This stranger-than-fiction story of two World War I captives, one an English officer, the other Australian, that trick their way out of a Turkish prison camp via a long, elaborate con centered on a Ouija board is compelling and at times, funny as hell. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.
The beginning is grim; grim enough that I abandon this story twice before ordering the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons to help me get over the hump. There’s torture, deprivation, and every ugly thing that the notion of an enemy prison brings to mind. I am especially horrified because I thought this book was going to be funny! Reader, it is, but you have to get past the grim and at times, dull beginning to get to the amusing bits. Somewhere between the fifteenth and twentieth percentiles, the shift occurs, and that’s when you can expect to enjoy yourself. You may want to skim a bit through this part; I do, and it works out well.
Harry Jones was an attorney before the Great War commenced; Cedric Hill was an Aussie auto mechanic. Once captured, the two have no chance at all making a conventional escape; the camp is too isolated for either of them to get anywhere, even if they were able to leave. Instead, what they have is nothing but time, and ultimately, that and their excellent imaginations and problem-solving skills, aided by some genuinely stupid captors, is what saves them.
The most impressive aspect of their scheme is that it takes place over a very long period of time. Not many con artists would be able to keep their story straight for so long. Jones and Hill have a great deal of self-discipline and organizational skill. Also, they’re afraid, and fear can improve one’s consistency and attention to detail. Once the meat of the story begins, it is absolutely riveting!
I flipped back and forth between my digital galley and the audio version. Both are equally good, but I would give a slight edge to the audio version, assuming the reader is primarily seeking entertainment. For a researcher, the print version is better for keeping details and sources straight.
Recommended to those that enjoy history and intelligent humor.
I’ve read my share of Civil Rights memoirs, and this is one of the best. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
Charles Person grew up in an all-Black Atlanta neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s. At the story’s outset, he describes how sleeping arrangements were juggled inside their two-room apartment, with four family members sleeping in the front room, and three, himself among them, back in the kitchen. Since everyone in the neighborhood had roughly the same economic standing, it didn’t occur to Person that his family might be considered poor. He was at the top of his class academically, college-bound. His family were faithful church goers, and his father worked two-plus jobs to provide the bare necessities, but they never went hungry. It was only later, when his neighborhood was featured on a news program addressing “Urban blight,” that he learned that the place he loved and called home was part of a “tenement.” The overall tone of his home life is set at the beginning, when he describes an incident from childhood. He and another child stole peaches off of a neighbor’s tree, and his mother marches them to the door, makes them confess—which meant looking the owner in the eye and using the word “stole,” rather than a softer euphemism—and pay for the fruit they ate. Thus we know there’s a definite moral compass here.
It isn’t until he’s grown that Person learns about racism. He gets his first job at a bowling alley, and he learns what parts of that place and the surrounding businesses he is allowed to access, and which are for whites only. Later, he insists on sending his test scores and application to a Georgia university, knowing his marks are excellent, but is notified by mail that the school will not admit Negro (the accepted term at the time) students. As the lunch counter sit-ins in North Carolina draw headlines, Person becomes part of a local student effort to end segregation at the lunch counters in their area. Person is thrown in jail, and when he is released a short time later, he is experienced, primed, and ready for more.
The story of Person’s life, and of the Freedom Rides, which make up most of the memoir, is riveting. It’s told in first person, in a you-are-there kind of narrative that drew me in. I listened to part of this story using the audio book that I borrowed from Seattle Bibliocommons, but although the reader generally does a serviceable job with the text, I recommend the print version. I winced when the reader mispronounced “mimeograph”; there are no mimes in there, honey. But mostly, there are a lot of freedom songs interspersing the story, as the riders sing in jail, sing in the bus, sing, sing, and sing some more, and I don’t know about you, but it sets my teeth on edge when in the audio version the lyrics are simply read, with or without rhythm. Many of these are well-known songs, and if I see the words on the page, I will hear the music in my head. Listening to someone recite the words in a bloodless, wooden recitation is just sad.
For anyone that misses the connection, Person draws the connection between the Freedom Rides and the struggle of the present:
“It is sixty years later, and politicians do the same today when the devalue and disrespect important African-American societal concerns by turning Black Lives Matter into All Lives Matter. Of course, all lives matter. No one argues against that, but changing the issue from “Black” to “All” steals the legitimacy of a vital concern that needs political attention and a political solution. The intentional and insidious shifting on an issue through language is a calculated move. It was by [Georgia Governor] Vandiver in 1960, and it is today. It avoids and insults at the same time.”
