ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE AMERICAN WOMAN AT THE HEART OF THE GERMAN RESISTANCE TO HITLER by Rebecca Donner

(Mildred Harnack

How does one evaluate courage and commitment?  In the case of Mildred and Arvid Harnack the answer lies in their role as part of the resistance to the Nazis before and during World War II.  Mildred, an American lecturer at the University of Berlin who was working on her PhD in American Literature and her husband Arvid employed at the Ministry of Economics is German and they form a resistance group after Hitler assumed power called “the Circle.”  It is through the work of this organization and sister organizations that they hoped to overthrow the Nazi regime before it can live up to its rhetoric.  Their remarkable story is told by Mildred’s great-great-niece, Rebecca Donner in her book ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE AMERICAN WOMAN AT THE HEART OF THE GERMAN RESISTANCE TO HITLER.  The book’s title suggests that the narrative will focus mostly on Mildred, but in reality its presentation is much broader zeroing in on the actions of Arvid and a number of others in “the Circle.”

(Arvid and Mildred Harnack)

Donner’s book is a work of narrative history, but it comes across as a spy thriller, in addition to being the life story of a number of remarkable people.  At the outset, Donner focuses on Mildred who she describes as an “enigma who inspired a range of contradictory conclusions about who she was and why she did what she did.”  By 1932, Mildred had moved to Germany to teach at the University of Berlin which would be her foundation to gather like minded people to resist the Nazi seizure of power as she recognized early on the danger that Adolf Hitler presented.  Donner integrates Mildred’s early years and her relationship with her husband Arvid into the web of spies that emerges.  Mildred would soon be fired as a lecturer because her classes were deemed to be unacceptable to Nazi ideology particularly based on the American literary figures she presented in class.  Arvid held a compassion for Germany’s poor and his goal was to address the problems of poverty and develop solutions.  He would travel to the Soviet Union to learn about their economic approach and while there he would develop contacts that in the end would turn him into a Soviet spy against Germany.

Donner’s narrative encompasses most aspects of Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship; the Nazi seizure power turning Germany into a dictatorship, Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy, and finally World War II.  Donner offers little that is new as she recounts the most notable events be it the Enabling Act, the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallnacht, the seizures of the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and finally war.  In doing so Donner integrates the resistance work of Mildred and Arvid and their compatriots until their  arrest by the Gestapo in August 1942.

Donner writes in a manner that the words seem to flow off the page as she tells her story.  She incorporates the latest research along with excerpts from important documents that include speeches, wording of leaflets, family letters, recruitment of assets, and the interrogations of prisoners by the Gestapo.  As Donner chronicles her story she does an excellent job at providing the texture of German society before and during the war as the Nazis implemented their draconian program.  Book burnings, racial laws, reducing women to being brood mares for the Nazi regime, violence and persecution of Jews that leads to the Holocaust, and Hitler and Goebbels’ ravings are all present. 

LIBERATION DU CAMP DE CONCENTRATION DE RAVENSBRUCK 1945
(Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for Women)

Donner’s research was enhanced by a number of sources.  Though Mildred destroyed her journal and was careful that no one see it, Donner’s conversations with her grandmother Jane who spent time with Mildred as a young woman in Germany is important.  Letters from Mildred would be found in a relative’s attic, and Donner was able to obtain observations by Mildred’s friends in letters and diaries, as well as trial records and memoirs by Mildred’s collaborators allowing Donner to tell a story that was mostly unknown.

Donner describes the recruitment and work of “Circle” members who engage in a myriad of activities to resist the Nazis that include posters across Germany, leaflet preparation and distribution, radio transmission of information obtained, newspapers, penetration of Hermann Goring’s staff and the Army High Command, providing evidence for atrocities, and finally spying for the United States and the Soviet Union.  As the war progressed it was clear that Stalin was just as bad as Hitler, but as Harold Nicholson once noted, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” leading Arvid who viewed himself as an anti-fascist to assume the role of a Russian spy passing along secrets that Hitler was about to attack Russia in the spring of 1941 which Stalin would ignore, and providing intelligence that once Stalingrad was taken the Nazis would march on the Caucasus to have access to Rumanian oil.

(Donald Heath Sr. and Jr.)

There are a number of interesting character portraits in the book apart from the main characters.  Martha Dodd, the daughter of William Dodd the American Ambassador to Germany story is fascinating as she engages in numerous affairs, spies on her own father, falls in love with a Russian spy who will be shot during one of Stalin’s periodic purges, among many escapades.  Another interesting and more meaningful character is Donald Heath, eventually the First Secretary in the American embassy in Berlin and his son Donald, Jr.  Donald, Sr. is Secretary of the Treasury Robert Morgenthau’s personal source for information concerning Hitler’s preparation for war. The Heaths and Harnacks become close friends and share intelligence to the point both families use the eleven year old Donald, Jr. as a courier to deliver important intelligence.  Donner makes the excellent point that American intelligence before the war and early on was deeply flawed containing numerous gaps to base important decisions.

By 1942 the Gestapo arrests the key members of “the Circle,” that include Mildred and Arvid, Liberto and Harro Schultze-Boysen, and  Greta and Adam Kuckhoff.  Of these individuals Hitler will harbor an extreme hatred for Mildred and though all are tortured she is the victim of the most extreme form of punishment.  Donner will spend a great deal of time describing their fate once they are arrested and most exhibit a remarkable amount of courage knowing full well they will be executed.

In appearance Mildred Harnack does not appear to be a spy.  She is an American educator teaching in Berlin.  She is a shy bookish individual and doesn’t seem to possess the tools to be a focal point of German resistance and as one Nazi official stated, her story would make a wonderful novel.  However, her work and those of those who were a part of “the Circle” is testimony to what impels people to act for what they believe and in the end are willing to pay for those beliefs and actions with their lives.

Mildred Harnack

(Mildred Harnack)

THE HISTORIANS by Cecilia Ekback

(Kiruna mine from which the novel is based upon)

Swedish born author Cecilia Ekback has written a very complex and believable novel that focuses on the possibilities of a Scandinavian Reich that could have emerged during the Second World War.  At a time in the publishing world when there is no shortage of World War II based historical fiction, Ekback’s new book THE HISTORIANS stands out for its character and plot development and the creation of a scenario that is quite credible.

Set in Sweden during World War II the book reintroduces that country’s controversial role during the conflict.  Claiming neutrality, the Stockholm government accommodated the Nazi regime by allowing the passage of over two million German soldiers through Sweden.  Further, Swedish iron ore shipped to the Berlin regime was critical for Nazi wartime production of steel, and lastly Swedish railroads allowed the transport of the German 163rd infantry division with its equipment to pass from Norway to Finland.  It was only after 1944 with the German war effort heading for defeat did Sweden share military intelligence and allow the allies to use Swedish airbases.  Hardly the actions of a country that could be relied upon during war.

