Friday, July 13, 2018

Shadow of an Empire by Max Florschutz

Shadow of an Empire
by Max Florschutz

This isn't Mr. Florshutz’ first appearance in this review series, back in April of 2017, I reviewed his cyberpunk novel Colony (link at the bottom of this review). Mr. Florschutz was kind of enough to offer me a free copy of Colony, which I appreciated. Shadow of an Empire was not a free copy; Mr. Florshutz offered but I honestly wanted to support a talented writer. That said, what follows is my honest opinion of the work.

Shadow of an Empire is a Western (in the literary not geopolitical sense) style fantasy novel, set in a world recovering from a civilization-ending apocalypse. A world where people and animals have been strangely affected by this Armageddon but have managed to rebuild civilization and achieve a level of industrialization. Before I get into that though, let me talk about the western a bit. The Western is an incredibly American setting and style of writing, rooted in what is in many ways a unique historical experience. Despite that or perhaps because of it, it has drawn a lot of attention internationally, from the Spaghetti Westerns (western movies directed and produced by Italians, which also launched Clint Eastwood to megastardom) to Japanese anime. I think part of it is it's a style of writing and setting that seems to translate well to fanastic settings. You don't have to set your western in the United States of 1800. You can set it on a science fiction colony world in the far future, you can set it on some fantasy world with magic and elves, you can set it on an alternate earth or a post apocalyptic wasteland. The elements you need are easily recognizable and fairly distinct. You start with a stark, harsh but beautiful land with an unforgiving climate, then you add native cultures in conflict with more technologically advanced newcomers who represent the leading edge of an expanding empire or nation. Plant rugged self-sufficient characters, some of whom have a questionable relationship with the law but most of them with a firm sense of right and wrong (although you can successfully dispense with that in some cases) as the center of your narrative. These characters must struggle against their environment and fellow men. Ensure that the expanding nation's grip is loose and it's government distant. Apply a healthy topping of violent problem solving, traditionally with rifles and revolvers. With this you have the basics of a western story, but just like cake is more then a list of it's ingredients, a genre is more then it's setting elements and themes. Let's talk about this specific story and see what kind of cake Mr. Florshutz has to offer us.

Shadow of an Empire is set in the Outlands, a remote and arid wilderness that’s sparsely settled by tough independent folk who prefer to be left alone by a government that stays distant. It exists between two heavily settled coasts ruled by the Empire, an expanding industrial civilization knit together by steam engine trains that run through the Outlands. The Empire rules the Outlands with a light touch because there's not much out there justifying a heavy presence and the folks who live there are quiet. That light touch is personified in our main character Salitore Amazd, imperial adjudicator. Adjudicator's are lawmen with broad but limited powers who seem to serve the same function as US marshals. They track down criminals at the behest of the peacekeepers and local governments of the land and deliver them back dead or alive as needed. Salitore is a veteran of the job, being able to survive alone in the harsh conditions of the Outlands, track his targets and trade unkind words or if needed bullets with those same targets. It's a life that keeps him on the move and with few close friends but it's also a life that Salitore loves as he spends most of his time under a wide open sky doing work that matters. It's also a life that is under threat, because down-at-the-heels nobleman turned-petty-criminal named Nirren has decided to jump to the big leagues. Nirren makes his jump from petty criminal to most wanted man in the Empire by staging a jail break, breaking out thirty-seven of the most dangerous killers, rapists, and thieves in the Empire from a train meant to take them to the Empires hardest jail. If that wasn't enough, Nirren also sent a letter to all the major newspapers declaring he had done so to liberate the Outlands from the rule of the Empire, claiming that the prisoners were just the first in a wave of revolution. Worse than that however? Nirren also claims to the newspapers that Salitore Amazd is in on the scheme. So to protect the people and the land that he loves, Salitore has to figure out just what Nirren is up to, track him and his band of cold blooded killers down and figure out how he's gonna take them out when he does so. It might have been easier if he had just stayed out in the desert honestly.

Luckily Salitore isn't alone in this;  he has the help of Meelo Karn, imperial inquisitor. Inquisitors are not religious figures here but law enforcement officers who have the authority to go anywhere and use any resource while investigating or attempting to stop a crime. They're kinda like an turbo charged FBI. They mostly operate in urban environments but for a threat like this, well sometimes you gotta leave your comfort zone. Meelo Karn is a capable young lady who is a rising star in the Inquisition, being the youngest person ever promoted to her rank, she is, as you might guess, a driven professional who wants to make the world a little safer for other people. While she's not an expert in dealing with wilderness conditions, she can handle herself in a fight and is a skilled investigator. A lot of the book rests on the interaction between Meelo and Salitore; luckily the two characters play off each other rather well. In a kind of a break from modern convention, there's not a lot of quipping humor here but instead straightforward conversation and professionalism carry this relationship. Additionally what personality clashes there are get solved in a reasonable adult manner. This might not sound like a lot but after watching a number of writers drag out interpersonal drama for the sake of padding the story? I kinda enjoy it. It shows that you don't need artificially generated drama and angst to tell a good story. Mr. Florshutz manages to write Meelo and Salitore without making them into unconvincing idealists or turning them into jaded cynics. So instead we get a pair of people who know that there's a lot of bad in the world but there's plenty of good people and good things worth defending and taking satisfaction in their ability to do so.

Meelo's also got her own nemesis in Lady Varay, a crazed serial killer who targets men and carries a grudge against Meelo for catching her and getting her locked away in the first place. Giving Meelo a personal enemy in the group was a good call because it adds a personal element to the struggle. The story is told entirely from Salitore and Meelo's point of view and we never really get a first hand look at the insider of the villain's head. This helps preserves the mystery of what Nirran's plans are and what he's doing but it runs the risk of making the conflict between him and our heroes abstract at times, as they're mostly opposing each other on the grounds of one of them being a pair of law enforcers and another being a career criminal. This could have been a weakness of the book but instead it gives the plot an air of mystery as Salitore and Meelo struggle not just to chase down Nirran and his crew, but to figure out just what it is they think they're doing and how they're going to stop them while outnumbered about twenty to one. Mr. Florshutz also uses a good amount of action and suspense to avoid that, giving both our main characters secrets that they are holding but that he hints to throughout the book using the reveal of each secret to best effect.

The world itself is an interesting one as well. This is a world climbing back from the depths of a dark age so complete that few people remember the past at all. It's a world where people display strange abilities and powers, like being to absorb light and generate it, or sound, or heat, or kinetic energy. Nor are humans the only ones who are developing powers beyond the norm. Creatures like the Chort use their ability to absorb light and sound to aide in their hunting of the native cattle of the Outland, huge creatures that can have up to three pairs of horns and grow larger than a wagon. Mr. Florshutz also does well in showing how such powers would intertwine with technology by giving us steam trains that can run longer and further then they ever could due to men and women called boilers for their ability to absorb and redirect heat. This is taken to extreme degrees with the creation of the gray knights, steam powered one-man mechanical suits that are only made possible by the pilot being a boiler.

There are events outside the immediate story that are commented on and allowed to run alongside the main plot until they pay off. For example we have a running political thread of noble houses feuding with each other in the story taking up space in the newspapers, and the growing rift in the Wander tribes. Natives to the Outlands, some of them are willing to coexist peacefully with settlers like Salitore but others are choosing more violent reactions to the encroachment on their traditional lands. Mr. Florschutz avoids infodumping, instead just seeding information into the story, letting it come up naturally through the plot and having each revelation feed into the next. By building up on each revelation, the reader is able to get a good feel for what is and what is not possible in the world and isn't bogged down by paragraphs explaining details that we don't honestly need to know. The result is a setting that draws you into the story and becomes a character in it's own right.

In Shadow of an Empire, Mr. Florschutz creates a tightly woven story with gun battles, fist fights, and death-defying rides; all in the service of solving a mystery while on horseback. He does this against a background of a harsh but beautiful environment under a hot sun. Despite the temperature change I can't help but feel that much of this is pulled from his earlier life in Alaska, which remains the last bastion of the American Frontier (speaking as an Alaskan… yes.  Yes it is.). There were a couple plot reveals that didn't quite work for me but they didn't bog down the story too much, and I won’t say which ones because I don’t want to spoil the story. For the most part the secrets that are revealed are decently foreshadowed so they don't feel like solutions pulled out of nowhere but aren't so heavily foreshadowed that you find yourself wanting him to just get on with it. It's a very different book from Colony and shows that Mr. Florschutz is capable of a good amount of flexibility in his writing and I look forward to seeing what else he can bring to the table in the future. I will note that Shadow of an Empire is a good bit shorter than Colony and they are both only available on Kindle at the moment. Hopefully we can see him arrive in print someday. Shadow of an Empire by Mr. Florschutz gets an A-.