There is no better time to learn the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-1900s, and apply them to the struggle against racist cop brutality in the present. If this subject makes you sit up a little straighter, you need this book. Of course, it’s also great reading for anyone that likes a good memoir, but even so, read it actively. There’s so much more work to be done.
Daniel Boone’s story is legendary, but few of us know any of the particulars of his life and achievements, beyond the forging of the Cumberland Gap. When I saw this book, I leapt at the chance to read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy; this book is for sale now.
Boone’s life is often held up as a testament to what an individual can accomplish if he is hardworking and determined; yet though he was both of those things, this bit of lore is also partly myth. Boone is born into a well-to-do family, pioneers to be certain, but not ones forced to build fortunes from scratch. After parting ways with the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the family moves south. Daniel is in love with the wilderness, and his physical strength, health, and stamina, combined with courage, resourcefulness, and a capacity to think on his feet make him a natural born explorer. He is an excellent hunter, and so he makes his living by selling animal pelts; also, it turns out that bears are delicious. (Sorry, Smokey.) But as others move westward, the game begins to dry up, and so he moves further westward than anybody else.
Boone is renowned as an Indian fighter, but the truth is complicated, and it’s political. There were a great many tribes involved, and often as not they were enemies with one another, at least in the beginning. In some cases, land was sold by a tribe that actually had no claim to it in the first place. This explodes the notion taught to us as children, that the Native peoples found the notion of selling land incomprehensible because of its sacredness; we see one tribe for whom this is true, but there were plenty of instances where a treaty was knowingly made, yet other factors also made it unenforceable. Most of all, Caucasian Americans failed to understand the lack of a top down decision-making structure within the tribes, and so often a chief or other leader would sign, but others within his tribe weren’t bound by his individual decision.
Then too, there’s the little matter of the American Revolution. Alliances are constantly made and broken, involving the British, French, Spanish, and Patriots. At one point, Boone loses his considerable acreage because his land is granted him by the Spanish, but the Louisiana Purchase renders his title null and void.
But it is the detailed recounting of Boone’s explorations (almost never alone, except in an emergency, so there goes the myth of the rugged individual) that makes this book fascinating. The scrapes he gets into, and how he gets out of them; the harrowing fates that befall those around him. He is captured and escapes multiple times. And although the women in his life get little ink, my heart goes out to Rebecca, his wife, who is left alone with the younger children for months and months on end, often without any idea as to where his travels have taken him, and whether he’s coming back. There are so many ways to die out there, and it’s not like anyone can send her a telegram to let her know if everyone is killed. At one point, she gives him up for dead, and when he finally shows up, she is pregnant, and the baby cannot be his! She tells him that she believed herself a widow, and so she turned to his brother; Boone decides this is understandable, since that’s pretty much what widows are expected to do, and since his brother looks like him, it won’t be obvious to others that he isn’t the father.
Even more interesting, however, is his daughter, Jemima. Her strength and cunning in dangerous circumstances—particularly when she is kidnapped and plays a part in her own rescue—make me wish she had her own biography. Were gender roles not so restrictive, she would have made an outstanding lieutenant, and perhaps successor to her father.
I initially didn’t believe I could give this work a five star rating, because the sources provided aren’t well integrated, and Clavin has relied tremendously on one source, a biography written long ago by Draper. But after I read the endnotes, I realized that even if he had been merely rewriting Draper’s book for a modern audience, it would be a great service. The social and political perspectives dominant when Draper’s book was written would make most of us blanch today, particularly with regard to race and gender, and yet, Draper did a masterful job with research, extensively reviewing Boone’s family and others still living at the time. I came away convinced that Clavin knows his subject well, and though I taught American history and government for decades, I learned a great deal from this one nifty book.
What kind of nerve does it take to go up alone in a fighter plane and duel with an enemy? Race of Aces is an account of the best Allied fighters in the South Pacific during World War II. My thanks go to Net Galley and Hachette Books for the review copy. When I missed the publication date, I obtained a copy of the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons. This proved to be a very good thing.
John R. Bruning does a fine job introducing each of the best fighters to us, and when he begins with a young man from Portland, Oregon, which is where I grew up, I was instantly engaged. There are five fighters whose stories are told here: Portlander Gerald Johnson, Richard Bong, Tommy McGuire, Neal Kearby, and Charles MacDonald. The framework for the story is a competition for a prize offered by the iconic pilot, Eddie Rickenbacker, who promised a bottle of excellent bourbon to the first pilot to break his record of 26 planes shot down. The men’s heroism—and sometimes recklessness—makes for a compelling narrative for readers of military history.
