Monday, December 3, 2007

2007 Book-Fair-O-Rama - Part I - Unknown Soldiers

I spent a good part of this year working on my forthcoming book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press, Spring 2008). For that reason, a good deal of the reading I did this year was research for the book and not - for lack of a better word - "fun" reading. That's unfortunate, because I have been an unapologetic "bookworm" since I was a kid. Also, I think it's fairly well-accepted that the key to becoming a better writer is to read as much as possible.

Still, I did manage to squeeze in reading a few titles in the past year or so. I have posted reviews for two of them on the blog already:

Mark Wilson's The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006)


Hess, Hatcher, Piston, and Shea's Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge, & Prairie Grove: A Battlefield Guide with a Section on Wire Road (University of Nebraska Press, 2006).

This week I am going to post additional reviews of some books I've enjoyed this year, as well as some extended reviews/author interviews for books I've covered in my "Medical Department" column for The Civil War News.

I'm going to start with a title that - even though is not a book about the Civil War - does complement my recent postings about the Springfield (Missouri) National Cemetery as well as a very interesting post I recently saw on Eric Wittenberg's excellent blog. This is because the book deals with the timeless question of how armies deal with the burial of fallen soldiers on a battlefield and how a nation properly mourns the fallen, especially those who are "unknown."

The book is Neil Hanson's Unknown Soldiers: The Story of the Missing of the First World War (Vintage, 2007).

This book was recommended to me by my best and lifelong friend, Curtis Fears, and he is rarely off the mark. We are both very much interested in "bottom up" history with an emphasis on the line-soldier, especially when it is in their own words, and in this respect, Hanson does a terrific job. He sensitively tells the stories of three soldiers - a Brit, a German, and an American. In doing so, he draws extensively on letter collections and the reader gets a very raw and personal description of life in the trenches.

In the end, all three men die in battle, and due to the waxing and waning of the front lines and "no man's land" and to their imperfect burials, the final resting of places of all three are unknown. Hanson also does a good job of describing the reaction of the families and he expresses well the heart break that must have been theirs to learn that they would never know the final resting place of their sons by drawing on their futile correspondence with government authorities.

The back story of the evolution of monuments to Unknown Soldiers in Great Britain, France, and the United States is also very interesting and comprises the last third or so of the book. Readers will be surprised to learn that the monuments were not universally accepted and there was no small amount of pettiness by those in high office.

My only (minor) criticism is Hanson's habit of stringing quotes from disparate sources together in the same paragraph, without a hint as to who said them, without looking back in the endnotes.

I highly recommend the book to all.

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