Next week, upon your request readers, the book that led to many a childhood trauma. Watership Down. Keep Reading!

If you would like to see my review of Colony by Max Florshutz click the link below!

Friday, July 6, 2018

1776 By David McCullough

By David McCullough

Perseverance and Spirit have done wonders in all ages.
General George Washington.

We've reviewed books about the American Revolutionary War before on this series; in 2016 we reviewed Fullisers (recommended to me be a reader of this review series!) and back in 2015 we reviewed George Washington Military Genius (another recommendation!). This year, given the difficulties the country seems to be facing, I thought it right to review a book detailing perhaps the single hardest year of the nation's life. That being the first year of 1776 when the nation was officially born and nearly strangled in its crib. Let me talk a bit about David McCullough first.

Mr. McCullough was born in Pittsburgh Philadelphia in 1933, on July 7th, so first let me wish him a happy early birthday. He began attending Yale University in 1951 and graduated in 1955 with a degree in English Literature. He harbored ambitions of becoming a playwright or fiction writer and served apprenticeships at Time, Life, the United States Information Agency and American Heritage and was eventually hired by Sports Illustrated. During this period he married his wife Rosalee, who he met when they were 17, they are still together and have five children and nineteen grandchildren. Mr. McCullough, at this point working for American Heritage, was writing in his spare time (for three years) and his first book the Johnstown Flood was published in 1968 to high praise. He decided to become a full time writer and we have all reaped the benefits ever since. Mr. McCullough has received the Pulitzer prize twice, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and more awards than I could really list in this review without sacrificing space for the book. All in all Mr. McCullough has contributed greatly to people's understanding of history through his writings and for that I am thankful. Now let's get to the book.

The book as you might imagine covers the year of 1776, for those of my readers not from the Anglo-sphere, that is the year that the United States of America declared its independence from the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Before then the original thirteen states of my home nation were colonies ruled from London. I won't go into the arguments that compelled my founding fathers to rebel against King and Country, save to say that they were hotly debated issues in America and England and provoked powerful emotions. Powerful enough that certain words that couldn't be taken back were exchange and on the heels of those words, we began to exchange bullets. The British Government led by King George III resolved that what was needed was to use armed force to hammer the rebels back into line, feeling that to compromise at this point would only inflame greater demands. In addition was the belief that if a show of force wasn't made right then, that there would be a fight later as groups like the Sons of Liberty would continue pushing for independence. The Continental Congress was resolved that while they didn't want a fight, if it meant protecting their natural rights as free men, they were gonna fight. The British Army started out the year in Boston, and as if summoned out of the aether by magic, armed rebel companies gathered to put the British redcoats to siege. The Battle of Bunker Hill had just happened and emotions are high but emotions alone don't win wars.

Mr. McCullough takes some time to review the nature of the armies present here. The fact that the Rebel army, not quite yet the Continental Army of legend and near myth was made up of mostly New England volunteers and basically a collection of amateurs is fully displayed here. Most of them were volunteer companies who simply showed up for the siege of Boston. They had elected officers and no supply chain, and were organized by colonial origin. So you had companies from New York, brigades from Delaware, platoons from Pennsylvania and so on and so forth. Additionally Mr. McCullough takes pains to point out that while most of the British Troops were not yet combat veterans at this point, they were still professionals. They were uniformed, well armed and by the standards of the day very well trained. On top of this they were led by a professional officer corps, many of whom were veterans with experience in war. In short everything the American army wasn't. While George Washington had been appointed in command, he had not been a soldier for years and even then his record, while not awful, wasn't anything stellar either. General Washington's officer corps was also made up of men who for the most part had never fought in battle. Mr. McCullough is careful to introduce us to the officers on both sides as these are for the most part the men who will be either creating the Continental Army, slowly forging it into an instrument that while maybe not the tactical equal of the British will be at least capable of fighting the British Army and achieving victories in the field at the end. On the other side are the men who were fighting at the end of an extremely long supply chain in a foreign land, and were charged with the difficult task of ending the rebellion and returning British rule to the 13 colonies without starting a cycle of constant uprising and insurgency.

The book covers the Boston campaign, where the Americans and British would each in turn besiege and occupy Boston. It's during this we meet men such as Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene, as well as officers that you likely never heard of in your history class. That said, I think Nathaniel Greene and Henry Knox make good examples of the general run of colonial officers. Both these men were still young men, with no experience in warfare or in commanding large groups of men. Despite that they are able to rise to high rank and high responsibility based on their willingness to work and sacrifice to get that work done. Course they had to do a lot of on the job learning which led to spectacular successes, driven by the fact that no one told them what they were trying to do was impossible. As well as rather obvious failures, also driven by the fact that they weren't entirely sure what was possible and what wasn't. We're given a good example of this in Henry Knox, whose family situation also serves as a microcosm of what America as a whole was going through. Henry Knox was a self made man, the eldest son who when his father died turned to working to support his family at the age of twelve (this is a common refrain in the colonial ranks, including George Washington's father, who died when the General was eleven). He worked up to owning his own book store which ended up being a fashionable hang out for loyalist Americans and his wife was the daughter (Lucy Flucker) of a noted Loyalist family. His brother in law served in the British Army and after the war, his in laws fled to England and never returned. Henry Knox's fortunes were sealed by his expedition to Ticonderoga. On Henry's suggestion George Washington sent him to steal some cannons from a pair of British forts and bring them back to Boston. In the dead of winter. Using wooden, ox drawn wagons and sleds. The cannons weighted 60 tons and the distance was 300 miles. If you're not sure why this is a big deal, I invite you to load down your car with as many heavy objects as possible, drive it off road and then try to push it uphill for 3 miles.

The battles for New York and Long Island are also covered. More attention is paid to the American side of things than the British side but there still plenty of care put on both, detailing things such as on the British side General Howe and General Clinton's inability to get along. There's also some social gossip such as General Howe's supposed affair with Mrs. Elizabeth Loring. It's here that we see how much George Washington had to learn as frankly the American forces are shown being outsmarted, out-maneuvered and out fought by the British. General Washington's forces weren't just pushed out of New York without putting up much of a fight, they were also chased clear across New Jersey by the British without managing to win any major battles and losing the vast majority of the minor ones. Mr. McCullough doesn't try to marginalize this, he is very clear in showing just how vastly superior British Arms were in 1776. At this point it shouldn't be a surprise though. While modern Americans may be justly smug in their claim to having the best logistical system on the planet and honestly pretty much of all of human history; in the Revolutionary War our logistics, that is the system of getting supplies to soldiers, was so awful that the British were getting their powder, uniforms and weapons shipped across an ocean and they were still better supplied than us. So the American Troops were clothed in rags, had next to no ammo, a shortage of weapons, boots, firewood and basically a shortage of every needed supply except enemies. Add in that many troops had only volunteered for short periods and hadn't been paid for a large chunk of their enlistments. The fact that Washington held the army together as an operational force, while constantly avoiding contact with a better supplied and trained army, in the middle of winter in New England and New Jersey.... Well despite having constant tactical loses and failures, General Washington still comes out looking like an amazing leader of men.

That said the book does end on a high note if you're an American Patriot, with the battle of Trenton. Needing a victory, after being chased out of two colonies and having lost Boston and New York City Washington elected to attack across the Delaware river on Christmas striking at an isolated post of Hessians. Hessians were German mercenaries hired by King George III to help bring his armies up to strength. The book discusses them in greater length but I will note for the record that the Hessians were not popular with the Americans and often accused of war crimes (most often of killing surrendering rebel troops, which the British do seem to confirm, if not as commonly as Americans accuse). For that matter British officers were also prone to accusing the Hessians of war crimes, especially when parts of New Jersey went up flames and was looted by the British forces. Anyways Trenton helped maintain faith in the Revolution at a time when everything seemed grim and Mr. McCullough walks us through it and the aftermath of the battle.