I begin by listening to the audiobook as I make dinner, following up later each day by going over the digital review copy. However, I soon discover that the detailed descriptions of noteworthy dogfights are impossible to envision unless I do both at the same time. Soon my routine is to listen to the passages in between battles, knowing that whatever I am doing, I’d better drop it and grab my tablet so I can follow along once the pilots take to the air. When I do this, I am rewarded with a clear mental movie of what is unfolding. Some of these fights are breathtaking in their intensity.
A flying ace is someone that shoots down five or more enemy planes. The vast majority of World War II flyers were competent and may at some point have shot down a plane or two, but the aces were few and far between. They were often working with substandard equipment—with the best American machinery reserved for the war in Europe. One noteworthy statistic caught my attention. “Fewer than 5 percent of combat fighter pilots achieved acehood, but they accounted for 47 percent of all the enemy planes knocked out of the sky.”
Again and again, I read instances in which the Allied fighter pilot plays a game of chicken with his opponent, flying straight at the enemy plane; usually the enemy veers off at the last minute, and once in awhile it’s the Allied fighter. There’s one noteworthy instance when they fly so close that the American pilot’s wing knocks into the Japanese plane; they find a smear of green paint on it after he lands. And so I kept wondering, what if nobody blinks? Of course, my mindset is diametrically opposite that needed for warfare; I think like a teacher. Don’t run with scissors. Slow down. Watch where you’re going, young man. Don’t wave your pencil or you’ll put somebody’s eye out. These guys, on the other hand, were warriors:
“Carl held his course and refused to break first. Blev watched in horror as he flew straight into a Zero, the two planes exploding with all the violence of a 500-mile an hour collision.”
Despite short rations at times, missing mechanical tools and parts of planes, and a number of other challenges, these men crippled the Japanese air corps in this part of the world, and because of this, the five aces were particularly loathed by the Japanese pilots. One of them is shot down toward the end, and although he survives the crash, he is shot repeatedly after he goes down. It’s just as well that he’s dead by the time they get to him:
“After he fell to the jungle floor, the Japanese stripped everything off him, including his boots, watch, clothes, jacket, and dog tags. They left his naked body unburied, sprawled facedown at the base of the tree, his parachute still entangled in its branches like a canopy for his anonymous grave.”
It’s a weird sort of compliment.
The audiobook frees me to check details not provided in the book itself. There is a description of the different aircraft available to the men, and as I listen. I search for images of them and find some diagrams; there are parts of the craft mentioned and I have no idea what they are. Hopefully those that pick up the finished copy may find some photographs or illustrations, but I have none, so I run some searches.
Ultimately, I don’t care at all who wins the bottle of bourbon, and I have trouble remembering who is who, apart from Gerald Johnson. But that doesn’t bother me; I am not in this thing for individual biographies of the pilots, or because of the Rickenbacker contest. I want to know more about the World War II pilots, and the contest between the five men provides an excellent framework for that information.
The audiobook, while useful, does have some small glitches. The narrator should have taken the trouble to find out how to pronounce place names. The story begins in Oregon, and every time the word “Willamette” is used—Willamette Valley, Willamette River, and so on—the mispronunciation sets my teeth on edge. I catch myself snarling at the reader as if he is there in the room with me. His general manner while describing the military aspects of the book, which of course is most of it, has a documentary feel to it, and it works well, but now and then we veer into the private lives of the pilots, and when more sensitivity and nuance are called for, the reader is still using that clipped documentary voice you’d associate with a movie shown in your high school social studies class. Because of these things as well as the complexity of the fight scenes, I recommend the printed version over the audio. However, if you can swing it, the best way of all is to use them both simultaneously.
Nobody can dispute that Bruning knows his material, and copious research was done to produce this book, at least on the American side of it. It is a bit longer than it needs to be, and my own preference would be to edit it down a bit. Also, although the “J” word is only used in quotations, it shouldn’t be used at all. Those that squawk about authenticity should try inserting the “N” word, which was also freely used during this time period, into the quotes, just to test the assertion, and then it’s obvious that of course no reputable author should publish such a thing. Racist terms, no matter how common to the time described, have no place in any reputable history publication, and he should have worked around them.
With these caveats, I recommend this book to those that enjoy military history.
I had such great hopes for this book. Jordan was a Pulitzer finalist for his work on American Civil War veterans, which I have not read, and this new work focuses on the life of an everyday soldier in the 107th Ohio Volunteer Union Infantry, which includes a large number of immigrant troops. My thanks go to Net Galley and Liveright Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.
