Archive | May, 2013

Review: The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin

22 May

Title: The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War
Author: Richard Rubin
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Over the past decade, Richard Rubin sought out every last living American veteran of World War I–and uncovered a forgotten great generation, and their war. World War I was so cataclysmic that every town in America built a memorial to our doughboys, in the hope that they would never be forgotten. And yet today, thanks to the passing of nearly a century and an even more cataclysmic World War, they are. Ten years ago, Richard Rubin set out to interview every last living doughboy–several dozen, aged 101 to 113. They shared with him, at the last possible moment (they are all gone now) the story of America’s Great War, and of the generation that raised the “Greatest Generation.” They were nineteenth-century men and women living in the twenty-first century: self-reliant, humble, and stoic; never complaining, still marveling at the immensity of the war they helped win. A decade in the making, “The Last of the Doughboys” is a sweeping new look at our forgotten World War, and a moving meditation on character, grace, aging, and memory

Via GoodReads

Even since I read my first Studs Terkel, I’ve been a fan of the oral history sub-genre. A book filled with letters will put me to sleep but a book where people talk is one I will pick up in the bookstore. I was especially interested in the subject matter because, given how large WWII looms in the American public consciousness, I was excited to see a book that gave a nod to WWI veterans in the same way that WWII veterans have already been acknowledged.

I think WWI and WWII are viewed very differently. It is hard to come up with a war more justifiable than one against Adolf Hitler. The justifiable nature of WWII often turns WWI into a forgotten child. There is a great Studs Terkel book called “The Good War” but not equivalent oral history of WWI.

This book was written right before it was too late. This book could not be written today, as none of the veterans of WWI are still living. It could be argued that this book was written too late, that some of the weaker sections are due to the lack of available interviews, but I chose to applaud the work done instead of focus on how much fuller a picture could have been painted if this book at been written in 1975. It wasn’t and there is no point bemoaning that fact.

I had an issue with the use of first person narration. First person is becoming increasingly widespread in popular history and is rarely effective for me. I would speculate that part of the reason it was used in this case, and it was used heavily, was because the smallish number of veterans in the book simply did not say enough or remember enough to fill more of this book. I think this book was about finding the stories but it was also about finding the men and women who had these memories and meeting them before they were gone from the earth. An event is different when there are no more living witnesses to it. This book was about meeting those witnesses and hearing as much of their stories as possible. First person narration is a good choice for “meeting” the veterans even if it weakens the oral history sections.

The book was rounded out by the author’s research. This research is especially strong in the chapter on Tin Pan Alley and the forgotten music of WWI. A weaker section was the section on the lives of African-American soldiers. This may be a function of the dearth of both research information and the few living subjects that the author was able to interview. I understand why it was included in the book but the chapter was certainly very thin on the ground. I hope someday more work on this issue can be done.

I was very glad I read this book and “met” these veterans. Over the years, I have been trying to expand my reading of WWI. This book was important enough, and interesting enough, that I am glad to have read it.

A egalley was received via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.