The book only focuses on a single year, so if you're looking for a general text on the Revolutionary war, this isn't it. It does however give a good look at what may have been the grimmest year in our history and lets us see how close we came to having the Republic snuffed out in the very year of its birth. It's an appreciation for the challenges we've faced in the past I find that helps us maintain faith in the future. If you're looking for a book that focuses on part of the Revolution or you're interested in seeing the first brutal lessons that shaped the Continental Army and George Washington... Then this is the book for you. 1776 by David McCullough gets an A from me.

Next week we return to fiction. Keep reading.

Other reviews about the Revolutionary War:

Friday, June 29, 2018

Black Wings By Von Hardesty

Black Wings

By Von Hardesty

Von Hardesty was born in 1939 in Byesville Ohio. He graduated from Bluffton college in 1961, received a Master's degrees in 1964 from Case Western Reserve University and a PhD from Ohio State University in 1974. He currently works as a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. and has written a good number of goods about aeronautic history. Today we review his book Black Wings. I picked up the book thinking it would give me a bigger overview over the experiences of Black pilots in the US military and civilian world. I include it in World War II month because the Tuskegee Airmen are the central line of the book. Although I should admit the book starts much earlier and ends later.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was a growing power on the world stage. World War I was over, the economy was shifting into high gear and people were secure in the promise of peace and prosperity. We were also a nation mired in racial ignorance and bigotry where most of our non-white citizens were both literally and metaphorically forced to the back of the bus (To be absolutely clear, slavery through the practice of “Convict Leasing” was also alive and well. Black people in the south would be arrested on bogus charges, convicted by an all-white jury, and then using the 13th Amendment’s criminal punishment exemption, sold up the river for the duration of their sentence. In addition, black people were also found in default of fabricated debts and put into illegal debtors prison, and subsequently convict-leased. This was a thing until FDR cracked down on it in the 1940s. Now we have private prisons and if I don’t shut up Frigid is going to hit me.). To be an African American at the time was to live under open Jim Crow laws in the South and de facto segregation in the North backed by popular opinion and the constant threat of violence in both places. Despite that African Americans managed to build businesses, own homes and achieve historical milestones, often while struggling under burdens massively greater then the rest of the populace. Manned flight was one of those areas. The American public black, white, and otherwise was enthralled with the exploits of pilots and aircraft and why not? Thanks to the Wright Brothers, a pair of bicycle mechanics with an unyielding obsession, powered heavier than air flight was an American achievement. A material event that we could point to as a sign of our progress as a people and a nation. We had found a way to fight gravity and win and a number of African Americans felt that if they could take part in such an achievement it could only help break down barriers.

The vast majority of flight clubs would not train black men or women to become pilots. However there was an elite cadre of men and women who weren’t going to let that stop them. Bessie Coleman, America's first black woman pilot for example, went to France and got a Federation Aeronautique Internationale license, she attended a flight school in the north of France in the Somme region and graduated in June 15th 1921. She returned to America and became a barnstormer. Barnstormers were stunt pilots, named because the first ones operated out of barns and any other structure big enough to hold an aircraft. They would perform aerial stunts for crowds in an early version of today's air shows. Bessie would struggle for funding until her all-too-early death in 1926 as a possible patron took her for a flight and the plane stalled and crashed. There were others however, such as businesses owner, World War I veteran William Powell Jr. William Powell had been a Lt. in the 317th engineer regiment and 365th infantry regiment and had been gassed on the very last day of the war. He would open the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in L.A, which was open to both sexes and all races in a time and place where most air clubs were white men only. Unfortunately the gassing he suffered led to him having to retire due to medical issues and he would pass away in 1942. As you can see the book shows a pattern of African American leaders rising up, accomplishing great things and then, dying or having to pass on the torch. While early flight was dangerous and many pilots of the time died in accidents, a good amount of these are because African American pilots of the time were often forced to fly old planes that even under the best maintenance weren't very dependable, or not fly at all. That said I do have to point out that even new aircraft with top of the line maintenance at this point in time weren't very dependable or sturdy. The simple fact of the matter was that flying, especially flight so near the limits of the aircraft's performance, was incredibly dangerous at the time and many pilots paid for their daring with their lives. (Smaller aircraft in general are like that. Modern commercial jets have all kinds of safety features built in and they’re designed within an inch of the lives of hundreds of engineers. Smaller craft… less so.)

As the 1920s passed into the 1930s however African American pilots kept pushing against the barriers. James Banning became the first black man in America to get a pilot license from the Department of Commerce. No flight school would teach him so he used his own money to buy a plane and hired a WWI pilot to teach him how to fly. In 1932, he decided to attempt a transcontinental flight across the United States becoming the first black pilot to fly coast to coast. Today that doesn't seem to mean much as someone can fly coast to coast in hours but back then? It took days. James Banning's flight took 22 days and he logged in 41 hours in the air. Sadly he would die in 1933 on a return flight as the plane stalled out and crashed. This wasn't due to pilot error but due to the fact that the plane was old because Banning had little in the way of financial support. However there were others to pick up the torch. Alfred Anderson and Albert Forsythe would fly the first transcontinental round trip by black pilots. Alfred Anderson (known by his nickname Chief Anderson that he picked up in World War II) learned to pilot by relentless effort, since it was difficult to find anyone willing to teach a black man how to fly, he worked as an airplane mechanic and bought his own plane, renting it out to pilots in exchange for lessons. He and Forsythe would gain attention for their flights across the US and Canada even embarking on a Pan-American goodwill tour in their plane that they had named the Booker T Washington. Anderson was recruited to serve as a flight instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen (see I told you there was World War II stuff in here). It was here he meet Eleanor Roosevelt who was touring the base and on her suggestion took her on a flight. As a result First Lady Roosevelt would remain a steadfast supporter of the “Tuskegee experiment.” (She was so awesome)

Let's talk about that for a moment. US military policy had become inherently racist in the 1930s, with different studies claiming that black men were unfit for anything but menial labor (Racism had, by this time, fully merged with the Eugenics that was popular at the time into an extra special American Racist Voltron, and America had insane bullshit like Beautiful White Baby contests. We also sterilized our own Mindervertige. By which I of course mean the disabled and people of color.) and were incapable of leadership (black women weren't considered for membership in the armed forces). As a result of this only 2% of the military was made up of African Americans (Who can blame them? Would you want to join an organization that declared you fit only for service as a human mule?) However by 1939 Congress created the Civil Pilot Training Program and opened segregated classes to pilot candidates, before the program there had been less than 50 African American pilots in the US, by 1940 there were 231. With war raging in and across three continents and three oceans, it was becoming clear to the government that there was no way to avoid being involved. It was also clear that if we were going to win, we would have to stop wasting talent.  Executive Order 8802 established the Tuskegee Army Air Base for the training of black fighter pilots in July of 1941. Benjamin O Davis Jr, the eventual commander of the unit, enrolled. He had graduated West Point in 1936, despite being shunned by his white classmates and had grown up in the army, being the son of the army's only black general. His professionalism and knowledge of army culture were assets in the face of a military that really preferred that his unit quietly and quickly disappear forever. They faced many barriers, for example despite being officers they were denied the same treatment as white officers, for example being banned from officer’s clubs (Of course they were…). This led to a mutiny as a over 100 black officers would attempt to enter the Freemen Fields Officer club and were arrested. Three were court martialed but only one was convicted. Additionally there were issues in the civilian towns around the bases, in one town for example the laundry would refuse to wash black pilots clothes while happily washing the clothes of German POWs... (I mean… it’s Tuskegee. The Klan and the Nazis were reading from the same racist hymnal. I mean, in the same town they had a bunch of civilian black men under Government Orders to not get treated for syphilis because they were part of an experiment on the progression of the disease in black men. Ironically enough, because the doctor leading the study was trying to prove that white and black men were identical in that respect. For some reason *coughcough* racism*coughcough* that was a controversial position to take. )

Despite that the 99th Fighter Squadron deployed to Europe in 1943, they arrived in April. Their first combat mission was in June. Their first air victory was in July. By the beginning of 1944 they were achieving 7 to 1 kill ratios against German aircraft. Among other achievements, they also have the first enemy destroyer sunk by machine gun fire. Additionally, they flew combat missions in the battle of Monte Cassino (which you may remember from our last review). By the end of February, three more squadrons for African American pilots were created and in combat operations. In May of 1944 they were assigned to escorting bomber raids into Germany, Poland, Hungary and other targets. The 99th Squadron became part of the 332nd Fighter group and while on escort duty they would adopt the distinctive red tail paint job that they would be known by. Of the 179 escort missions they flew, they lost bombers on seven missions for a total of 27 lost bombers on their watch. The average lost for other units was 46 bombers in the same time period. In grand total they would fly 1578 combat missions, shooting down 112 enemy aircraft and destroying an additional 150 on the ground. Of the 992 pilots trained at Tuskegee Army Air Base, 322 would see combat, 84 would be killed in combat or in accidents and an additional 32 captured by enemy forces. They would receive a number of meritorious citations as a unit and individual pilots also received a number of awards. With 96 Distinguished flying crosses awarded, 14 bronze stars, 8 purple hearts and 1 silver star. In 1948, President Truman would sign Executive Order 9981 abolishing racial discrimination in the armed forces and leading to the end of racial segregation in the US military. Three of the Tuskegee airmen would go on to become generals in the US Air Force including the first African American Air Force General Daniel James Jr.