The book opens in 1943 with the Nazi regime pressuring Sweden to increase its supply of iron ore.  Laura Dahlgren, part of the Swedish trade delegation negotiating iron ore access with the Germans discovers the body of Britta Hallberg, a former classmate at Uppsala University and a member of a close knit group of five friends, tortured and murdered.  It seems that Britta had become a “sparrow” or Swedish spy whose job was to get close to German diplomats, but was also finalizing her university thesis entitled, “Nordic Relations Through the Ages: Denmark, Norway and Sweden on a New Path”  which was delivered to Jens Regnell, Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs after her death.  The question was why the thesis was delivered to Regnell, and did her research have anything to do with her murder.

The Royal Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

As Ekback develops her dramatic plot another death takes place that of Daniel Jonsson, an archivist at the Swedish Foreign Ministry.  First it seemed a suicide, but as evidence accumulated it was clear it was murder.  When a bomb goes off in Dahlgren’s apartment it is clear that anyone who investigates Swedish racial policy is a threat and are in danger.

The core of the plot revolves around a meeting that took place in 1914.  Referred to as the “The Three Kings Meeting” it was made up of monarchs and foreign ministers of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.  They discussed the possibility of the creation of a Scandinavian Reich under one strong leader based on the supremacy of the Nordic race.  A committee was created to study the feasibility of the concept.  By 1939 a second meeting was held and the program was formally shut down, but in reality the ideas related to a new Reich remained to be implemented by powerful forces within the Swedish bureaucracy and body politick to not only carry out the unification of the governments involved but also to ethnically cleanse and eliminate the Sami, an indigenous people who lived in the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula as well as parts of Norway, Finland, and Russia.  It is estimated they numbered between 50,000 and 100,000.

As Dahlgren and Regnell investigated they learned that it was possible that certain elements were conducting human experiments on the Sami, with many people disappearing from the Blackasen Mountain area where iron ore was mined.

An image posted by the author.
(the author)

An interesting component to Ekback’s novel is how she integrates Nordic myths and symbols into the plot.  The vehicle she chooses is the unlikely friendships among Dahlgren, Britta Hallberg, Erik who was a hothead and a fool in many ways, Matti, who seemed sober, totally focused on his job for Finland, and Karl-Erik, who seemed to be the brightest during their debates while at the university.  During these discussions Sweden’s racial policy emerges, and after Britta is murdered they grapple with how best to discover what happened to her and why.  When the remaining four try to find the underlying cause of what is going on, unimaginable things occur.

As Ekback develops her novel a number of important questions emerge.  First, were members of the State Institute for Racial Biology conducting experiments on the back side of the Blackasen mountain?  Second, was there an actual plot to create a Scandinavian Reich and purify the “lesser” Nordic types?  Third, why were authorities who investigated Britta’s murder being stymied?  Fourth, who were the people who were trying to create the new Reich?  Lastly, do these elements still exist in Swedish society?

Ekback’s approach in creating her story was to start slowly introducing a myriad of characters that at times is difficult for the reader to digest.  As she moves along her storyline develops momentum as the reader begins to wonder if this type of scenario was actually feasible.  Every author of historical fiction faces the dilemma as to how far from “historical truth” they can deviate from and not lose their readers.  Ekback takes the reader right up to the line between truth and fiction and fashions a searing novel that may be speculative in nature but in the end is quite satisfying and sheds light on Sweden, whose machinations during World War II are part of the historical record as certain individuals dallied with “Nazi leanings.”  Ekback has authored a blistering novel, once you get past the early development of the plot, it will be difficult to put down.

(Kiruna mine, which the novel is based on)

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

I will begin with a confession – I have never read a Colm Toibin novel until now.  After reading a review of his new novel, THE MAGICIAN, I thought it was time to introduce myself to such an exceptional novelist.  I went to my card catalogue, another confession I have a personal library of over 7500 volumes, and found I owned one of Toibin’s earlier efforts, BROOKLYN.  Since I grew up in that New York borough in the 1950s and 60s it was karma. 

BROOKLYN reflects Toibin’s mastery of fiction and is the work of a superior writer.  Beginning in Enniscorthy, in Ireland’s County Wexford in 1951, Eilis Lacey, a bookkeeper who lived with her mother and sister is offered a part time job in Miss Kelly’s grocery store which she accepts because of the lack of other opportunities. Soon, Father Flood, a priest whose parish in Brooklyn appears regaling Eilis of employment opportunities for bookkeepers in New York City.  Flood will arrange for Eilis to work at Bartocci and Company located on Fulton Street in Brooklyn along with passage to America and a room at Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house.  Eilis realized this was quite an opportunity but felt guilty about leaving her mother and sister.  She will ignore her feelings of guilt and depart for a new life in America, not realizing that behind the scenes her sister Rosa had pushed for this move that would afford her sister greater opportunities.

Toibin easily conveys the ambience of living in Enniscorthy and Brooklyn in the post war world.  The author is sensitive to the difficulties that a young single girl faces when she tries to adapt to a new culture and the problems that arise.  His writing style offers an intimacy with his characters that enhances the reader’s experience.  There is a softness and imperceptibility with his phrasing that makes the novel flow, but it does not take away from the deep emotions that are portrayed. 

File:Main Street, Wexford. (15766237904).jpg
(Ireland’s County Wexford)

What sets Toibin’s writing apart is his ability as a male writer to understand and present the mind set and feelings of female characters – even insights into what life was like for a single Irish girl just arriving in America.  Eilis’ concerns are presented in a thoughtful and private manner that reflects insights into her character and the crisis of confidence that she regularly experiences.

Toibin is very careful to lay out social class differences throughout the novel.  First, in dealing with how the Irish are perceived on the ocean liner crossing the Atlantic.  Second, the commentary exhibited by the young women in Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house reflected by remarks centering around the “negro” clientele that were beginning to shop at Bartocci’s department store.  Third, the juxtaposition of Italian and Irish families in Brooklyn through their language and cultural mores – a case in point is Italian family life in the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn which the author conveys with the accuracy to a reader who grew up in this neighborhood. 

The novel presents a series of highs and lows which make up the human experience.  Relationships, joy, death, and sadness are all present in Toibin’s easy pace that makes reading BROOKLYN feel as if you are gliding over each page.  When Eilis seems to have finally adjusted to life in Brooklyn attending night courses in accounting at Brooklyn College, working during the day, and developing a wonderful relationship with Antonio Giuseppe Fiorello all seems well.  Unexpectedly, Father Flood delivers the news that Eilis’ sister Rosa has died, and she must return to Ireland for a visit.  What occurs on that visit may overturn the peace and happiness that she has finally found in America.

