I have gotten out of the habit of writing book reviews, so bear with me in my rustiness.
I just read Scott Turow’s book “Ordinary Heroes.” This book was written in 2005, loosely based on the events of World War II. In Turow’s own words, “This book is a work of imagination, inspired by the historical record, but seldom fully faithful to it.”
I found it, among other things, to be a gripping account of a man’s struggle to understand his father. In this book, the events, battles, exploits set in the closing months of World War II in Europe merely serve to illuminate the father’s character. The way the son goes about his search illuminates his own.
The trite cliche “War is hell” could be used to sum up the book, but it is far too simplistic a method of describing this story. It is more than just a war story, it is a heroic romance; detailing the love of comrades in arms for each other, the love of the ordinary man for the larger than life hero, the love of men for women (and women for men) in all their complexities. The book is worth reading for this if for nothing else.
The language and descriptions are beautiful. You feel yourself waiting for the sniper’s bullet, hear the shells tearing through the forests where you hide, experience the exhiliration and joy of surviving, of victory; and the numbness and despair of survivor guilt.
The problems that all the characters face are complex. One man is a Sergeant fighting at the front. His story seems plain: a slightly racist Southern boy learning to respect people for who they are rather than judging them on their appearance. Later it is revealed that the man is a light skinned black man passing for white: the only way he would be allowed to serve in combat against what he saw as a great evil.
There are many other similarly deep characters. In this book, as in war, not all the people we wish to live make it through the horrors of battle.
Turow also manages to tuck some political commentary on the present state of the world into the book, using a main character’s philosophical musings to lay it out for us. It was this passage (p. 177-178) that made me wish to do more than just the little capsule reviews that you find in my “what I have read” pages.
“I asked what he would do then.
“Wait for the next war, I suppose,” he answered. I don’t think I’m good for much else, that’s what I’m saying, unless I spare the world the trouble and put an end to myself. I really can’t envision life in peacetime anymore. I talk about a good hotel room and a good woman, but what is this? And I am not so different, Dubin. Soon everyone will be driven into this lockstep. War and making more war.”
“So you think we will fight the Russians, Major?”
“I think we will fight. Don’t you see what’s happening, Dubin? No one has choices any longer. Not here and not at home. I always thought that the march of history was forward, less suffering and greater freedom for mankind, the chains of need and tyranny breaking apart. But it’s not what meets my eye when I look to the future. It’s just one group of the damned making war on the other. And liberty suffering.”
“You’re in the Army, Major. This has never been freedom’s Valhalla.”
“Yes, that’s the argument. But look at what’s happened on the home front. I get letters. I read the papers. War has consumed every liberty. There’s propaganda in the magazines and on the movie screens. Ration books and save your tin cans. Sing the songs and spout the line. There’s no freedom left anywhere. With one more war, Dubin, civil society will never recover. The war profiteers, the militarists, the fearmongers — they’ll be running things permanently. Mark my words. Mankind is falling into a long dark tunnel. It’s the new Middle Ages, Dubin. That’s the bit that breaks my heart. I thought fascism was the plague. But war is. War is.”
The final pages of this book make clear why this book is entitled as it is. This statement, made my Dubin’s mother, is a powerful argument as to what a heroic life consists of.
“We all have much more courage than is commonly imagined. Every day, Stewart, as I get older, I marvel at how much bravery it takes to go on, to bear the blows existence so often delivers. I bore mine and was lucky enough to survive to have the ordinary life I desired with your father and Sarah and you, a life that means far more to me than anything that went before. Does that,” she asked, in a way that made me think she actually expected an answer, “does that make me a hero?” (emphasis added by reviewer)
A good book.