I love a good history book, but I don’t love this one. For starters, we have no apparent thesis. After reading the first third of the narrative, my largest question was where the author wanted to take this thing. Is he demonstrating that the German immigrants weren’t as worthless in combat as their reputation suggests? If so, maybe we should focus on that, rather than on the 107th. Give me a thesis focusing on German Civil War soldiers, support it, make it interesting, and I’ll be a happy reviewer. Another possibility is to find an ordinary foot soldier with a fair amount of interesting correspondence or other material to hold my attention. I like seeing the rank and file recognized, and there’s such an abundance of documentation available for this conflict that this shouldn’t be a difficult project.
Sadly, this isn’t what I find. We have a linear story here, and that makes sense, but we go through training, through the nightmare of Chancellorsville, and then Gettysburg, and when we reach the end, I still can’t locate much purpose to Jordan’s endeavor. Once in a while a compelling nugget jumps out, such as the training march at the book’s outset, where men are driven forward without water, and in the end two men are dead; the march concludes, several hours later, just a mile from the starting point, and we see that brutal leadership and poor planning left some surviving men disillusioned. But in many places research appears to be thrown in for its own sake, and no matter how you dress it up, what that is, is filler. We see bits of letters sent home saying that war is pretty bad. Another writer says that he experienced a “hard, tedious march.” Actually, that one shows up in multiple forms, several times also. There’s another quote about passing “porches and verandas,” and another about arriving at an attractive location. (“Beauty and tranquility.”) I could go on, but since he’s done enough of that for the two of us, I won’t. All of it is meticulously—feverishly, even—documented, but so much of it is documenting material that shouldn’t be here in the first place that I can’t get too excited. A professor should know that you have to edit out the extraneous junk and tighten your writing.
There are a few bright spots. I didn’t know there were two different kinds of court martial, so I learned one thing here. Jordan seems to point toward the German infantryman being courageous and willing, but crippled by cowardly, incompetent leadership. I wish that he had used this as his central thesis and thrown away the extraneous crud. There would be a point to the book if he did that, and I could write the sort of glowing review that gets me out of bed in the morning.
My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.
Gail Caldwell was the chief book reviewer for The Boston Globe, and she won the Pulitzer for Criticism. Once I began reading this luminous memoir, I could see that level of quality in her prose. She writes about her childhood in Texas, and about her travels and experiences growing up in the mid-twentieth century. More than anything, this is a feminist memoir, a chance to see how far we have come through a personal lens.
I missed the publication day here, and so I hunted down the audio version to supplement my reading. The author narrates her own work, and so it conveys the feeling that I am sitting by the fire with a dear friend, hearing about the challenges she’s faced as a single woman. Female readers will recognize the sensation: you start talking with a woman that you don’t really know, and before you know it you are talking and listening as if you’ve known one another for ages. That’s the essence of this book. In fact, I listened to it in the evening while preparing dinner, because I knew I’d be left alone during that time, and frankly, I didn’t want anybody to come barreling into the middle of my time with Gail. There’s a sense of intimacy that makes me feel a bit protective when I listen to it. Later, I go over what I’ve read and nod. Yes. Oh, yes, I remember that.
The title works in a number of ways. The darling little neighbor girl that becomes part of the family Gail chooses, bookends the memoir, coming in at the start as a very young person and ending it as an adolescent. But there’s more to it than that; life is a bright precious thing, and though she never says it overtly, I recognize that each woman is a bright precious thing as well.
I am a grandmother myself, but Gail is about the age to be my older sister. Women like Gail gave women like me a guiding light during our coming-of-age years. Our mothers were often resigned to their status as second class citizens, and ready to accept that there were things that women should probably not even try to do, and they couldn’t help transmitting their fears and reticence to us. It is women like Marge Piercy, Gloria Steinem, Wilma Mankiller, and yes, Gail Caldwell that provided us with a beacon, a way forward through the ocean of “no” to the bright shores of “yes,” that gave us courage to be insistent, even when we knew some would label us pushy broads, or worse. We needed role models badly, and they stepped up. They’re still doing it.
The calm, warm tone that came through this audio book, right during the turbulent period after the November election, was an absolute balm. Sometimes I would be shaken by the things I saw in the national news, and then I would head for my kitchen (perhaps an ironic place to receive a feminist memoir, but it worked for me,) and once I had had my time with Gail, I knew I’d be all right.
