"I've cast out my razor, divorced my soap, buried my manners, signed my socks to a two-year contract, and proved that you don't have to come in out of the rain." So wrote Corporal Thomas P. Noonan from Vietnam, proving that humor doesn't fail even in war. Noonan's letter is just one of over 50,000 that letter-enthusiast Andrew Carroll (Letters of a Nation
) received after Abigail Van Buren publicized his Legacy Project in her Dear Abby column. Out of this treasure trove he selected 150, spanning 130 years of warfare from the Civil War to Bosnia. While there are letters from such notables as General William Tecumseh Sherman and even Julia Childs, most were written by uncelebrated but dearly loved soldiers from barracks, trenches, and flooded foxholes and by combat journalists, nurses, and family members on the home front.
While the letters are not unrelentingly grim, there is ample description of the rending agonies of war and the pain of separation. For instance, a recounting of horrors found in a Nazi concentration camp, or a tender letter to a just-born daughter who may never be seen. Private First Class Richard King describes the death of a Catholic chaplain blessing the foxholes: "An artillery shell cut him in half at the waist." Staff Sergeant Joe Sammarco tells how he crawled, wounded, across streams and into hills in order to escape the Chinese, propelled by the thought of his wife and his babies. Many of these are "last letters," often received after the news of the writer's death. Lieutenant Tommie Kennedy, a POW on a Japanese "hell ship," wrote his farewells on the only thing he had--the back of two family photographs, which were smuggled back to his parents.
These are, as Carroll writes, "the first, unfiltered drafts of history." His rich sample testifies to the universal and poignant themes of love and honor, courage and rage, duty and fear and mortality. The playful and heartfelt voices grant us the personal perspective all too often lost in news reports and government statements. Taken together, they remind us that, despite the playful good cheer, the human cost of war is far too high. A remarkable contribution to the understanding of war and its impact, and a powerful tribute to those undone by it. --Lesley Reed
From Publishers Weekly
Carroll founded the war letter-collecting Legacy Project when his Washington, D.C., home burned down in 1990, taking his family letters with it. A "Dear Abby" announcement of the project led to 50,000 responses. Now, at 31, Carroll follows up 1999's bestselling Letters of a Nation (which spans 400 years and myriad walks of life) with this cull of dispatches. Chapters are limited to the Civil War, WWI, WWII, "The Korean War & The Cold War" and "The Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, Somalia, & Bosnia" making for an incomplete survey of American wars. Of the more than 150 letters, three are from African-Americans, though Carroll remarks in an afterword on efforts to locate more. Perhaps most striking is how many letters are written by the soon-to-be-dead, or concern the death of a close relative; any reaction to them other than personal sympathy seems impossible. Yet the power of these voices from various fronts including an Asian woman held in an American internment camp is undeniable, and the sentiments and observations they record have a compelling immediacy. (On-sale: May 15)Forecast: Carroll was the subject of a New York Times feature in 1994 for his role in cofounding (with the late poet Joseph Brodsky) the American Poetry and Literacy Project, which put books of poems in motel rooms alongside Bibles. His media experience should make his seven-city author tour and appearance on PBS's American Experience (on November 11) successful. Expect strong sales and a showing on bestseller lists for the weeks before and after Memorial Day. Browsers could be reminded that the New Yorker published a selection of the letters in January 2000. All author earnings will be donated to nonprofit organizations.
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