Unfortunately this wasn't the end of the struggle. While the Tuskegee airmen found themselves in heavy demand as instructors and commanders after the War, at least in the Air Force, in the civilian world the emerging airlines were less than thrilled at the idea of hiring black pilots. Marlon Green, an airforce pilot with 3000 hours in the air applied to Continental Airlines in 1957 and was rejected. He sued and in a battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, won in 1963. By 1976 there were 81 African American commercial pilots. NASA also proved a struggle, with Edward Dwight the first African American candidate being rejected, NASA officials would maintain that he had been rejected because those approved had scored higher than him but suspicion of racial basis would linger. The next candidate Robert Lawrence would die in a crash while training in the Air Force program. However Guion “Guy” Bluford, a Vietnam vet with 4,600 hours in the air would not only become the first Black Astronaut but he would log 688 hours in space while serving in the Space Shuttle program.

Black Wings gives us a full view of the struggles faced by African Americans who simply wanted to fly planes and be treated like actual citizens of their country. The triumphs and tragedy of that long struggle through the 20th century serve as a reminder of our nations shortcomings and its ability to rise above itself and become something better. The book itself provides a good, if somewhat short, overview of this history and provides a good number of photos and biographical information on the many larger than life personalities and heroes of the time. There are many more than I spoke about in the review. It's a good introductory text and I would recommend it if you haven't really looked into this area of history before. That said it's not an in-depth study of the subject and by trying to cover the whole 20th century in under 200 pages, it's a more of an overview than anything else. Black Wings by Von Hardesty still gets an A- however.

Next week, we celebrate American Independence with 1776! Keep reading.

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen, who provided all text in red.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents By Dr. Norman Davies

Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents
By Dr. Norman Davies

In the year 410 BC, 10,000 Greek mercenaries were trapped in Persia. They marched and fought their way back to Greece from deep inside a hostile empire. The book “The Anabasis” remains a classic of history and military literature for it's examples of courage, determination, and loyalty. It is not surprising I think that the greatest and most epic war in human history would produce a mass movement of armed men and their dependents on an even larger scale and for larger stakes. Let's talk about our writer first.

Dr. Davies was born on the 8th of June 1939 in Bolton Lancashire, in the United Kingdom. He would study in France in 1957 and 1958 before returning to England and earning a BA in history from Oxford in 1962. He would attain a Masters Degree from the University of Sussex in 1967. He attempted to attend university in the Soviet Union to earn his PhD but was denied an entry Visa (Which boggles my mind. “Hi, we’re the USSR. We don’t want a western academic to come and study our history from our perspective/to be propagandized and readily turned into an agent by us” makes little sense. I suppose they were worried he was already a spy?), so instead went to communist Poland. There he researched the Polish-Soviet war; a difficult undertaking given that the stance of the government at the time was that it had never happened, because talking about the time Poles successfully resisted Soviet invasion would have been a tad inconvenient for a Soviet client state. Because of this he entitled his dissertation “British Foreign Policy towards Poland 1919-1920.” Once he had his PhD in his hands, he rushed back to the United Kingdom and published the English translation as “White Eagle, Red Star” a history of the Polish-Soviet War. He than taught Polish history at the University College in London as well as serving as a Supernumerary Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford.

His career isn't without controversy. In 1986 he was denied tenure at Stanford in a 12 to 11 vote. Dr. Davies sued, claiming that his politics played a role in the vote and while there does appear to be something to that, the lawsuit was dismissed. It was found that the politics in question were relevant to the position and classes in question. His opponents at the time accused him of being insensitive to the suffering of the Jewish people and unacceptably defensive of Poles. Part of that was his focus on the suffering of non-Jewish Poles in the holocaust and some of it seems to be his willingness to point out Soviet crimes against the Poles but let's turn to the book.

In September 1st, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded the Republic of Poland, kicking off the European Theater of WWII. What is often not really covered however is the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17th (Bit inconvenient, as we would become allies of the USSR and bargain away Poland despite the Polish Home Army and doing a pretty good job resisting the Nazis and despite Polish pilots in exile helping defend Great Britain… Best to just ignore the whole mess of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.). This action rendered Poland indefensible as it was now fighting a two front war against two powers with vastly greater industrial strength and manpower (a situation that the Nazis would come to know intimately in the future, suggesting that karma sometimes does occur) and the Polish government ordered all troops in the field to attempt to escape to Romania if at all possible. Most of the army wouldn't make it. The Nazi marched into western Poland and proceeded to inflict their vile ideology on the people there, as we saw in Maus. The Soviets were no less determined to destroy the native culture of their slice of Poland and wipe out entire classes of people, although where the Nazis used racist pseudoscience, the Soviets would use Stalinist pseudo-sociology. Out of the 15 million Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and others living in the 77,612 square miles that the Soviets annexed somewhere between 1 to 2 million of them would be deported. Additionally all Churches and Synagogues were closed, all Polish organizations disbanded, all privately held land was seized and schools and universities were forced to teach Russian mandated education. The laws of the democratically elected Polish government were declared null and void. These people were not fans of Russia or of communism, their experiences coming from a combination of having been invaded by the USSR in 1919 and living under the yoke of the Russian Empire. The USSR was determined to bring them to heel however. The Soviets focused on 5 groups: The first group were “illegal immigrants” made up pretty much of people fleeing the Nazis (many of them Jews). The second were Polish soldiers, officers were especially targeted with 22,000 of them disappearing permanently. The third group were the “social criminals” these were learned or well connected people could form the basis of resistance, this meant all civil servants (police, firefighters, teachers, etc), native politicians (including local communists), railwaymen, groundskeepers, professional hunters, engineers, architects, landowners. managers, business owners, linguists, and former aristocrats (the Polish Republic had abolished nobility.). The fourth group were the family and close friends of any of the above, women, small children, the elderly, etc. Families often found themselves broken up, with children split off from their parents with neither of them likely to see each other again. I imagine this may sound strangely topical to some of my readers. While I prefer to just review the damn books here, I feel given the current events in the Year of our Lord 2018, I am forced to comment. It is a terrible thing to split apart a family, children should be taken away from their parents if they are being abused or neglected by those parents. To tear them apart as a punishment is a vile act and to try to justify this with half a Bible verse is a show of amoral mania that renders one unfit for office in a free nation. My editor is an atheist but I am a Christian and the child of two pastors (And yet, I know the Bible better than Jeff Sessions…And several other holy books.). I am not only unimpressed but would remind you that if your actions echo those of a militant totalitarian power that it may be time to ask yourself just what the hell you think you're doing. I apologize for this unpleasant divergence and we'll return to the book now. The last category of people ripped from their homes were... Random victims. The NKVD officers conducting this were given a quota and in true Soviet fashion, shoddy out of date records with which to find their victims. Knowing that the penalty for failure would be to take the place of the Poles they were hunting the NKVD would at times simply grab anyone who was nearby and take them away.

Each of these five groups were subjected to show trails, where they were not informed of the charges and allowed no defense. The punishment was always the same. Exile to the remote reaches of the Soviet Union. This was not the first or the last group that the Soviet Union did this to; Stalin specifically was fond of taking troublesome groups and flinging them thousands of miles from their homes into extreme and underdeveloped regions as if he was some modern day Assyrian Emperor. Thousands of Poles would die on route as they were barely fed and transported in box cars with standing room only (Common motif in WW2). Thousands more Poles would be worked to death in camps in Central Asia, or near the Arctic or on the western edge of Siberia. The fate of the exiles seemed grim, but everything changed when the Nazis attacked. Stalin opened communications with the western allies, among them the Polish Government in Exile,and a deal was worked out. The Polish prisoners would be released in an “Amnesty” in exchange a Polish army under Polish Officers but Russian central command would be raised from among the prisoners to fight the Nazis. General Wladyslaw Anders, currently rotting in a NKVD prison cell was chosen to lead the army, one moment he was wondering when his execution was going to occur and the next the NKVD had pulled him out of a cell, given him a hot shower and clean clothes, a hot meal and asked if he would like to be a Polish General again. Let's meet our army commander.