Eilis is a simple girl bordering on womanhood who Toibin presents with sustained “subtlety and touching respect.  He shows no condescension for Eilis’ passivity but records her cautious adventures matter-of-factly, as if she were writing them herself in a journal.”*  This is a wonderful story about what it is to have a home and the ability of different locations to assert themselves over an individual.

Reading a novel by Colm Toibin has been a pleasure and I will certainly pick up THE MAGICIAN, his latest work, a historical novel about the German writer Thomas Mann.

  • Liesi Schillinger, “The Reluctant Emigrant,” New York Times, May 1, 2009.
86th St - Bensonhurst Brooklyn NY Old Vintage Photos and Images
(Bensonhurst, Brooklyn NY 1951)

THE IRISH ASSASSINS: CONSPIRACY, REVENGE, AND THE PHOENIX PARK MURDERS THAT STUNNED VICTORIAN ENGLAND by Julie Kavanagh

Charles Framed Print featuring the drawing Charles Stewart Parnell, 1846 by Vintage Design Pics
(Charles Parnell)

When one thinks of the terms ethnic cleansing or genocide usually the following comes to mind:  the Nazi Holocaust; the Turkish massacre of Armenians before, during, and after World War I; Pol Pot and the killing fields of Cambodia in the early 1970s; Serbian ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav civil war of the 1990s; the Rwandan genocide of 1994; but few people place English policy toward the Irish over a period of centuries in this category. 

One constant in England’s attitude toward the Irish throughout history has been one of subjugation and exploitation, either by out and out extermination and ethnic cleansing, or policies designed to benefit the rich landowners at the expense of the Irish peasantry, and of course the Great Famine of 1845 fostered in large part by England’s laissez-faire economic doctrine that decimated the Irish countryside.  By the late 1870s rural Ireland’s small land holders, again threatened with starvation and eviction began to rise up and fight for their ancestral home.  The story of the land war that ensued between 1879-1882, the major characters involved, Prime Minster William Gladstone’s attempt to bring peace and eventual independence to Ireland, and the assassination of May 6, 1882, that ended that hope is told in Julie Kavanagh’s latest book, THE IRISH ASSASSINS: CONSPIRACY, REVENGE, AND THE PHOENIX PARK MURDERS THAT STUNNED VICTORIAN ENGLAND.

Kavanagh’s effort has a number of key components.  After she provides an overview of Irish-English relations covering centuries she zeroes in on the 1870-1880s period.  It was a time that the Irish were still plagued by poor potato crops and the inhumanity of English property owners and their expectations from tenant farmers.  Certain characters dominate the narrative.  Charles Parnell, a progressive Avondale landowner who supported Irish independence emerges as the leader in Parliament and among the Irish people.  William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal party who returned to the Prime Ministership defeating Benjamin Disraeli and the Conservatives sought to bring peace between the tenants and their landowners by agreeing to improve the plight of the peasantry.  William Forster, Chief Secretary to Gladstone an empathetic man who felt for the Irish people, but with the Irish boycott and in the increased violence by the radical wing of the Irish Republican Brotherhood’s “Invincibles” he turned against reform.  Patrick O’Donnell, an Irish Republican accused of the murder of James Carey who turned out to be an “Invincible” snitch that led to the execution of five Irish Republicans.  Queen Victoria who despised the Irish and did little to ameliorate their situation. Katharine O’Shea, Parnell’s lover who had a deep impact on the thought process of the Irish leader.  Patrick Egan and Patrick Ford who worked from America to raise money for the Irish cause and had profound influence over the Irish cause through their leadership of the Clan na Gael, the American sister of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

William Ewart Gladstone visited St Helens in 1868, weeks before he began the first of his four terms as prime minister
(English Prime Minister William Gladstone)

The author does a credible job introducing the main characters in the Irish drama recounting their backgrounds and the important roles they would play.  By 1880 the west of Ireland verged on a catastrophe as disease struck the potato crop once again resulting in starvation and hypothermia for the Irish peasants.  According to Kavanaugh the 1880 disaster was worse than the earlier Great Famine reflected in the lives of people in western Ireland who had little to show for their labors.  Many more would emigrate to the United States resulting in the loss of many talented people for Ireland.  Another important aspect of the new decade was that the English government now faced a new generation than those who were “spineless victims” of the Great Famine – now they faced a semi-revolutionary group of young men who led the Land League and instituted a boycott against landlords and anyone who supported them.  In October 1880 Parliament voted to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus allowing suspects to be imprisoned without trial.  Commonly known as the “Coercion Act” it would fuel Irish violence and move the Invincibles toward further assassinations.

The actions of Parliament and the Irish extremists would make it difficult for Parnell and Gladstone to consummate their agreement, the Kilmainham Treaty in which the Irish leader pledged to work diplomatically with Gladstone for peace and the eventual independence of Ireland.  What followed was planning that resulted in the assassination of Timothy Burke, Secretary to William Gladstone and Frederick Cavendish who replaced Forster as Chief Secretary which ended any hope for peace.

In one of Kavanagh’s best chapters “Coercion in Cottonwool” the author traces the planning and assassination attempts against English officials in great detail.  She introduces the perpetrators and the results of their actions.  She explores their thought processes as well as those of the victims.  It even reached the point that Forster hoped for his own assassination which would put him out of his misery of dealing with the Irish.  Once Parnell and his cohorts are arrested and released from prison and the Phoenix Park murders occur, Kavanaugh details the testimony of Invincible, James Carey, his trial and those he fingered, the revenge murder of Carey by Patrick O’Donnell, and his subsequent conviction.  In all areas Kavanagh offers intricate details which at times can be overwhelming.

(Katharine O’Shea)

A case in point was the relationship between Katharine O’Shea, her husband William, a member of Parliament, and Charles Parnell.  This segment of the book could be written as a historical novel by itself.  William O’Shea sought to be the intermediary between Gladstone and Parnell to enhance his career, so he allowed his own cuckoldom.  Further once Katharine became pregnant, William sought to reassert his husbandly rights, but the child was Parnell’s.  This aspect of the narrative is a bit much.

The book has so many aspects to it that Kavanagh should have been a little clearer in linking them to enhance the reader’s understanding.  With the substantial number of characters, many with their own agenda’s Kavanagh needed to improve how each character and events fit into the larger paradigm of the story which told in two parts.  First, Kavanaugh dissects the policies of Parliament and the Gladstone government and their internal debates that produces the opposition of the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Land League.  Second she focuses on the legal drama that resulted from the assassinations and trials that followed.  The book can be confusing at times, and it would have helped if the monograph contained a series of maps that would allow the reader to follow the story from western Ireland, London, Paris, South Africa, and the United States.