Highly recommended to women, and to those that love us.
Isabel Wilkerson is the author of the groundbreaking, bestselling Pulitzer winner, The Warmth of Other Suns, and when I read it, I understood that from then forward, I would read anything Wilkerson published. Here it is, and you must read it. You may want to put on a pair of oven mitts when you do, because it is hot enough to scorch your fingertips; Wilkerson doesn’t sugarcoat the truth. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the review copy. It’s been perched in the top ten of every bestseller list since its August release, and you don’t want to miss out on it.
Wilkerson’s thesis is that Black people in the U.S. occupy, and have always occupied, the lowest position within our social and economic ranks; social class is changeable, but caste is fixed. She compares their positions to the Dalit, better known as the Untouchables, the lowest rung of the lowest caste in India, and to Jews during the Holocaust. If this seems like overkill to you, get this book and read it carefully. This writer is relentless when she seeks to prove a point. She documents, documents, and documents again. She turns all the stones, and nothing is left.
Her evidence is organized by eight key commonalities, which she refers to as “Pillars” of caste. These are aspects of society that are unchanging and that define the positions of those born into them. (She recognizes that there are other races in the US that suffer, but places Black people at the bottom of the order, and so this is where her focus is.) The more I read, the more convinced I am. This is not metaphor or hyperbole. These are literal truths, and by the time she is done, I am convinced that the US is guiltier than Germany, because Germany turned it around, whereas the US is still in denial.
The Warmth of Other Suns is absorbing and easy to read, its style near to narrative nonfiction. In contrast, Caste is brutally frank. Though Wilkerson salts her narrative with relatively minor personal vignettes, they don’t make it easier to read; if anything, they make it hurt worse. (The airline attendant that does his level best to send her to the back of the plane, even though she has a first class ticket; the plumber that assumes she is hired help rather than the homeowner; the man attending the conference at which she is to speak that asks her to freshen his drink…)
I find this material so painful that I realize I am avoiding my review copy in favor of gentler reads, and then I know I have to step it up. This is too important; there’s been too much rug-sweeping in this nation already, and we won’t change if we don’t recognize the reality in which we live. I resolve to read one chapter a day. One chapter, and then I can move to more congenial literature. By the time I reach the end notes, I feel as if I have witnessed a natural disaster, a typhoon perhaps, or an immense, life-ruining earthquake. I’ve never run from books about race in the United States, but having the truth condensed and presented as it is here has to change the way we think. African-American readers likely won’t be much surprised, and many may feel vindicated in the resentments that have built over the years. But I cannot imagine anyone reading this book and then forgetting what’s in it.
Black lives matter, my friends. They matter just as much as anyone else’s. If you are more concerned about broken windows than about generation after generation of Americans whose potential has been stunted and whose contributions have been minimized, then you need this book. If you know that what’s been happening to men and women of color in the USA is dead wrong but you have difficulty forming cogent arguments when you talk with others, you need this book. If you speak and read English and you have a pulse, you need this book. What more does it take? Information is the root of social change. Here it is.
“White supremacy is not a marginal ideology. It is the early build of the country. It is a foundation on which the social edifice rises, bedrock of institutions. White supremacy also lies on the floor of our minds. Whiteness is not a deformation of thought, but a kind of thought itself…
‘The story that follows is not that a writer discovers a shameful family secret and turns to the public to confess it. The story here is that whiteness and its tribal nature are normal, everywhere, and seem as permanent as the sunrise.”
I read this book free and early; thanks go to Net Galley and Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux for the review copy.
Edward Ball writes about his ancestor, Constant Lecorgnes, known fondly within his family as “our Klansman.” The biography is noteworthy in that it is told without apology or moral judgement, as if Ball wants whites to feel okay about the racism, the rape, the exploitation, the murders, the terrorism that membership in the Ku Klux Klan, the Knights of the White Camellia, and any and all of the other white supremacist organizations have carried out, and will continue to carry out, in the United States. Relax, he tells us, it’s normal.
Well, let’s back up a moment. The “us” in the narrative is always Caucasians. It apparently hasn’t occurred to him that anybody else might read his book. In some ways, the “us” and the “our” used consistently and liberally throughout this biography are even worse than the explicit horrors detailed within its pages. It’s as if there is a huge, entitled club, and those that don’t belong are not invited to read. Further, it’s as if all white people are of a similar mind and share similar goals.
Not so much.