General Wladyslaw Anders was born in 1892 to polinized Germans. This was when Poland was still divided under the rule of the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires. When he was a teen he was recruited by Russian General impressed with the skilled horsemanship and courage he showed in controlling a pair of bolting horses. He would serve in the Tsar's armies in the first World War and resign to join the Polish Army when Poland declared independence. He fought with some distinction in the Polish-Soviet War and sided with the Republican government during the coup of 1926. His division was fighting the Nazis and was working to evade them and escape into Romania when captured by the Soviets. His battles were honestly just beginning as the process of recruiting and mustering an army from the Polish captives of the USSR would prove to a campaign in and of itself.

The Soviet Union was under massive assault at this point, with Leningrad under siege and powerful Nazi armies pushing deeper and deeper into Russia. Combined with the sheer indifference that the Soviets had for the Polish prisoners meant that little provision was made for transporting and caring for the people who at this point had suffered roughly 2 years of hard labor and near starvation. Many Poles found themselves once again riding boxcars with standing room only. Others, when they heard of the amnesty, were literally thrown out of their labor camps on the tundra and told to get walking. NKVD officials at every step looked for every way to stop or slow those heading to join the army. Walk they did though, a torrent of humanity over a hundred thousand strong heading towards the mustering point in central asia. Even for those who reached the recruitment center, the troubles weren't over. The NKVD, the internal security force of the Soviet Union which served as counter intelligence, secret police, and public law enforcement rolled up in one, was intent on enforcing the idea of Soviet sovereignty over the Polish areas they had conquered. One tactic they adopted was trying to restrict who the Polish Army could recruit. Declaring that only ethnic Poles were allowed and others, such as Jews, Ukrainians and Belarusians were forbidden. The Jewish declaration became a heavy point of contention as NKVD officers would often claim to Jewish men and women that it was a declaration that came from the Polish high command not the Soviet Union. Despite that 5000 Jewish soldiers were enrolled and 5 rabbis recruited, that said accusations of antisemitism would dog the Polish Army for the rest of it days and the officers of that army til they died. There likely were, if we're going to be honest, a good number of anti-Semites in the army, Poland was frankly full of anti-Jewish bigots after all, as well as having people who were sympathetic to the Jewish people. Some Jewish troops did report ill treatment, while others reported not being treated any differently than any other soldier. So it wouldn't shock me if there were officers who were more happy than others to comply with the order and others who rejected it entirely. In the end when the Army reached Palestine many of the Jewish troops would desert (2/3rds out of the 5000) some went to join British units, others joined the active Zionist paramilitary groups that were mustering in expectation of having to fight either the Arabs or possibly the Nazis if things went really badly. General Anders to his credit held his ground and demanded that the right of enlisted be given to all people who were Polish citizens in 1939 and did so to Stalin's face. Additionally he gave the order that Jewish deserters were to be allowed to go their way in peace, reasoning that if they felt the cause of a Jewish homeland strong enough, or were convinced that they couldn't get fair treatment in the army, it would be better to part on as friendly terms as possible. As if this wasn't enough the army was often starved of supplies because even supplies donated strictly for the Poles use were often stolen by Russians. The revelation that thousands of Polish officers had been murdered by the Russians in Katyn forest was the breaking point making it impossible for the Poles to fight under Russian command. Instead the Polish Army was re-dubbed Polish II Corps and sent to Iran to fight under British command where they would see action in the Italy campaign.

The escape to Iran and movement through the middle east was challenging but widely celebrated, because for the Poles this was considered nothing less than an escape from bondage. The civilian dependents (along with thousands of orphans and Polish civilians who walked from the arctic to Iran to escape the Soviet Union) would be scattered to refuges in Africa, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and India. The troops would move from Iran, to Iraq, Palestine, Egypt and finally Italy. Where they fought in the battle of Monte Cassino leading the Fourth and final assault on the abbey that after having been reduced to rubble by an American bombing run, was fortified by the Germans and anchored the defense of Rome. Three times the allies had attacked and been driven off with heavy casualties for light German loses. The Polish II Corps would fight through heavy German artillery bombardment and take the abbey and the mountain it rested on, raising the Polish flag on May 17th of 1944. They would go on to carry out a number of offensives in Northern Italy gaining high praise from Allied command. However in 1945 with the announcement of Poland becoming part of the Soviet sphere. An act many of them felt was a betrayal by the Western Allies who accepted the Soviet announcement and even spread Soviet propaganda that the Polish Army was a band of secret fascist trouble makers looking to undermine the peaceful and freedom loving Soviet Union (That’s because it was a betrayal{Perhaps but what we were going to do, fight our way through 13 million angry Russians when Europe was already a ruin?}). Most of the members of the army would never get to go home; they would spend the rest of their days in exile in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Others would come to the United States or other nations to build new lives but always knowing that their homeland was under foreign rule and occupation because the Polish People's Republic was a puppet state of the Soviet Union. While the Polish People's Republic would invite the enlisted soldiers back, very few took up the invite. Of the ones that did, many were arrested, given a show trial and declared traitors to the Polish people and jailed or killed. General Anders himself would die in 1970 stripped of his Polish citizenship and rank, a member of the Polish government in exile. He never saw Poland freed of Soviet influence and was buried in Italy, among the dead Polish troops of the battle of Monte Cassino.

Trail of Hope is a massive book at almost 600 pages. Dr. Davies uses a combination of first hand accounts from interviews of the survivors, as well as their children and grandchildren. He also used dairies, journals, as well as official and unofficial army documents dating from the time. He does seem to avoid using Soviet sources and while he never directly addresses that, he gives the impression that he considers them untrustworthy. Frankly I don't think he's wrong (Depends on which ones. The inaccuracies are often more in what’s missing than what’s in the official documents. Also narrative. But if you want to know how many people died in a given Gulag in a given year, you’re probably fine…). The book is also filled with a large number of photos taken by members of the army and others showing the troops, children, and others in a variety of day to day settings. Additionally he scouted out the trail that the army and many of its followers marched. Going into modern day Russia, Iran, through the middle east and into Italy. There he hunted down and spoke to natives who interacted with the Polish army, or found the children of Polish civilians who intermarried and stayed behind. Dr. Davies focuses more on the movement of the army to Italy and doesn't really cover the battle of Monte Cassino in depth, feeling there are plenty of other histories that do so. There are stories of heartbreak, such as the Polish orphans sent to New Zealand, many of whom would stay there because they dared not trust the Soviet Union, who to them was the entity that devoured their entire families with no trace. Even today their grandchildren and great grandchildren live as citizens of New Zealand and remember. There are humorous stories such as the story of Wojtek, the soldier bear taught to carry artillery shells and brought from Iran to Italy as a mascot. Wojtek ended his days comfortably in the Edinburgh zoo, visited by his fellow veterans (Best Bear Ever. He loved cigarettes. Not smoking them of course, but eating them). He even has a beer named after him. I tried to find some in Phoenix but I am sad to say it doesn't seem to be sold in the Western United States. There are romances, as General Anders met his second wife who traveled with the army as part of the entertainment division. They married after the war and remained married until his death. This is, in the west at least, a long forgotten part of World War II that deserves to be remembered. It's a stunning logistical achievement and a testament to the determination and courage that normal people can display in abnormal times. Trail of Hope: The Anders Army, An Odyssey Across Three Continents By Dr. Norman Davies gets an A from me. Give it a look.

So this was a long review but thanks for sticking it out with me! Next week we'll be covering Black wings which talks about Black pilots in the US. Afterwards we'll cover 1776, and we'll be covering an independent author book Shadow of an Empire with the last two weeks in July being given over to Watership Down (the book) and the French Canadian cartoon that was created afterwards, as this was requested by a pair of readers of this review.

Keep Reading!