Patrick O’Donnell was executed in London on December 17th, 1885, for the murder of James Carey.

(Patrick O’Donnell was executed in London on December 17th, 1885, for the murder of James Carey) 

The subject matter is of the utmost importance because of its impact on Irish-English relations for the century that followed.  It is a story that needed to be told and I praise Kavanagh’s effort, particularly her integration of primary materials whose personal excerpts allows the reader to understand the positions of the major characters.  But overall, though parts of the book read as a page turner, other parts are slow to develop and can tax the reader.

P.S.  Julie Kavanagh’s work was personally satisfying as she noticed the work of her father, a noted journalist who had researched the O’Donnell trial for a number of years.

Charles Stewart Parnell N(1846-1891) Irish Nationalist Leader Rolled Canvas Art -  (24 x 36)
(Charles Parnell)

INTO THE FOREST: A HOLOCAUST STORY OF SURVIVAL, TRIUMPH AND LOVE by Rebecca Frankel

Wehrmacht convoy in Minsk, 1941 Stock Photo

(German occupation of Minsk during World War II)

Over the years many books and memoirs have been written describing the imponderable experiences of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.  The story line that I have found most unbelievable involves those individuals who escaped the Nazi imposed ghettoization of villages, towns, and cities into forests that adjoined their homes.  The latest narrative, INTO THE FOREST: A HOLOCAUST STORY OF SURVIVAL, TRIUMPH AND LOVE by Rebecca Frankel is a poignant description of eight hundred people who escaped the Belorussian village of Zhetel in August 1942 into the Lipiczany forest who by August 1944 was reduced to about two hundred.  The resistance/survival genre of the Holocaust was popularized in the 1980s with the publication of the book DEFIANCE and a film of the same name which told the true story of the Bielski brothers who defied the Nazis, built a village in the forest, and saved about 1200 Jews.  These stories reflect the tenacity and will to live by so many as is shown in Frankel’s description of the plight of the Rabinowitz family as they survived in a primeval forest near their home.

Frankel immediately captures the attention of her readers as describes a 1953 wedding in Brooklyn, New York attended by Philip Lazowski, a Yeshiva student who attended classes at Brooklyn College.  We soon learn that during the war that Philip left his home in Bilitz as the Nazis were massacring Jews and was protected by a woman and her two young daughters as the Nazis had moved on to the village of Zhetel.  While attending the wedding Philip recognized a woman named Miriam Rabinowitz, the same person who had saved his life.  This story and numerous others are recounted by Frankel as she delves into the many horrors that the Holocaust wrought to so many people.  Frankel’s monograph is a story of how people react to certain death and the triumph of the human spirit.

In telling her stories Frankel blends the course of the war and the Holocaust in a concise manner and its impact on the Rabinowitz family, Morris, Miriam, and their two young daughters Rochel and Tania, in addition to other relatives and people that they came in contact with.  Morris had been a businessperson who had acquired an intimate knowledge of forestry which would assist him and his family in their quest for survival.  Miriam had owned a medical shop that sold alternative remedies for injuries and disease, again her knowledge would later come in very handy.

Frankel explores the distinction between Nazi and Soviet approaches in dealing with Jews particularly after the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 26, 1939, and the invasions by both countries dividing Poland in half.  Everyone is aware of the Nazi approach to the “Final Solution” of the Jewish people, but the Russians in many instances let their anti-Semitism block any cooperation with Jewish partisans who wanted to fight the Germans.  Once the Rabinowitz’s escaped into the forest the author describes the hardships they faced and how they went about surviving.  They would link up with Chaim Feldman’s family who were able to smuggle a wagon load of supplies into the forest and the two families were able to dig shelters and smuggle food into the forest through their friendships with Christian families forged before the war.

Rebecca Frankel, author of the book “Into the Forest: A Holocaust Story of Survival, Triumph and Love."
(Rebecca Frankel, author)

The book points to a myriad of rules and mores that were broken.  The forest would produce its own socio-economic structure that created friendships but also a degree of hostility as the woods created a society of have and have nots.  Frankel describes in intimate details how human relationships became tools of survival for women.  It was clear to many that the only way a woman might survive was if they had a relationship with a man for protection.  If these relationships happened to produce a pregnancy, abortion and allowing babies to die became the norm as any sound, i.e.; a crying baby could give away a position and result in another Nazi Selektion that would massacre the Jews.  Frankel delves into the fears, the highs and lows of living in the forest with death facing them each moment, the preparations to fight, and the interactions with others with the result that the reader should develop a high degree of empathy for victims of the Nazi genocide.

Many historical events and characters appear.  The Bielski brothers resided in the same forest as the Rabinowitz’s.  SS Obersturmbannfuhrer Oskar Direwanger who had the reputation as “the most evil man in the SS” leads the the killing squads that resulted in the death of over 10,000 in the first months of 1943 appears.  Herz Kaminsky, a man who lost his wife and child took in seventy people and protected them and acquired the nickname of “the father of all children.”  Numerous other personal stories are told each rendering the reader to ponder how they may have fared in this situation.

Philip and Ruth Lazowski, Holocaust survivors and residents of West Hartford, on June 24, 1954, the day Philip graduated from Yeshiva University.

(Philip and Ruth Lazowski, Holocaust survivors and residents of West Hartford, on June 24, 1954, the day Philip graduated from Yeshiva University) (Courtesy Lazowski Family)

By the start of 1944, the 150,000 Russian partisans had taken control of the forests and the Soviet army began its march toward Berlin.  The Jews who lived in the forest had to navigate being caught between the surging Russian forces and the retreating Germans.  By September of 1944, the Rabinowitz’s and others were told by the Christian farmers that the Germans were gone, and they soon walked for weeks to return to the village of Zhetel which they found was occupied by the Soviet army and their homes and possessions gone.

The 1953 wedding is evidence of the randomness of survival and reconnection that followed European Jewry after the war.  Frankel’s extensive research based on interviews of survivors and their descendants tells a story of struggle and resilience and it will captivate the reader and in many instances bring forth thoughts of how people treat each other in desperate situations and what they will do to overcome and save themselves and their families.  This is a gripping story with a satisfying ending, which I recommend to all.

Belarus

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR by Craig Whitlock

(Former President Bush flashes a thumbs-up after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in 2003. He now says declaring mission accomplished was a mistake.)