Ball won the National Book Award some years back for Slaves in the Family, a title currently adorning my shelves downstairs. I have begun it two or three times, but it didn’t hold me long enough for me to see what he does with it. And this book is the same, in that the late Lecorgnes is not particularly compelling as a subject, except within the framework of his terrorism. He was not, Ball tells us, a key player; he was just one more Caucasian foot soldier within the Klan. And so, the reading drones along, and then there are the key pronouns that capture my attention, those that give ownership to his terrible heritage, and a couple of paragraphs of the history of the period, particularly within Southern Louisiana, follow; lather, rinse, repeat.
As I read, I searched for accountability. As it happens, I have one of those relatives too; but my elders, though not beacons within the Civil Rights realm by a long shot, understood that such a membership brings shame upon us, and consequently I was not supposed to know about him at all. I overheard some words intended to be private, uttered quietly during a moment of profound grief following a sudden death. My mother spoke to someone—my father? I can’t recall—but she referred to her father’s horrifying activity, and I was so shocked that I left off lurking and spying, and burst into the room. I believe I was ten years old at the time. I was told that the man—who was never, and never will be referred to in the fond, familiar manner that Ball does—was not entirely right in the head. He truly believed he was helping to protect Southern Caucasian women, but he was wrong. It was awful, and now it’s over; let’s not talk about it anymore. In fact, this topic was so taboo that my own sister didn’t know. She is old now, and was shocked when I mentioned it last spring. She had no idea.
As I developed, I understood, from teachers and friends more enlightened than Mr. Ball, that the best way we can deal with ugly things in our background that we cannot change, is to contribute our own energies in the opposite direction. I’ve lived by it, and so I was waiting for Ball to say something similar, if not in the prologue, then surely somewhere near the end; but he never did. If Ball feels any duty whatsoever to balance the scales of his family’s terrible contribution, he doesn’t offer it up. There’s no call to action, no cry for social justice. Just the message that hey—it’s normal, and it’s fine.
I’m not sure if I want to read his other work anymore; but I know that what I cannot do, and will not do, is recommend this book to you.
Cathy Williams was a real person, and Sarah Bird steps up to tell her story, marrying an engaging narrative with historical fact. Though I am mighty late, I received this book free and early. My thanks go to St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley for the review copy.
Cathy Williams was born a slave, though her mother told her to regard herself not as a slave, but as a captive, one of noble warrior blood whose destiny was freedom. The American Civil War led General Philip Sheridan to the tobacco farm in Missouri where Cathy and many others performed forced labor for “Old Mister.” Sheridan chooses her to work in the kitchen; she isn’t pretty, and he figures she will do what she’s supposed to, rather than being caught up in romance. She and other former slaves work in exchange for meals and protection against Rebel slave-hunters.
The American Civil War is my favorite historical period to read about, and I have a soft spot for Sheridan, so this makes the story all the sweeter for me. Before my retirement, I was a history teacher and the civil war was what I taught for one term every school year, yet I didn’t find any inaccuracies here. That’s a rare thing.
Usually, stories that are set during this period hit a climax when the war ends, and soon after that, the book is over. Bird doesn’t do that here; after all, this story isn’t about the war, it’s about Williams. Victory is declared, everyone whoops for joy, and we’re not even halfway in it yet. I like this, because it shows some continuity, and one must wonder, at times—so the war ends, and then what? The South is decimated. The army virtually dissolves. What becomes of those we have been reading about? Reconstruction starts and fails, we know this; yet one wonders about individual stories.
After the war, the army is still Cathy’s home. She is a big woman, and when a soldier friend is murdered, she takes his army coat and dresses herself up as a man, becoming Private Cathay, and she joins the Buffalo Soldiers. In real life, she is the only woman to do so.
I won’t even try to recount the many experiences Williams has; in some ways, it’s a less exaggerated version of Forrest Gump, or Little Big Man, but an African-American woman is the subject, and the story is true. Bird did some top-notch research for this thing, and between that and her considerable skill with character development, pacing, and dialogue, the result is pure gold.
It starts a little slow, but patience will reward you. There’s a fair amount of violence—how could there not be—and a number of ugly situations that might make this a bad fit for a classroom read-aloud, and that’s a shame, but the story had to be told this way. I recommend it for high school libraries, and Black History Month shelves; it might also make a fine gift for your precocious reader, depending on your comfort level and theirs. The very best thing to do, younger readers or no, is to read it yourself. I alternated my review copy with the audio version that I scooped from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the reader is a standout, so I recommend it in that form as well.
Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.
Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.
Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.
Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.
There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.
The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.
Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.
Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.
This book is highly recommended.
*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.