‘Last Witnesses’ offers children’s memories of WWII
Douglass K. Daniel
Does anyone suffer more in wartime
than a child? All they know is at risk — parents, siblings, neighbors,
homes, schools, even pets. All too soon they learn of hunger, death and
inhumanity. Those who survive carry scars on their flesh and their minds
— and they have stories to tell, if they can bear it.
“I want to forget,” says Liuba
Alexandrovich, who was just 11 when she watched German soldiers shoot
every third person in her tiny Soviet village, a reprisal for providing
support to partisans opposing Hitler’s forces after their 1941 invasion.
Later the soldiers gathered those whose children had joined the
partisans and beheaded them. She says, “I want to forget it all.”
Belarusian writer and journalist
Svetlana Alexievich believes such moments must be remembered and gives
scores of Soviets an opportunity to tell their stories. Her engrossing
book “Last Witnesses” first appeared in 1985, but its English
translation is new, the third of Alexievich’s books to come from Random
House since she won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015. Readers of
the late American writer Studs Terkel, the most celebrated oral
historian in the U.S., will recognize the simple but powerful prose that
comes from recording ordinary people’s memories.
More than 100 people speak in “Last
Witnesses” and many recall similar horrors — planes and falling bombs
interrupting playtime, soldiers burning villages and their inhabitants,
people fleeing into forests, children burying parents in frigid ground,
young ones eating grass or garbage or the family cat to survive.
There are hopeful stories, too,
serving as streaks of light in the darkness. Some people recall acts of
kindness, such as a single woman telling two young orphans wandering the
countryside, “You’ll be my children now.” Or a farm family taking in a
Jewish girl in spite of fear of discovery and certain death.
Except for occasional footnotes for
context, Alexievich lets these children of war speak for themselves. One
wonders why they would willingly revisit such times. Some, like Oleg
Boldyreve, who was 10 when he went to work with his father in a bomb
factory, weren’t sure they wanted to. “What’s better — to remember or to
forget?” he asked. “Maybe it’s better to keep quiet? For many years I
tried to forget.”
For Nadia Gorbacheva, who was 7
when the horrors began, the answer was simple: “I remember war in order
to figure it out. Otherwise why do it?” (AP)
A rich mystery awaits in S.J. Rozan's 'Paper Son'
Oline H. Cogdill
S.J. Rozan's affinity for little known facts about
Chinese culture has fueled exciting thrillers featuring private
detectives Lydia Chin and Bill Smith. Memorable plots include a Jewish
settlement in China comprised of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany ("The
Shanghai Moon"), political art ("Ghost Hero") and restaurant workers'
union ("A Bitter Feast").
In the outstanding "Paper Son," Rozan uses the
history of Chinese immigrants who established regular grocery stores
serving predominantly black neighborhoods in the Mississippi Delta
during the early 20th century to sculpt a story about family, culture,
prejudice and community. These businesses took hold because the Chinese
laborers' jobs building the railroads dried up and white grocers who
would not sell to black residents.
Lydia, a Chinese American who lives with her
traditional mother in New York's Chinatown, had never heard of Chinese
grocers nor did she know that she had relatives living in Mississippi
until a tragedy happens. Her 23-year-old cousin, Jefferson Tam, has been
arrested for the murder of his grocer father, Leland. Despite the strong
evidence, Lydia's mother refuses to believe any relative — no matter how
distant — could be a murderer. She wants Lydia and Bill to go to
Clarksdale, Mississippi, to prove Jefferson's innocence. That alone is a
revelation since Lydia's mother has never approved of her profession and
has even less regard for Bill, who is white.
With Jefferson's uncle, Capt. Pete Tam, as their
guide, Lydia and Bill maneuver through the morass of bigotry and an
economically depressed community overwhelmed with drugs. Although the
Tams have lived in Clarksdale for generations, the family still is
disconnected from the rest of the town. However, those family members
who moved away to larger cities have a different experience, including
Reynold Tam, whose father married a white woman and who is running for
governor of Mississippi.
Chinese families are complicated, as Lydia explains
to Bill. While these people are distant relatives, they are still
family. Adding to the tangled family tree are those men who are "paper
sons" — immigrants who convinced naturalized Chinese Americans to file
papers identifying them as a son. In some cases, these "sons" had never
met their "fathers." A bit of money helped.
Lydia and Bill were last seen in 2011's "Ghost
Hero," but Rozan's intricate plotting and affinity for characterization
is seamless, making the reader remember how much we missed spending time
with these private detectives. Rozan uses the historical footnote of
Chinese grocers as a springboard for a rich, deeply satisfying mystery.
Barron's 'Black Mountain' stars his ex-mob enforcer
Like a lyricist, Laird Barron excels at manipulating
the tones and cadence of language. Like a Gothic novelist, the mood he
creates is often bleak.
"You don't teach a child to become a killer by rote
lectures," he writes. "To create a predatory machine, you foster an
appreciation of the natural world and our minuteness upon its canvass... We
are as nothing and that permits us to do anything."
It comes as no surprise, then, that Barron wrote both
poetry and horror before turning to crime fiction with 2018's "Blood
Standard," a novel that introduced former mob enforcer Isaiah Coleridge. At
the start of that violent book, Coleridge appeared to be a predatory
machine; but, by its conclusion, he vowed that from then on he would kill
only those who have it coming.
Barron's new novel, "Black Mountain," finds Coleridge
working as a private investigator in the Catskills mountains of upstate New
York. There, the local mob boss hires him to find out who brutally killed
two organized crime strong arms_and why.
As Coleridge digs into the case, he learns that many
other victims, mostly derelicts and prostitutes, have been murdered in a
similar fashion. Soon, his suspicions focus on another retired hitman, a
mysterious psychopath known as the Croatoan, the name of a Native American
tribe to which he may or may not be related.
But the case proves to be far from straightforward. The
Croatoan would be an old man now. Is he even still alive? Could he be
killing with the help of an assistant? Could the murders be the work of a
copycat? Before long, it gets murkier with tendrils leading to a beautiful
woman from a powerful family, her unscrupulous father, a team of
mercenaries, a multinational corporation, and a government cover up.
When he manages to sleep, Coleridge is terrorized by a
black wolf in dream sequences that are evocative of early Stephen King. But
unlike Barron's first novel, most of the violent action occurs off stage.(AP)