This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Maus Part II: And here my troubles began By Art Spiegelman

Maus Part II: And here my troubles began

By Art Spiegelman

Last week we talked about Mr. Spiegelman, this week I would like to talk about another person who was heavily involved in the making of this graphic novel: Francoise Mouly, Mr. Spiegelman's wife, editor; and for the all but the very last chapter of Maus, his publisher. Mrs. Mouly was born in Paris, France in the year 1955. She was the daughter of a plastic surgeon who pioneered a method of breast reduction and currently lives in New York with her husband Art. When she was 13, she lived through the intense social upheaval of May 1968 in Paris and this heavily influenced her politics as she grew up. She entered the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the 1970 to study architecture but was unhappy doing so. So in 1974 she headed off to New York City. While in New York she mostly did odd jobs and worked on her English, she met Art Speigelman but neither of them were really interested in the other until she read his underground comix work “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” which moved her to call him. They proceeded to have an 8 hour phone conservation. When she went back to France to finish her degree, Art went with her. When they returned in 1977, they married to solve the Visa problems she was having. She would help her husband with a collection of his Breakdown strips when the printer botched it completely, with 30% of the run being utterly unusable. At this point she decided she would control the printing process to ensure it was done right. She founded Raw Books and Comics, where Maus would first be published, in 1978. It's goal was to provide an outlet for younger creators who didn't fit the current mold or European creators who were trying to get their work into the US. By the end of the 1980s Penguin books would take on publishing duties. But let's get to Maus II.

Francoise makes her appearance in this part of the graphic novel, as Volume II is more meta-fictional than Volume I in a lot of ways but I'll address that in a bit. Maus II starts off with Vladek and Anja being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau; a place that’s become a byword for horror and evil in a multitude of languages because of what was done there. In the interests of completion I will briefly touch on it anyways (If he didn’t I would. Still will. Weil, nie wieder.). Auschwitz-Birkenau was a complex of concentration and extermination camps. First built to hold Polish political prisoners, it opened in May of 1940 (at the site of an old Polish Army training base), by September of 1941 it was being used to murder people in large numbers (mostly through working them to death at that stage.). Upon the formal adoption of so-called Final Solution (after the conference at Wannsee), from 1942 to 1944 it was the center of a vast logistical network that transported people from across Europe to be killed, mostly by use of Zyklon B, crystallized hydrogen cyanide that sublimated into gas. (I feel like the history of this particular gas is important. Ironically enough it was invented by a Jew, Fritz Haber. Some of you might remember him for his Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing the Haber-Bosch Process: the catalytic synthesis of ammonia from hydrogen and atmospheric nitrogen, for use as fertilizer. We still use that process. However, he was a hard-core German patriot during WW1. This is the sad contrast between Jews Living in Poland and German Jews at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, before the Nazis. His love for his country became an obsession and he became the father of chemical warfare, inventing the process by which chlorine gas was synthesized and developing gas masks. On it went, in an arms race with fellow Laureate the French chemist Victor Grignard, until millions were dead or disfigured by their grotesque inventions. His wife Clara, also a chemist, committed suicide in protest of his twisting chemistry to murder. His research institute invented Zyklon A which was later developed into Zyklon B as a fumigant insecticide. Fritz was thanked for his obsessive patriotism during the Nazi rise to power by being forced to flee the country for his life. He died in Switzerland on his way to Mandate Palestine in 1934.) Other methods included torture, starvation, being killed individually by guards, refusal of medical treatment, and working people to death (Don’t forget environmental exposure, dehydration, human experimentation, and being put in conditions so cramped and unsanitary that communicable diseases like Typhus, Typhoid, and Cholera were rampant). In two years, over 1.3 million people would be transported there with 1.1 million dying on the site and only 144 people successfully managing an escape from the camp while it was operational. While Jews made up the majority of people sent here, there were also Poles (about 150,000), Romani and Sinti (23,000), Soviet Prisoners of War (15,000), Jehovah Witnesses (400) and Homosexuals (number unknown). Men, Women and Children were all sent here and disappeared without mercy into the ovens used to reduce their bodies to ashes (Also mass graves. The crematoria were the product of about a year of experimentation into body disposal, using the prisoners themselves as manual labor.). The camp would continue operations until the Soviets were nearly in shelling range, it was then that the Germans marched the prisoners out of the camp and force-marched them to Germany. I'm going to point out that this was the end of 1944; it was clear that the war was lost, Western Forces were liberating France, the Soviets had passed Warsaw... And the Nazis were still determined to kill every Jew, Gay, Romani and so on that they could. If you need a minute after reading this, that's okay, I needed a minute after writing it. (And I’ve wept a couple times between this week and last. There is no shame in that. The Shoah and the larger Holocaust are just that fucking awful.)

Vladek and Anja were sent into the maw of this hell pit during it's last year of operation. Here we can see the trauma that cemented so many of the behaviors that torment his son later in life. Vladek had to work furiously just to survive, he had to bend every skill and ounce of cunning he had to just keep breathing one more day in a place designed to kill him as humiliatingly as possible. Not only that but he had to constantly work to find ways just to stay in contact with his wife Anja, as well as helping her whenever it was possible. That said Vladek doesn't do this by screwing over other people; there are times when he helps the people around him. Getting shoes that fit for a friend by charming a Polish Kapo into helping him in exchange for English lessons, for example. By staying alert and grabbing at every chance he could get Vladek managed to survive another day, which in Auschwitz was an amazing achievement. Nor were they alone; throughout Vladek's account we see many people trying to do just one decent act before they’re murdered, whether it be an unknown Polish Priest (I am reminded of Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of a Polish Army sergeant named Franciszek Gajowniczek who was picked at random with ten others after several men escaped the camp. Maximilian Kolbe is now the patron saint of political prisoners.) who comforts and consoles Vladek before he was killed, or Mancie, a Hungarian Jewish girl who ran messages between Vladek and Anja. We also see many petty cruelties that serve no purpose but to amuse the people performing them. It's a grim story but one full of people who refused to be ground down and made into animals. I won't say they kept their dignity but I will say that they kept their humanity (I’d say they’re the same thing). It's here that we see why Vladek is the way he is, he is a miserly, neurotic, and miserable old man in a lot of ways, (who manages to be pretty racist against African Americans) a man whose actions and words often torment his son and his own wife. He survived--not thrived, because no one did in Auschwitz-- but to do so he had to develop habits and ended up with scars that would affect everyone around him until the end of their days. We see that not only in Mr. Spiegelman but in Vladek's relationship with his 2nd wife Mala, which nearly ends in this volume. We also see the end of the camps, Vladek's dealing with American troops in the opening days of the occupation and his cold satisfaction at the Germans suffering as the Western and Russian armies advance into Germany (I can't really blame him, he's way more restrained about the whole thing than I would be in his position). As well as his reunion with Anja and their decision to leave Poland, heading first to Sweden and then to the United States.

This volume is more meta-fictional than the previous one. Mr. Spiegelman's mental state becomes a part of the book as he discusses his own feelings about the story and the process of creating it. Additionally Francoise makes her appearance in the novel, as we learn about their marriage (and how she converted to please Vladek in the first place) and the her own involvement in the story process. We learn about Mr. Spiegelman's depression and his overriding desire to avoid living with his father. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. To be honest I'm not a fan of meta-fiction, where the process of writing the work itself becomes part of the narrative and having the characters acknowledge they're in a story. This is also called breaking the 4th wall. In most of the stories I've seen it used, it bogs things down as the writer then uses meta commentary to try and display how clever he is and how deep the story is. It also lends itself to pretentiousness or cheap humor that isn't actually funny. I'm not saying that there's no worthwhile meta fiction. The first Deadpool movie actually used it very well (and very sparingly). In the case of Maus, the meta-fiction does end up serving the story as a biographical and autobiographical work. It also gives us a look at how the trauma of the Holocaust didn't end with just the people who experienced it directly. It lingered and marked their children, whether it be Mr. Spiegelman always feeling inadequate to his father or measuring himself against Richleu, the child who didn't survive. That said, I can't say I was thrilled with those parts of the book where Mr. Spiegelman stepped out of the narrative and began talking about events outside of it. That's a personal opinion but be aware if you're less than thrilled at 4th wall breaking and meta-commentary, there's more of it here than in the first volume.

That said, Maus is a very good long look at the holocaust. Vladek, through Mr. Spiegelman, tells the story plainly and straightforwardly.  I honestly find his matter of fact tone in the book rather amazing but it also helps ground the story and make it seem more real.  Mr. Spiegelman gives us a look at the very real impact those events had on him, his father and his entire family and I would argue that this work is important and whether you like comic books or are even a history buff, you should sit down to read it. As you might have already figured out, this is a very adult story and might be disturbing for  younger children. Maus Part II: And Here My Troubles Began gets an A-.

