Emily Green joined us a few weeks ago as my assistant when Taylor Sperry, who I thought I could never recover from losing, left to go to Viking and pursue her dreams in literary fiction and non-fiction. Two days ago, Katrina Tabori Fried, our brilliant Associate Publisher, asked Emily to input corrections into the files for The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II which is just now going to the printer. Photographed by Thomas Sanders, with interviews by Veronica Kavass and honored by an introduction from Hampton Sides, it is a compilation of photographs and interviews with veterans, most of whom are more than ninety years old. As she worked, she read and this is what she sent me after…how lucky can one publisher be…first Taylor…now Emily:
Not since Studs Turkel’s Working, has there been so perfect an example of how the universal is best accessed through the individual voice. Foolishly, I tried to use the word “moving” in my first attempt to describe this portrait of the human condition. Moving. How naiive and superficial it appears, standing in the shadows of that which it so brazenly fails to describe. How motionless it looks when juxtaposed against such seemingly impenetrable stories, made accessible to us by these men and women when told from their own mouths, in their own words and most of all by their faces, which speak to us and pull us in, far deeper than words on a page could even allow. As if they are not simply sharing, but somehow giving us permission, inviting us in, to be there with them, to walk in their memories and cry alongside their tears. Reassuring us that our visceral experiences are also salient and remarkable, and not to be diminished or superseded by theirs. The interaction and dialogue between reader and storyteller is a conversation that is as humbling as it is empowering; sorrowful as it is enlivening. It is memory coalescing with the present day, unbounded by age, country or rank.
Don’t be fooled by appearance—this is not a book. It is every man, every woman, every child. It is every relationship you’ve ever had or will ever come to know. It is every love, every fear, every dislike, every passion. It is every battle you’ve lost, won and those you haven’t yet considered facing. It is achievement, loss and sorrow. It is race, religion, rage and redemption. It is knowledge and uncertainty, doubt and miracle. It is getting to know the darkness and learning to appreciate those moments that hint at the light. It is longing and those longed for. It is wound and salvation. It is the profound presence of those remembered. It is for those long gone and those who still keep them alive. It is for your generation, those that went, and those to come. It is the scars that give us heroes and those invisible lines that separate an enemy from an ally. It is them. It is us. No, this is not just about something that happened a long time ago. This is you’re story. This thing you’re holding in your hands, this is not a book. This is you.
Marion Johnson, one of the female veterans we meet, was a member of the WAVES: Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. In her photo she is holding up a picture of a lovely beauty wearing a navy cap. Watching time speed ahead and navigate across a lifetime over the course of just one page, you really feel mortality in a way that is unique and stunning. Sumner Jules Glimcher says something that is simple and poignant that any teenager from any generation can identify with. “I wanted to get into the Army, which was so stupid. I didn’t realize how dangerous it was. It just looked so glamorous. All my friends were in uniform looking heroic, and there I was walking around in a suit and tie. I went to the draft board and I said, ‘Put my name down.’ So they did, and I got drafted. I was put in this Army Specialized Training Program. My mother, if she had ever known—she would have killed me.”
They make it real. They bring it front and center. They make you question. They make you weep. They bridge the gap between generations. They fearlessly break through the walls that time erects and make their stories our own. After you read the Last Good War, you’ll never be able to think about freedom and responsibility without thinking of these men and women. “I learned more than I could have in fifteen universities. When I went in, I had absolutely no awareness of the world, politics, and different cultures. I am grateful to have survived,” Edwin Sawicki, Sergeant, US Army.