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision, that the U.S. government had not met “the heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement” of prior restraint. The Court ordered the immediate end of the injunctions against publication which led to the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times.  The Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force is a Defense Department history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Though Washington Post national security reporter Craig Whitlock’s new book, THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR does not rise to the level of the Pentagon Papers according to the author it is based on “interviews with more than a 1,000 people who played a direct part in the war.  The Lessons Learned Interviews, oral histories and 59,000 Rumsfeld snowflakes comprise more than 10,000 pages of documents.  Unedited and unfiltered, they reveal the voices of people – from those who made policy in Washington to those who fought in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan – who knew the official version of the war being fed to the American people was untrue, or aggressively sanitized at best.” (xx)

The publication of Whitlock’s monograph coincides with the disjointed American withdrawal from Afghanistan the last few weeks.  The partisan debate that President Biden’s abrupt exit sparked creates the need for a more nuanced and objective analysis of the past 20 years since 9/11 and its is our good fortune as the war for America seems to have concluded a series of new historical monographs have emerged.  Apart from Whitlock’s book readers can choose from Carter Malkasian’s  THE AMERICAN WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: A HISTORY; David Loyn’s THE LONG WAR; Peter Bergen’s THE RISE AND FALL OF OSAMA BIN-LADIN; and Spencer Ackerman’s REIGN OF TERROR.  There are also a number of works that have been written over the last decade that one might consult.  The works of Steve Coll come to mind, GHOST WARS  and DIRECTORATE S; also important are Dexter Filkins’ THE FOREVER WAR; Anand Gopal’s NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING; and Lawrence Wright’s THE LOOMING TOWER.

A great deal of Whitlock’s commentary is similar to the observations of previous authors.  However, what separates Whitlock’s narrative, analysis, and insights is that they are based on documentation and interviews of key commanders, soldiers on the ground, government officials, and even important foreign players who had significant roles in the war.  Whitlock’s monograph is written in a concise and clear manner and his conclusions point to the disaster the war had become after removing the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2002.  Whitlock astutely points out that military strategists are always taught to never start a war without having a plan to end it.  From the outset, the Bush administration never articulated how the war would be ended.  For years, the American people were told the war would be difficult but on an incremental basis we were always winning.  The happy talk of the Bush, Obama, and lastly the Trump administrations never measured up to events on the ground.

(Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and American troops in Afghanistan)

Most historians and journalists agree the swift early American success in 2002 turned out to be a curse as it gave the Bush administration the confidence to change policy from hunting terrorists to nation building.  Despite the arrogance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the war turned against the Americans with this change in strategy, a dominant theme that Whitlock develops as it seemed periodically Washington would change strategies and commanders on a regular basis.  One of the major problems American troops faced was that they could not distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.  For American troops Taliban and al-Qaeda were the same, a gross error in that the Taliban followed an extremist ideology and were Afghans, while al-Qaeda was made up of Arabs with a global presence who wanted to overthrow Middle Eastern autocrats allied with the United States.  By 2002 the United States was fighting an enemy that had nothing to do with 9/11 which was the stated purpose of the war.

The early success would deteriorate as the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  Troops, supplies, and funding dissipated quickly as Whitlock quotes numerous individuals whose frustration with Rumsfeld and company for their lack of interest and refusal to provide the necessary equipment, troops, and funding to bolster the American effort in Afghanistan only providing the minimum level of support to keep the war going.

Whitlock organizes his narrative around American errors, the corruption of the Afghan government, and the refusal of American leadership to face the facts on the battlefield. Similar to the overall war strategy the nation-building campaign suffered from an obvious lack of goals and benchmarks.  The idea of imposing an American style democracy on a country with no foundation or history of the elements of that type of governmental system was idiotic from the outset and no matter what fantasy the Bush administration could cobble together preordained its failure.

Whitlock presents a number of important chapters chief among them is “Raising an Army from the Ashes” in which he describes the issues in constructing an army from scratch.  The entire episode portended the results witnessed a few weeks ago when a 300,000 man army collapsed and faded away when confronted by the Taliban.  Other chapters point to the basic complaint by officers and troops of the lack of preparation in understanding Afghan culture which led to many disastrous decisions.  Another key issue was the role of Pakistan which had its own agenda visa vie the Taliban and indirectly its fears of India.  By creating a sanctuary for the insurgency, it made the American task very difficult.  Whitlock’s insightful analysis mirrors that of Steve Coll’s DIRECTORATE S as it explains ISI duplicity and the fact that the Islamabad government knew how to play both ends against the middle to gain American financial and military support in return for very little.

afghanistan map explainer

American errors are numerous as recounted by Whitlock.  Flooding the country with money for projects that were not needed or absorbable was very detrimental to the American mission.  Support for Hamid Karzai and his corrupt regime, along with alliances with murderous warlords was self-defeating.  Trying to eradicate the opium trade was high minded, but with no alternate source of income Afghan farmers and warlords learned to manipulate the American strategy to reduce the drug trade was very problematical.

Whitlock introduces the major players in the war from Rumsfeld, Cheney, McChrystal, Petraeus,  Obama, and Trump with all of the flaws exhibited by their thinking that led to failure.  Whether implementing counterinsurgency, huge infrastructure projects, building inside enemy territory, and Petraeus’ strategy of being “hellbent at throwing money at problems” was doomed to failure.  The bottom line as Army Lt-General Douglas Lute, a Director of Operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon states is that “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan-we didn’t know what we were doing…What are we doing here?  We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking…There is a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary.” (110)

The Trump administration would run into the same roadblocks in trying to ameliorate the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.  Trump’s tough talk about “winning,” increased bombing that resulted in higher death counts for civilians, and more happy talk did not accomplish much.  It was clear once Trump’s promises “to deliver ‘clear cut victory’ had failed he ordered the state Department and Pentagon to engage in formal, face to face negotiations with the Taliban to find a way to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan without making it seem like a humiliating defeat.” (264) 

For over a  decade American policy makers and commanders  knew that a lasting military defeat of the Taliban was not in the cards as they were a Pashtun-led mass movement that represented a sizable portion of the population and continued to gain strength.  However, the Bush and Obama administrations made only half-hearted attempts to engage the Taliban, deferring to the Afghan government in the diplomatic process which they would paralyze.  The U.S. would squander attempts at a negotiated settlement in 2001 by excluding the Taliban from the Bonn Conference, three years later they did not take advantage of the democratic election of Hamid Karzai as president to implement the diplomatic process.  By 2009 the Obama administration took a hardline approach with its “reconciliation” requirements dooming any hope for talks to begin and progress as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other important policy makers believed that the Taliban would never desert al-Qaeda.

People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman [Abdul Khaliq Achakzai/Reuters]

(People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman)

The Trump administration finally negotiated a deal whereby all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.  Like his predecessors Trump failed to make good on his promise to prevail in Afghanistan or bring what he mocked as “the forever war” to completion.  Instead, he left an inheritance to Joe Biden who chose not to renege on Trump’s settlement with the Taliban to avoid further warfare.  This provoked a firestorm among conservative Republicans and veteran’s groups, many of which had argued against continuing the war for a number of years. Many have chosen to blame Biden for an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and a Taliban victory, however that result was because of two decades of obfuscation and a war strategy that was doomed to failure once we turned our attention to Iraq and took our foot off the pedal that drove the war in Afghanistan..

