The Battle of Turkey Thicket, By Christopher Russell: Book Review

philip hughes grave
This is the gravestone that marks the resting place of Philip Hughes in Arlington National Cemetery

On June 27, 1950 Harry Truman ordered American forces into South Korea. The purpose of this action was to help repel North Korean troops that had crossed the 38th Parallel. It would be two and half months before significant reinforcements would be sent to buttress the small American contingent. By the time these fresh recruits arrived, the hero of this book, Private Philip Thomas Hughes of the 19th Infantry, 24th Infantry Division, had fallen. His demise came just three days before the U. N. intervention and a mere twelve days after his eighteenth birthday. The Battle of Turkey Thicket, by Christopher Russell, offers insight into the chaotic early days of the Korean War and provides an explanation for how young Philip Hughes found himself at the front line in a war for which he, and the United States, were poorly prepared

In writing this book, Russell has done a service to every soldier who ever fought in war. The details of Philip Hughes’ life are often murky. This was a boy who was not born to advantage. He was orphaned as an infant and sent to live in an institution. At the age of two, he was adopted. From the account of this book, it seems that the circumstances in that adoptive home were not conducive to a happy childhood.

Philip, and his brother, Frank, ran away in 1949, when they were teenagers.   After that, neither boy was welcome back home. They ended up in a reformatory, though they had not committed a serious offense. Their mother simply found them to be unmanageable, so she turned them over to the state. Under the circumstances, the military seemed like a reasonable option to Philip. The country was not at war, he would have the opportunity to travel, and he would receive training. His mother did not object.

Philip was sent overseas, to Japan, where U. S. Occupation forces were supervising Japan’s post-WWII transition. It was while he was in Japan that the North Korean incursion occurred. Philip and other soldiers stationed in Japan were sent into combat. These soldiers were not seasoned fighters. Battlefield equipment was left over from WWII and it was not in great shape. Supply transport for the soldiers in the field was haphazard. The troops were cold, hungry and sometimes actually lost in the rough South Korean terrain. Clean water was in short supply, sanitation was “abysmal” and medical care was substandard. According to Christopher Russell, “During the first year of the Korean War, 60 percent of U. S. troop evacuations were disease related.”

Russell has ably managed a difficult task in writing this book. He has researched the scant details of Philip Hughes life and has noted when sections of the book are not supported by the record. Much of the narrative is derived from extrapolation or third person accounts. Russell does not blur the line between what he knows for certain and what is likely to have happened. As a result, the reader is grateful that the story as told can be relied upon.  Still…there is a desire to know more about the young soldier. To Russell’s credit, he does not give in to the temptation to fill in the blanks with a faux account.

I wish everyone would read this book. The Korean War is largely forgotten in the United States, although Korea is much in the news these days. Millions of civilians were killed or wounded during the war.  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers fell in battle.  Approximately 36,700 of the fallen were American.  And yet, the fallen, to many Americans, are a minor footnote to history. Christopher Russell’s book reminds us that the lives of the fallen matter, and that their sacrifice should be honored.

The Battle of Turkey Thicket is the story of an orphan, of a soldier, of an American War. I highly recommend this book.

A. G. Moore September 2017

 

 

Advertisements

The Accidental Anarchist, By Bryna Kranzler: Book Review

Jewish refugees Liverpool 1882
Jewish refugees from Russian pogrom, Liverpool, England 1882


Bryna Kranzler’s The Accidental Anarchist traces the adventures and misadventures of Jacob Marateck, the author’s grandfather. The book is based on Jacob’s diaries, which were written from memory. The diaries document Jacob’s personal history and are part of the Marateck family legacy.

Jacob Marateck was witness to dramatic events in Russian history. He fought in the Russo-Japanese War, conspired with revolutionaries and was exiled to Siberia. Eventually, he followed the only path that would insure his survival: He emigrated.

Jacob’s saga begins when he is conscripted into the Russian army. The naive youth stumbles through a series of calamities from which he manages, improbably, to escape. He brings along with him on his travels three abiding tools that get him through the adventures: a clever mind, an abiding sense of humor, and an unshakable faith. That faith, in my view, more than anything else, becomes the spine of this story.

