it was about a group of Czechs who hung out at Prague’s Manes Café, a pre-war gathering place for the city’s intellectuals, and how the Nazi occupation affected their lives.
What I discovered inside the covers of Joanie Holzer Schirm’s Adventurers Against Their Will was a series of remarkable stories. The author uncovered an amazing gift left by her father: bright red Chinese boxes which contained a treasure trove of letters. They were letters to and from her father’s friends and family–those who escaped Czechoslovakia from the Nazis and scattered around the world, as well as those who stayed behind and eventually perished at the hands of the German occupiers.
But it is one thing to be in possession of such correspondence and to have had the benefit of one’s father’s stories, and yet another to write an interesting, coherent, dramatic, exciting story that keeps the reader turning pages. Ms. Schirm does this beautifully. With so many individual tales, so many characters, and so many places, it would be easy for the reader to become confused or even lost. The author skillfully uses a “Dramatis Personae” at the beginning of each chapter, along with a timeline at the end of the book, both of which allow the reader to remain engaged and informed.
I know from my own experience of writing Prague: Mt Long Journey Home how difficult it is to mix personal stories with historical events. The author does this masterfully, writing with emotion and feeling–informing, educating, and creating suspense. Adventurers Against Their Will is a must-read for anyone who embraces inspirational stories of people who expect to lead ordinary, happy lives, but end up having to overcome hardships and tragedies thrust upon them by forces of evil.
Very good review.
I lived through those years too, but not like you did. I am familiar with your observations.
Bill O’Reilly was on the Rachael Ray show (either yesterday or today) and said that he considered his book historical fiction, so it was interesting that you said the same. I’m going to have to start reading your book, which I’ve had for some time, but I’ve been trying to stick to “light fiction” for a while.
Diane Faige Dellicker, MHS Class of ’55
Agree with your critique of Killing Patton. Along with his Killing Jesus suspect they were mostly ghost written with his credit to promote sales. I have trouble crediting O’Rielly with the necessary research to produce both books. The “no spin zone” is a myth.
O’Reillys book was probably a little difficult, even archaic for those unfamiliar with the war. To me, a former Avid WWII reader the order makes sense. There were little nuances I was unfamiliar with which added a little to my knowledge base but, my overall familiarity with the subject matter deflated the value of this books historical value. I consider one book about anyone as big as Patton to be a starting point and don’t feel the exclusion of his antisemitism to be unforgivable since it would be learned in the next book. The hugest letdown is in the title for me. I expected there to be more meat on the bone as far as what had been done to find those responsible for his death. As far as that goes, I know little more about who killed him now than before I started this 3 day read.
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