No matter what successes were repeatedly announced publicly by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations spokespersons, in private they knew that Afghan security forces showed little progress in safeguarding the country, the Taliban retained safe havens in Pakistan, and corruption pervaded Afghan governments alienating and angering people.  If there is one theme that dominates Whitlock’s analysis is that “U.S. leaders knew their war strategy was dysfunctional and privately doubted they could attain their objectives.  Yet they confidently told the public year after year that they were making progress and that victory—winning was over the horizon.” (277)  Whitlock makes it clear that “it was impossible to square negative trends with the optimistic public messaging about progress, so US officials kept the complete datasets confidential.” (205) 

After reading Whitlock’s book it is clear that the US mission in Afghanistan was doomed to failure once we turned to nation building.  Whitlock the first important synthesis of the most basic and essential elements that led to the American withdrawal.  For those who need a quick primer or a thoughtful approach to the conduct of the war, Whitlock’s monograph is critical for our understanding as to what went wrong.

On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant 'Mission Accomplished' banner+4

The infamous phrase was echoed by Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13)+

 (On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, (left) a phrase echoed by Donald Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13, 2018)

ARCHANGEL by Robert Harris

The eBay seller of this “perfect condition” Stalin statue says it was auctioned off by the Czech town of Litomerice “many years ago.”
(Stalin Statue)

It is obvious that Robert Harris is one of the best purveyors of historical fiction who can be found on the shelves of any bookstore.  Whether exploring the Munich Conference, the German missile campaign during World War II, a trilogy that explores the struggle for power in ancient Rome, the machinations of a Papal conclave, or the Dreyfus Affair are among his fourteen bestselling novels.  The depth and varied subjects of his writing reflect the breadth of historical knowledge and his commitment to producing historical fiction that is readable and interesting for everyone while creating stories that are made up of actual events and characters among those that he develops as his plots evolve.

I decided to return to one of Harris’ earlier books, ARCHANGEL a story that centers on the possibility that Joseph Stalin may have prepared a notebook with a number of fascinating commentaries.  The story begins with the death of Stalin early in the morning of March 3, 1953, and the gathering of the Soviet leadership who are trying to decide what to do about his death and succession.  Immediately, Harris shifts his focus to a conversation between Papu Gerasimoch Rapava, a guard in the compound where Stalin died who had access to his body and the “notebook,” and Fluke Kelso a former Oxford professor who gave up his academic position to move to New York and concentrate on his writing.  The conversation takes place four decades after Stalin’s death with Kelso plying Rapava with alcohol as he tried to gain access and knowledge of the missing notebook.

Map of Russia and Arkhangelsk

Harris has firm control of historical events and offers keen insights into the motivation and actions of key personalities.  A case in point is his treatment of KGB head Lavrenty Beria who was convinced he was next in line to replace Stalin as leader of the Soviet state.  In actuality he had rubbed Malenkov, Zhukov, Khrushchev, and company the wrong way and was dead within three months of Stalin’s passing.  Soon Rapava becomes a KGB target as he is suspected of possessing the “notebook,” and Harris details his torture, imprisonment in the Gulag for fifteen years, and his survival.  It is interesting how Harris portrays the “new” Russia of the 1990s through Rapava’s eyes once he is released from prison.  His shock at the changes that have taken place in Moscow where remnants of Stalin have been removed along with other observations of his country as it becomes an oligarchy of wealth under Boris Yeltsin and later  Vladimir Putin.

Kelso finds himself in Russia at a historical conference at the Institute of Marxism-Leninism which was attended by Rapava.  Kelso will meet the Russian and try to uncover truths about Stalin.  Frank Adelman another historian believes that Rapava is setting Kelso up to gain money and that his fellow historian is too bent on journalism and publicity as opposed to meaningful  history.

Harris paints a damning portrait of Moscow in the late 1990s with dust and soot in the air, frozen puddles, sullen people, among many negative characteristics. .  Harris is able to integrate historical treatises to his plot reflecting his knowledge of Russian historiography and a wonderful description of the Lenin Library and the Central Library of the Russian Federation.

Kelso is  described by Adelman as “a fattening and hungover middle aged historian in a black corduroy suit,”a damning appraisal of the former Oxford historian.  Kelso’s circle of acquaintances includes Vladimir Mamantov, a former KGB operative who remains a true Stalinist and wants to protect Stalin’s memory and wants to find the “notebook,” and use it as a means of returning Stalinism to power in Russia. Through Mamantov Harris portrays the remaining Stalinist enclave in Russian society who still admire Stalin, and the fact that the former KGB agent was arrested in 1991 in the plot to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev tells a great deal.  It seems Rapava has a daughter, Zinaida who gives the “notebook” to Kelso and a Satellite News reporter named O’Brian.  Further it appears Stalin may have had are relationship with Zinaida’s mother Anna Safanova, a house cleaner who may have produced a son, an heir to Stalin.

Arkhangelsk, Russia from above, photo 1

(Cathedral of the Archangel Michael)

As Harris weaves his web the novel centers on the quest for the notebook that involves a Russian SVR agent, Feliks Suvorin who tracks Kelso and O’Brian to the north country and a run in with “Stalin’s possible heir,” that may not end well. The northern city is Archangel which remains a hotbed of Stalinism and produces a perilous adventure for all concerned as the SVR and Spetsnaz soldiers may have met their match with the son of Stalin. 

As Harris continues his web he makes a number of important historical observations the most important of which focuses on Russian workers and peasants, who under the Tsar had nothing while the nobility owned the country.  Later the workers and peasants owned nothing, and the Party owned the country.  Later, the workers and peasants still owned nothing, and the country’s is owned as usual, “by whoever has the biggest fists.”  Today it is the oligarchs and Putin.

Harris’ plot line is farfetched, but it does lend itself to an interesting story leading the reader on to learn what the truth is and if the “notebook” actually is meaningful and what makes so many people willing to kill to acquire it.  A dominant theme that Harris develops is the memory of Stalin among the Russian people.  He remains quite popular as historically Russia has always had a father/Tsarist type leader who was tolerated as  all knowing.  Then came Lenin, Stalin, the Brezhnev types, and now Putin, all with similar autocratic tendencies. 

Though I would not call Archangel one of Harris’ best novels it is worth the read because of its subject matter and the author’s commentary on what Russia has become or still remains.

