Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, by Robert Matzen****

missionjimmystewartIn Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Robert Matzen provides an engaging, compelling memoir that focuses primarily on Stewart’s time as an aviator during World War II. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Goodknight Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

The book begins with Stewart’s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. His is a close knit family with a strong military tradition. An outstanding student, he is educated at Princeton and falls in love with theater one summer. He hits the road for Hollywood to fulfill his dream.

Because of the title, I am taken aback at the amount of celebrity gossip that is included in the first portion of the biography. Matzen wants us to know that Stewart used his skinny-awkward-young-man routine as a sort of foreplay to work his way between the sheets with one well known actress after another; he lists many of them. I could have lived without this part, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. If like me you are really only interested in the military aspect of it, skip the Hollywood part at the start and pick it back up when he enlists. Eventually this is what I did.

Once there, the story is fascinating. Stewart resolutely straight-armed studio efforts to keep him in the USA or use him to entertain troops, as some actors that are drafted chose to do. He angers a studio head who actually tells him, “You’ll never work in this town again”. He decides he is going to do his part like any other man, apart from the fact that he had always wanted to fly and now has the money for a private plane and flying lessons. Once he is actually in uniform, he is able to become the aviator he has dreamed of being as a youngster.

As Martzen unspools Stewart’s story, which had to be difficult to research given Stewart’s resolute refusal to discuss that period, I am instantly engaged. I had known at one time that the planes were not heated back then, but hadn’t fully appreciated the dangers and challenges posed by the cold alone once in the air. A man could suffocate if he didn’t regularly break the ice off of his mask. Men could and did lose body parts to frostbite.

The stories of the men that would eventually serve under him as he rises in rank, not due to strings pulled by authorities but as he has wished, by merit and leadership capability, are also both interesting and poignant. Reading the way the pilots name and decorate their planes, how individual aircraft with idiosyncrasies that make them handle differently so that the pilots strongly prefer to fly their own ships, is interesting, and  reading the personal details and in some cases, the deaths of these men is wrenching in some places, poignant in others.

When Stewart has completed his military service, he looks at least ten years older than he is. He’s seen a lot. If he returns to Hollywood, there’s no chance he will play the same roles he used to do. He stalwartly refuses to exploit his time in the service by making World War II films, which are enormously popular, and for a long time, his phone doesn’t ring. He’s sleeping at his parents’ house in his old childhood bedroom, wondering what will happen. But in time he hears from Frank Capra, who has an idea for a picture “based on a story titled ‘The Greatest Gift,’ about a man from a small town who wishes he had never been born. Jim was the only actor in Hollywood whom Capra considered for the role.”

Despite the sense of alienation he experiences with his return to the other-worldly, glitzy city after his gritty, intense experience in the war, Stewart is glad to be back, and he plays what will become an iconic role, that of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He credits Capra with saving his career, and is overjoyed to be back:

“He was engaged in something magical again, something to interest people in the art of living, rather than the art of dying.”

The book also discusses Stewart’s lifelong friendship with Henry Fonda, and his marriage. We get a brief overview of the peacetime lives of the surviving members of Stewart’s first crew.

If it were up to me, I would remove all of the somewhat jarring photos at the end of the book that show Stewart alongside one actress after another, and I’d replace them with photos and maybe diagrams of the planes we hear so much about. A map here and there wouldn’t hurt, since we follow his flight paths and it’s sometimes hard to visualize where these places are. I used Google, but would like to see these included as part of the published memoir, perhaps in the center, where they’re most relevant.

I recommend this biography to fans of Stewart’s, and I recommend most of this book to those with an interest in military history.  The book is available to the public today, October 24, 2016.

Tail Gunner, by RC Rivas****

tailgunnerTail Gunner is the memoir of a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II. I was fortunate to receive a copy free in advance from Net Galley and Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest review. It’s both compelling and informative.

Those accustomed to modern air travel may find it hard to imagine flight during this time period. There was no source of heat, and of course it’s far colder in the sky than on the ground.  Our author was a turret gunner, and it turns out that the turret and the nose are the two coldest parts of the plane. He stoically assures us there is no reason to be too cold up there if one dresses properly, and then lays out the multitudinous layers that must have made flyers look like old-fashioned versions of the Michelin man, but with head gear and a parachute. He describes the layers of ice that formed on the metal inside the turret, and how his oxygen mask freezes while it is on his face.

None of this is all that important once one is shot down, however.

My interest in military history is recent; I studied and taught history for a long time, but for most of those years, I preferred to study the causes of war, and so my primary interest was more political and theory-based. Maybe this is why it never occurred to me that the pilot is always the boss inside a military plane regardless of the ranks of various officers. Rivas points out that there really can’t be a discussion when the pilot says to jump; the point is well taken!

This novella-length memoir is recommended to those with an interest in World War II, particularly its aeronautic aspects, and also to academics and researchers, given that this is a primary document.  It was released to the public April 8, so you can buy a copy for yourself.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, by Fannie Flagg *****

Big, big fun! I recently read this wonderful new work by the famous and always hilarious Fannie Flagg. One of Flagg’s hallmarks is that she spins over-the-top characters so real you can almost see them, but then she sneaks in subtle metaphors and other devices so clever that for me, it takes awhile to sink in.

As she did in Fried Green Tomatoes (a personal favorite), she morphs back and forth between the present and the bygone era of World War II, homing in on the WASPs–women who served as pilots for the armed services, ferrying planes from one part of the country to another so that all military male pilots could do other things.

The story starts in the present with the key protagonist, Sookie, who is informed one day by mail that she is adopted. Given that she is already having a few anxiety issues, this is the last thing she needs. As women go, she feels like a failure; she is a little finch, and does not stand a chance of fulfilling the thunderous expectations of her adoptive mother, who was a Blue Jay from the get-go. When the bomb drops on Sookie, she realizes that she has been reading the wrong horoscope all this time! Her mother has made such a fuss about family bloodlines and heredity, and it turns out that her long-gone ancestors are “total strangers”! She is about ready to come unstuck.

I won’t spoil the rest of it for you. In a completely entertaining manner, Flagg drives home the inequity dealt women pilots during this time period, who received no veteran status, medical benefits, or pension for their service to the country. The 39 who died on the job had no death benefits, either. I salute Flagg (oh, sorry, bad pun!) for putting her literary muscle behind a feminist cause at a time when many sneer at feminism as a thing of the past.

One minor detail that I mention for those who are Japanese-American, Japanese, or close to someone who is: because Pearl Harbor is mentioned here, vintage (but nevertheless painful) use of the “J” slur is used here. It is contextual, and it passes by quickly, but just as many folks blanch at reading Twain’s fiction for the “n” word, so do those who are stung by the “J” word (myself among them) need to know it’s coming. It just helps to be prepared. It isn’t done in a mean-spirited way, and I am glad I read it. But sometimes it helps if you can brace yourself.

The plot is well-paced and is less complex than Fried Green Tomatoes, which hosted a variety of settings that required the reader to carefully scan the heading on the first page of a given chapter in order to be properly oriented. This is more of a quick back-and-forth. It was my fun, light reading at bed time. My only real regret is that it’s over.

Get a copy right away if you love Fannie Flagg as I do!