When Jacob sets off for the army, his family, and just about everyone who knows him, gather and bid him goodbye. Ahead of him lies the unknown. Behind, an insular society, one that has provided family, friends and moral compass. What will the world, what will the Russian army, do to Jacob? His father offers advice that will stay with Jacob and protect him from the mischief of outside influences. “Be a Jew”, his father instructs. We see throughout the book that it is this injunction, and Jacob’s adherence to it, that determine the course of his life and his character.

His father’s words ring in Jacob’s ears as he marches to war. They provide strength as he struggles to resist temptations . “Be a Jew”. Conforming to his mandate means conforming to the laws of the Torah, even when hunger and carnal desire strike.

Of course, being a Jew in imperial Russia is not an identity Jacob can easily deny. Antisemitism pervades every aspect of Russian society. It is inescapable in the marketplace, the courts and the army.

Although Jacob’s journey takes him to war, prison and exile, his tone is never grim. The book has an almost picaresque quality. Even more than Bryna Kranzler’s art, I believe it is Jacob’s humor that makes his story enjoyable.

The essential truth of Jacob’s recollections is born out by other material from the same era. Tolstoy’s Resurrection, for example, describes an irrational court system, a decadent military and a brutal process of exile. Resurrection is not simply a novel. It was Tolstoy’s attempt to expose flaws in Russian society and government. The book has been faulted for being a screed rather than a work of fiction.

Byrna Kranzler has done a skillful job editing and organizing her grandfather’s diaries. After his death, associates and family recognized the value of his unique record. They preserved the diaries and transcribed them. Kranzler explains that she is third in the line of this legacy project. She edited and consolidated the material further. Consolidation involved taking liberty with details to create an entertaining story. The result is a blend of history, memoir and novel.

Overall, The Accidental Anarchist may be taken as a genuine reflection of the diarist’s experience. I would have enjoyed reading the originals, in translation, but most readers would probably prefer this more organized rendition. The Accidental Anarchist is a well-written and worthwhile book.

A. G. Moore     August, 2017

Art Alone Enduring, By Mary Steenson: Book Review

 

 

Park Bridge by Zora Steenson

“Park Bridge” by Zora Steenson, used with permission of Mary Steenson.  Copyright protected.

 

 

Art Alone Enduring is a poignant story of two sisters, Hughberta and Zora Steenson, who were social pioneers and artists. Zora established herself as a freelance artist when most women did not work outside of the home. Hughberta joined the Marine Corp during WWII and became one of the first women ever admitted into that branch of the service. Both women created brilliant art that is just today beginning to gain well-deserved recognition. Art Alone Enduring offers vivid color reproductions of this work. The pictures alone are worth the price of the book.

Mary H. Steenson, author of Art Alone Enduring, is related to the Steenson sisters by marriage. Her husband, Robert, was their nephew and helped to oversee their care near the end of their lives. The journey traveled by these sisters is one that takes readers through Depression-era hardship, WWII and the post-war boom in the United States.

This book is loosely based on the lives of Zora and Hughberta, but it is also a work of imagination. It is impossible to separate the known details from the fictional embellishments. No matter. Ms. Steenson has created a viable vehicle for introducing two remarkable artists to the public. These sisters began their lives in the Midwest and ended, many years later, in a Tacoma, Washington nursing home.

Hughberta was the younger sister, filled with sibling rivalry. Zora was the protective older sister. After drifting apart and finding their separate destinies, the sisters reunited in midlife and stayed together until Zora was removed to nursing care. They did not remain apart for long.  A determined and resourceful Hughberta found her way into the nursing home and stayed with Zora for the rest of her days.

In 1998, Hughberta died after a bout with the flu. Zora lived on for another three years. Today, the sisters are buried together near their parents’ graves, in Minnesota.

I recommend strongly that readers seek out the art of Hughberta and Zora. Their work is arresting and unforgettable. A website maintained by Mary Steenson, maryhsteenson.com, displays some of their pieces.

Art Alone Enduring is a lovely book, a delight to hold and peruse. It is the sort of book that reminds us why sometimes reading the physical copy of a book is an experience that cannot be matched by consuming the material through an electronic device.

 

A. G. Moore  August 2017