Next week Trail of Hope. Keep reading.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sidebar V: Why Start here?

Sidebar V: Why Start here?

War World Two. The single largest war ever fought in human history. What images come to your mind likely depend on your nation of origin but I have to honestly say that I think it conjures massive armies and battles on a scale never seen before or after. Of cities shattered and nations rendered to ruins. There a number of stories that have captured the imagination of the world, Saving Private Ryan, Enemy at the Gates, Downfall, Bridge on the River Kwai and so on. Most of these stories are epics. They capture great turning points of the war or great deeds done during the war. There are so many that you could simply focus on reviewing World War II stories and never finish. So why start with a the story of a single Jewish family trying to escape a genocide made from 20th century science and industry? Why start with the holocaust?

Because if you want to know what it was all for, you need to both start small and get at the very soul of it. The Holocaust is nothing less than the truest expression of the soul of Nazism. An all too human marriage of industrial skill, logistical know-how, and scientific ability; to vile and monstrous ends. To wipe out entire groups of human beings for having the audacity to exist and have things that the Nazis wanted (The goal of the Nazis in Eastern Europe was to enslave or kill all Slavs and take control of everything from the Elbe to the Urals as agrarian Lebensraum for the Aryan/Germanic peoples). Well, that's part of it. The Holocaust was also about degrading them, grinding them down and robbing them of every ounce of dignity and hope; seeing how many of their victims they could force to act like rats in a trap. Because the Nazis needed to prove that their victims weren't human, weren't people. This constant need to degrade, humiliate and do whatever it took to manufacture proof that their bigotry rested on anything but a foundation of lies and mad delusion is a repeating theme in Nazi actions (To illustrate how deep it ran; in the polish Ghettos, the Jews were crammed into tight conditions and there were no civil services like trash removal; everyone was on starvation rations and so bodies piled up in the streets. When the Nazis made Der Ewige Jude--yes, I’ve seen it--they used the resulting filth and disease to “prove” that Jews were filthy and didn’t care about their surroundings or fellow Jews. Knowing full well that they intentionally created those conditions. “Jews don’t want to work, but barter”, showing Jews haggling over things, even though the work in the Ghetto was very limited and people had to trade for the barest necessities like their lives depended on them. Because their lives did depend on them. They did the same thing inside the barracks in the death camps. They intentionally gave people too little room and no running water. The inevitable consequence was that they were dehumanized and this made it easier for the SS men to torture and kill them). It's writ large across Russia and Eastern Europe, where the Nazis and non-Nazi Germans (And non-German Nazis. The Slovaks paid the Third Reich 500 marks a head to cart away Jews to Auschwitz. Then there was Hungary...) worked constantly to break down the natives of their conquests to rob them of their cultures, their lands and any hope of a better tomorrow. It can be seen in Western Europe, where the Nazis might have been restrained in comparison to the East, they weren't well behaved by any stretch of the imagination.

And in many cases like France--occupied and Vichy--and the British Channel Islands, had the active and willing collaboration of local government officials. At the risk of being too nasty toward France, there are some beautiful things that happened there too. Like entire French villages who took in Jewish children and disguised them as their own relatives. A small village hiding half a dozen Jewish kids in complete secrecy. None of the kids knew they weren’t the only ones, but the entire village did and nobody said a goddamn thing, even when the Nazis paid handsomely or threatened people. No one talked. Despite governmental collaboration, 75% of Jews in France survived. In contrast to the Netherlands where there was less collaboration by non-Nazis, but where only 27% survived. The Netherlands included religion in public records so it was easier to hunt down the Jews. This is why Willem Arondeus and Friede Belinfante, an openly gay artist/novelist and openly lesbian cellist respectively, as well as other members of the dutch resistance, burned down the Dutch records office. Before he was shot, Arondeus uttered a set of last words I will remember until the end of my days. “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards” Happy pride month, everyone.

If we’re going to be honest, this bigotry and naked imperialism isn't really anything new or special in human history. It was the lengths that the Nazis took it to and the organized fashion in which they applied the modern technology of the day that brought them to a new plane of atrocity that hasn't ever been matched. Genocide continues to be part of the human condition, whether it be in Africa, Asia, the Balkans, or Central America but only the Nazis made a machine out of it. That's the why of the war by that I don’t mean that the Allies were setting out to stop a genocide. But it remains why the war had to be fought in the end. Because if the Nazis had won, or gone unchallenged, we would live in a world where such events are acceptable and possibly even common. Where some of us are human beings with feelings and thoughts and others of us are not and thus are not to be considered. These were the ideas that powered the Second World War in Europe. Hitler and his followers had, after all, the goal of remaking the entire world in their own image and we need to consider what kind of image that was. It’s the fact that the Nazi Elite were able to conceive of such a thing and then carry it out despite being at war with nearly 3/4ths of the world and needing every resource possible to stave off defeat, that tells us how important this was to them. How dear it was the Nazi soul. This was their great work, as far as they were concerned. They might deny that, they might deny that it even happened but well, by their deeds will you know them. The mass organized slaughter of entire groups of the human species was so important to them that they kept at it even as they were overrun by the Red Army. Even if that meant diverting resources from stopping that sam Red Army. That should tell us something about how high up the priority list this kind of murder was. So you cannot separate the two as far as I am concerned.

This shouldn't be considered as excusing of the very real crimes and flaws of the Western Allies or the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was a authoritarian state ruled by an iron-handed tyrant that killed millions of its own. The British Empire kept hundreds of millions under its rule at bayonet point and dealt with rebellion savagely at times and let’s not forget The United States (And Canada, Australia, as well as New Zealand) was built on the destruction of native culture and peoples and I’m sure we all know about the racial system that existed in the US at the time. But under the West there was hope of improvement. In the 73 years since 1945, western society has improved greatly in how racial minorities, women and sexual orientations are treated (Indeed! I’ve gone from a fully criminalized unperson to a second-class citizen, then finally to an upper-tier second class citizen inside my own lifetime! Woo! 55% of the American population is okay with me sharing office space with them! People actually care when police shoot a 12 year old black kid now! I’m not even being sarcastic, this is good news!). We have improved in many ways in how we treat the world around us and each other. We are not perfect, we may not even be virtuous at times but we have the potential, the methods, and the cultural desire to improve ourselves. Even if we might not agree with each other on what improving ourselves means. That doesn't exist in Nazism. There is no better day. There is only, to mangle a phrase, a jackboot on the face of humanity... Forever.

You might also ask why start so small? With the tale of a single man. Not an important man. Not a really heroic man, really. To be honest Vladek Spiegelman might not even be a good man in a lot of ways. He's flawed, neurotic, quarrelsome, perhaps even grasping. He's also a man who honestly loved his wife and children, as bad as he was at showing it, and didn't ask for much. So why start with his story? As many of you have likely heard until you were sick of it, big stories are made up of little ones. Each small story of a single town or family or single person joins together but if you only step back and look at that whole, you risk losing sight of certain things. Vladek Spiegelman was a lot of things but he was also undoubtedly human, even when drawn as a mouse, and he mattered because of that. It's easy to get lost in an epic and forget the real consequences of those sweeping tank columns and grand fleets and lines of airplanes that blot out the sky. So before we get into that, we need to take a look at what this meant on the ground, what this meant to the people there. That's why we need stories like Maus in our culture, especially about big thunderous events like the Second World War, and that's why I start there. Because these grand epics, in the end are a the joining together of thousands of stories of single people or small groups of people.

The text in the red is our editor Dr. Ben Allen.
The black text is of course me, your reviewer.  

Friday, June 8, 2018

Maus Part I: My Father Bleeds History By Art Spiegelman

Maus Part I: My Father Bleeds History
By Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman was born in Stockholm, Sweden in February of 1948. His parents moved to Sweden from Poland after World War II, and in 1951 they relocated to the United States of America. Art began drawing cartoons in 1960 and was earning money for his work while in high school. After graduating in 1965, his parents encouraged him to consider something financially sound, like dentistry, but he choose to enroll instead at Harpur's College to study Art and Philosophy. He attended from 1965 to 1968, working at the college paper while going to classes. In 1968 he suffered a nervous breakdown, to pile it on his mother committed suicide a month after he was released from Binghamton State Mental Hospital. He moved to San Francisco and threw himself into the underground comix movement (which deserves a discussion on a later date). It's in 1972 he produced his first comic about the holocaust showing Jews as mice being persecuted by Nazi Cats. He would return to this but first he moved back to New York in 1975 as the underground comix movement hit a slow down. Here he met his future wife but I'll cover more of this next week.