(Stalin Statue)

FACING THE MOUNTAIN: A TRUE STORY OF JAPANESE HEROES IN WORLD WAR II by Daniel James Brown

During World War II the United States government violated its founding principles by incarcerating over 120,000 Japanese-Americans in “internment camps,” a euphemism for “concentration camps.”  Families were separated, homes and businesses lost, and possessions  sold for little value as people were sent to live in barracks in Wyoming, Colorado, California, Arkansas, and Utah.  Of those sent to the camps, two-thirds were American citizens.  Despite this treatment Japanese-Americans reacted to the bombing of Pearl Harbor in the same manner as their fellow countrymen with thousands either enlisting or being drafted into the US military.  The treatment of these American citizens domestically and the courage and defiance shown by Japanese-American soldiers in Europe is the subject of Daniel James Brown’s latest book FACING THE MOUNTAIN: A TRUE STORY OF JAPANESE HEROES IN WORLD WAR II.  Brown the author of the award winning THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: NINE AMERICANS AND THEIR EPIC QUEST FOR GOLD AT THE 1936 BERLIN OLYMPICS has produced another amazing narrative history that focuses on the personal lives of the characters portrayed and provides the reader with intricate details of what they experienced, the emotions involved, and in the case of Brown’s current effort the quest to bring honor to their families and successfully represent their country on the battlefield.

Brown’s work is based on voluminous research that included interviews with many survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in the camps and fought for their country in the European theater.  Brown’s effort has two major components.  First, he focuses on the reaction to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and its implications for Japanese-Americans.  The racism and fear on the part of the US government resulted in the round up of over 120,000 American citizens where they wound remain until President Roosevelt, after gaining his fourth term in the White House ended their incarceration in December 1944.  The second component of the book zeroes in on Japanese-American citizens, born on American soil who were known as Nisei who enlisted in the US Army.  These individuals made up two distinct groups that Brown describes; the Kontonks, Japanese-Americans who lived on the mainland, and Buddaheads, who lived in Hawaii.  The two groups were very different culturally despite

Map of Japanese internment camps, 1941-1945.

(Map of Japanese internment camps, 1941-1945.Japanese Americans were ordered to leave the “Exclusion Area” on the West Coast of the United States and to move to remote internment) 

their common ancestry and did not get along well until they began to train together and deployed overseas.  

Brown introduces countless individuals in his presentation, but his main focus is on four men; Rudy Tokiwa and Fred Shiosaki who were members of the Third Battalion K Company, part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and were from the mainland.  Katsugo “Kats” Miho, a Hawaiian was part of the 522nd Artillery group, and George Hirabayashi, a mainlander who refused to fight because of the racial discrimination against Japanese-Americans becoming a conscientious objector as he was a Quaker.  From the outset Brown describes the increasing racism and virulent rhetoric that the families of the Nisei had to deal with when they were rounded up, forced to give away and/or sell their possessions, and life in the internment camps.  Brown’s presentation is very sensitive particularly reflected in the excerpted letters between family members and their sons fighting abroad, including a series of letters between chaplains Hiro Higuchi and Masao Yamada and their wives.

Photograph of Fred Korematsu wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

(Fred Korematsu wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom.Fred Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. In 1942, Korematsu refused to comply with the internment order and was arrested. The Supreme Court ruled against him, citing the “military necessity” of Japanese internment).

Brown carefully reviews the history of anti-Asianism in America dating back to the mid-19th century.  He traces Congressional legislation from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, Theodore Roosevelt’s Gentleman’s Agreement, and the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act that set quotas for different ethnicities and their ability to immigrate to the United States.  Brown describes the conditions in the internment camps that the Tokiwa, Shiosaki, and Miho families were sent to, particularly Poston in Arkansas and Heart’s Mountain in Wyoming.  Brown explores their emotional state and how they and thousands of other internes were able to endure their situation and in most cases make the best of it as camps produced schools, theater, farming, among many examples of their flexibility in the face of virulent racism.

The author’s treatment of the Hirabayashi case is important as it reflects the racism in the American legal system and its refusal to conform to constitutional protections of its citizens.  Many soldiers were allowed to visit their families in the camps.  Their anger and frustration concerning what they witnessed did not take away their quest to honor their families and become the best soldiers they could be.

The 422nd and 522nd fought in North Africa, Italy, and Germany and were enveloped by the Battle of the Bulge and they developed a reputation of being among the best troops that the United States produced, evidenced by General Mark Clark’s constant requests for Japanese-American soldiers for his companies.  The bravery of these men is well documented as Brown’s excellent command of details of what the Nisei faced on the battlefield is portrayed, i.e.; German bombardment  on the outskirts of Italian cities and towns, their rescue of over 200 Texas soldiers pinned down by German artillery at the cost of hundreds of their own casualties in the Vosges, their constant volunteering for dangerous missions, and their sense of community as they fought as what historian Stephen Ambrose describes in dealing with the Battle of the Bulge, as “a band of brothers.”  They gained the respect of the Germans, and they came to fear “the little iron men,” as the Nisei fought through the forests of the Vosges, Anzio, and numerous towns and villages throughout Italy and Germany.

A replica of internment camp barracks stands at Manzanar National Historic Site on Dec. 9, 2015, near Independence, Calif. (Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Manzanar Internment Camp)

Once Roosevelt ordered the freeing of the interned Japanese-Americans these people wondered where they could go.  Their homes and businesses were gone, and FDR’s order did not extinguish the rampant racism that remained despite the reputation the Nisei had garnered from the American media, at the same time their sons were fighting and dying for the American flag.  It is interesting that today we are witnessing a spike in anti-Asian racism in the United States because of Covid-19, reflecting the idea that we as a people we have a long way to go in coping with our racist past and present.

In the case of Hirabayashi, he was arrested and imprisoned after a sham trial.  His lawyers fought the conviction all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the sentence in Hirabayashi v. United States.   As David Kindy writes in Smithsonian Magazine, “In 1987, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reopened and reviewed the case, vacating Hirabayashi’s conviction with a writ of coram nobis, which allows a court to overturn a ruling made in error.

Rudy Tokiwa bringing in captured German soldiers in Italy.
Rudy Tokiwa bringing in captured German soldiers in Italy. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

All four men are gone now—Shiosaki was the last survivor, dying last month at age 96—but they all lived to witness the U.S. government making amends. The Civil Liberties Act of 1988 addressed the “fundamental injustice” of what happened during the war and provided compensation for losses sustained by incarcerated Japanese Americans.

‘The sacrifices of our parents and the sacrifices of the men in the 442nd were our way of earning that freedom,” Shisoki told Spokane’s KXLY 4 News in 2006. “The right to be called an American, not a hyphenated American and I guess that’s my message to everybody; that you don’t—this stuff doesn’t get given to you, you earn it. Every generation earns it in some way or another.’

At a difficult time in the country’s history, each of the four men followed the path that he believed was right. In the end, their faith in their country was rewarded with the acknowledgement that their rights had been violated.”***

***David Kindy, “Meet Four Japanese-American Men Who Fought Against Racism in World War II,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 12, 2021.

THE FIRE MAKER by Peter May

Beijing map

(Beijing and its metropolitan area)

After visiting China, many times from the early 1980s through the advent of the 20th century, author Peter May has witnessed the evolution of Chinese society from one that suffered under the cruelties of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.   Beginning in 1966 the Chinese dictator sought to reinvigorate his revolution as he feared death by purging the older generation according to psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton in his book REVOLUTIONARY IMMORTALITY.  Once Mao passed from the scene pragmatists like Deng Xiaoping guided China through a period of modernization that has culminated in making China the superpower she is today.  May uses this evolution in China as a focal point in the preparation of his six volume fictional compendium entitled the China Thrillers.  These works of fiction allow May to present a nuanced historical picture of China as he develops his story lines, the first of which is entitled THE FIRE MAKER.

The novel centers around the relationship between Margaret Campbell,  a forensic pathologist and sassy character who left her position in the city of Chicago to accept a six week exchange with the People’s University of Public Safety in Beijing, China.  It appears she is trying to gain  personal space because of the breakup and death of her husband and hoped to share her professional skills with her Chinese colleagues.  Her interactions with Li Yan, recently promoted to Deputy Section Chief, Section One of the Beijing Municipal Police force, is one that develops slowly ranging from the acrimonious to one of mutual respect to romantic involvement.  Through their relationship May does an excellent job in reflecting the atmosphere of China in the late 1990s in Beijing as China was beginning to evolve into a dominant superpower on the world stage.

The dialogue between Campbell and Li Yan allows May to review the contentious relationship between the United States and China.  Their back and forth centers on China’s unconscious inferiority when compared to America’s perceived superiority toward the Middle Kingdom.  Their arguments center around the issues of civil and human rights with each character bringing up events from Tiananmen Square to the Vietnam War in their frequent exchanges.  By doing so May allows the reader to gain insight into Sino-American discourse that has produced so much angst between the two for decades.

The plot focuses on three murders.  The first, the immolation of Chao Heng, a former senior technical advisor to the Minister of Agriculture who was suspected of being a pedophile and a drug addict. Campbell, whose specialty is the autopsies of burn victims is brought in and convinces Li Yan that the victim did not commit suicide but was murdered.  The second victim, Mao Mao, a known drug user, and the third is an itinerant laborer from Shanghai named Guo Jingbo.  The question is whether the three murders are separate and coincidental or are they linked in some way.  The key for Li Yan is the discovery of Marlboro cigarettes at the site of each crime scene and his “gut” instinct.

(Palace Museum, Forbidden City, Beijing, China)

May integrates a great deal of Chinese government policy in the late 1990s and its impact on family life.  Examples include the government’s “one child” policy and its approach to the civil rights of its citizens.  May also delves into Chinese history and philosophy through the application of Confucian ideals and in entertaining scenes that reflect the concept of feng Shui and is able to juxtapose the old China with a modernizing China very clearly.

May introduces a series of interesting characters apart from Campbell and Li Yan.  Li Yan’s uncle Yifu is a colorful individual whose reputation includes that of being a phenomenal police officer during his career.  Li Yan looks up to his uncle who taught him English and convinced him to train and study in the United States and whose shoes he would like to fill.  Bob Wade is a computer profiler who plays the role of Campbell’s guide and handler.  May Yongli, a chef and lifelong friend of Li Yan is a partier who tries to get his compatriot to loosen up and enjoy life.  Lotus, is a prostitute and May Yongli’s girlfriend.  Constable Li Ping is in charge of security surrounding Campbell but finds herself left out of most important situations.  Johnny Ren, a freelance Triad hitman from Hong Kong.  There are various other Chinese officials introduced along with detectives and low level government bureaucrats as the story lines unfold.

Margaret’s work with Li exposes her to a broad section of Chinese culture and opens her eyes to a vastly different world that she comes to respect. As the case evolves, she and Li Yan become more aware of a cover-up by highly placed government officials who have developed a genetically engineered form of rice to meet China’s food supply needs.  Margaret is set up for death by an alcoholic plant geneticist, Li Yan is framed for the death of his beloved uncle, and both must run for their lives in the hope that they can tell the world what they know of a dangerous secret that could lead to disaster after what appears to be three murder committed by a professional hit man.

The novel is not overly violent and exhibits a slow meandering pace that catches fire after several hundred pages.  The novel succeeds as a taut thriller, but more importantly as a window into China in the late 1990s.  As is the case in most mystery series, the conclusion of the novel leaves an opening that will be filled in the next installment of the Campbell-Li Yan relationship entitled, THE FOURTH SACRIFICE.

(Beijing, China)

“Walk With Eloise Freiberger” our wonderful granddaughter

Page Media

This letter may not seem appropriate for a website that focuses on books, but the cause is so very important I thought I would post it. If you are not interested please disregard since I do not personally know most of you. Thank you for your consideration.


Dear Family and Friends,

As many of you know, our wonderful granddaughter, Eloise, now three years old, was diagnosed with cancer two months before she turned two years of age.  Her type of cancer is known as a Wilm’s tumor, a juvenile type of kidney cancer.  She was admitted to Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York for three weeks and then another three weeks at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital where she underwent six radiation treatments and another six months of chemotherapy.
Eloise did not deserve cancer. Why her?  Our families think about this often, but why anyone?  No one deserves cancer.  Yet so many of us have been impacted ourselves by family members and friends who have battled the disease.  Unfortunately, one of Eloise’s “MSK Big Sisters” has just been readmitted to MSK to undergo further chemo and cell transplants as her cancer has returned.
So friends and family, help us give hope and better options to the kids and families that will be affected by pediatric cancer.

Pediatric cancer research is wildly underfunded, receiving just 4-5% of the National Cancer Institute’s budget. Most progress has been made through private funding of research such as the Kids Walk. We were surprised to learn that many of Eloise’s medications were developed in the 1970s and her treatment protocol in the 1980s. While we are eternally grateful for the unparalleled care Eloise received at MSK Kids, we want better options for young people everywhere. Every dollar raised through Kids Walk for MSK Kids goes directly to research.

In that spirit Ronni and I would like to support our children, Josh and Caryn and help raise money for MSK through the “Walk With Eloise” on September 25th where we will walk one mile along the Brooklyn waterfront in honor of the sacrifices made, by children and families before us, so that Eloise’s treatment would be possible.
If you are interested in contributing to this vital cause please click on http://mskcc.convio.net/goto/walkwitheloise to make a gift toward eradicating pediatric cancer.


Thank you for your consideration,
Ronni and Steve