Maus is an odd graphic novel. It's part history, part biography, part autobiography and part meta commentary on the work of creating the graphic novel. The comic was originally published in Raw, a magazine that Art was editing and his wife was publishing. A new chapter would appear in Raw until 1991 which published every chapter but the very last one. Maus was released at a time when comics were seen as either childish power fantasy with the mass market neatly divided between Marvel and DC or with a stalled and stale underground comix movement that seemed to be running out of gas. Unlike today, there weren't many comics that weren't superhero comics (although I'll admit even today superhero comics dominate in North America). The graphic novel was able to reach a wide audience because it was sold in bookstores instead of just comic shops and helped change the perception of what a comic book could be in the English speaking world. It won enough awards to fill a bookcase, among them the Pulitzer, the Eisner, and the Harvey award; and a small academic industry has grown up around the graphic novel as it is taught in schools across the world. As of 2011 it has been translated into 30 different languages, including German and Polish. It's not without its critics as its depictions of the Polish people is less than flattering (given that Mr. Spiegelman draws them as pigs just to start with), but let's discuss the comic.

Maus is focused on Vladek Speigelman, a Polish Jew (or as some would insist a Jew living in Poland but if a man whose father and grandfather were born there isn't a Pole than who is? (That’s an interesting question. It would depend largely on whether the Jews living in Poland considered themselves Poles, and whether the Poles considered said Jews to be Poles. Remember, these are ethnic concepts of nationality, not ones where place of birth--even after multiple generations--necessarily matters.{I'm aware of this as an anthropologist, but the thing is Vladek has enough Polish cultural traits that if he was a Catholic, everyone would call him a Pole} I would hazard, given the history of the Jewish people and the depths of antisemitism that existed--and still exists--within the country, that the answer is probably closer to Jews Living in Poland, though mileage may vary! You have to remember that while Poland produced IIRC the most Righteous Among the Nations acting as individuals, resistance to the Shoah was not organized like it was in Denmark, and collaboration by the Poles in the Shoah was absolutely rife, as much as the modern Polish government tries to deny and even criminalize acknowledgement of that fact. The reality was, Jews in Poland were associated with Bolshevism and seeing as there had been a war with Soviet Russia in 1920 and the USSR had invaded and annexed half of Poland in 1939...yeah. Note: I am using the Shoah to distinguish between the mass murder of Jews, and Holocaust which I tend to use for the whole Nazi program of slaughtering all Untermenschen und Mindervertige. There otherwise wouldn’t really be a word to describe that because both are often used only to refer to the killing of Jews. The other six million people who were worked to death or crammed into gas chambers are often little more than a footnote. Gay men were killed by the tens of thousands and to this day that’s pretty much ignored in the media and school curricula. Gay survivors were also kept in prison after the war because our existence was still criminalized. Anyway, I’m rambling and I’ll stop.)) who in the ending years of the 1930s has become an adult started a business, married, and started a family. Vladek as you might have guessed is Mr. Spiegelman's father and the book also includes scenes set in the late 1970s/early 1980s of him discussing what happened to him with his now adult son. As such we see the young Vladek and the old one at times right next to each other. We learn that Father and son have a rather complicated relationship, part of this is driven by Vladek's personality. He's quarrelsome, miserly in a lot of ways and suspicious of people (Gee, I wonder why…). Meanwhile Art Spiegelman is not without his own personality flaws and the writing addresses his own frustrations with his father and their relationship. That said our writer is not the only person having a strained relationship with Vladek, as the book also features Mala, Vladek's second wife. Frankly given what I've seen in this book, Vladek and Mala have one of those marriages you sometimes see where you're constantly asking yourself why they stay together or why they got together in the first place. That said most of the characters we are introduced to are in the past.

This part of the novel covers Vladek meeting Anja, his wife and Mr. Spiegelman's mother. We see their courtship and early family life. Here we learn that Anja actually came from a wealthy family and marrying her helped Vladek in setting up his business. That said, we also see a bit of Vladek's true feelings for his wife as he is willing to go to lengths to help her deal with postpartum depression after the birth of their first son, Richleu. We see that even without the Nazis there was a great deal of anti-semitism in Poland before the war, as Vladek and his family have to worry about riots and other actions by the Poles against them. I would like to note for the record here that this wasn't unique to Germany or Poland, there were many nations in East and Central Europe where Jewish people weren't safe (Read: All of it). Nor were they immune from discrimination and attack even in Western Europe. We also see a bit of the German invasion of Poland, as Vladek is called up into the Polish army and sent to fight and finds his first experience with Nazism as a POW. The book covers Vladek's actions to keep his family out of the concentration camps; hiding in bunkers or the homes of local Poles, some of whom are willing to hide Jews as long as those Jews could pay (See what I mean?). Mr. Spiegelman also gives us a look at the extent to which some Jews cooperated with the Nazis or at least tried to enrich themselves at others expense. Whether it be the Jewish councils who were put in a situation where they could give up part of their people or all of their people, black market profiteers or Jewish men who choose to work as enforcers in the ghettos for the Nazis. We are given a look at how the extreme situations gnaws at people's bonds to one another and to what extremes people will go in desperation to protect themselves and the people they love (If I go into complexity of this and how it was part of a complex Nazi scheme to both dehumanize their victims and keep them divided among themselves to prevent resistance...more than I already have...I won’t stop. If you can’t tell dear readers, the editor gets a bit worked up over the Holocaust.). Part I ends as every scheme, tactic and hidden place that Vladek can conjure up to protect his ever shrinking family finally fails and he and Anja are taken by the Nazis to perhaps the most dread place in Nazi occupied Europe in 1944. Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Vladek himself interestingly enough doesn't express a lot of anger or judgment at the people in these situations with him. Even mentioning being on good terms with a man who took advantage of his family in some ways but in doing so likely saved his life. His view is those were the times they were living in, where people did what they had to do to survive and that's really the stakes they were playing for. It's hard for me to condemn someone who trying to avoid being gassed and shoveled into oven, knowing that the people in charge of their fate viewed them as less than human and were happy to do so. The book pulls no punches when it comes to how Jews were treated. We see a nightmare through the eyes of a man who survived it. It's only through Vladek eyes that we see this nightmare, his wife Anja did leave between written records of her experiences but they were destroyed after her suicide by Vladek while he was in mourning. Mr. Spiegelman himself shows no interest in the experiences of Vladek's second wife, Mala within the book for that matter, focusing entirely on his father. Which suggests to me that among other things, this was Mr. Spiegelman's attempt to try and understand his father and make some sort of peace with him by traveling with him through the most traumatic time of his life and one of the great traumas of the 20th century even if it was only in memory.

Maus is a very small scale story in a lot of ways. You don't get discussion of what was going on in Europe or the world at the time. You don't see the great sweeping battles or the decisions made by the powerful that would dictate the fate of entire continents; and it's a stronger and better story for it. Instead you see the very human effects of those battles and decisions. This isn't the story of Europe or even the story of European Jews. There's no great action scenes here or epic intrigue. It's the story of a Jewish businessman trying to keep his wife and son alive while the entire world around him loses its damn mind and decides to try and kill him and his people over their heritage. It's a stronger story for maintaining it's low to the ground view and focus on a single person and his family because if nothing else it gives a face to those statistics we have drilled into us at school. Learning six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis for daring to exist is just a set of numbers, reading a man watching his father-in-law being send to his death or having to speak about the death of family members makes it something that happened to a person (There’s a reason why I periodically rewatch a multi-part documentary series called Auschwitz:The Nazis and the Final Solution, and watch other interviews with survivors. It has a lot of interviews with survivors. The Shoah, and the larger Holocaust, are not something we can afford to forget. Already the words Never Again ring hollow because as a global society, we have failed to prevent genocide in the post war period. In part, I think, because it has been reduced to numbers and it’s hard for humans to care about those.). Mr. Spiegelman does a good job of telling a human story set in an inhuman time. Maus Part I: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman gets an A. As for why I'm using this story to talk about World War II... Well, I'll speak on that to.

Red text is our editor Dr. Ben Allen, dark text is me, your own reviewer.

Next week Maus Part II: And here my troubles began. This Sunday, Sidebar why start here? Keep Reading.