June 24, 2010


Such Men as These: The Story of the Navy Pilots Who Flew the Deadly Skies over Korea. By David Sears. Da Capo. $25.

Emma’s Poem: The Voice of the Statue of Liberty. By Linda Glaser. Paintings by Claire A. Nivola. Houghton Mifflin. $17.

     In war and peace alike, it takes a combination of actions and writing about those actions to help noncombatants and those not directly affected by events understand not only what is going on but also what the circumstances mean. At the time of the Korean War, one of the most effective communicators about the conflict was James Michener, who reported for The Saturday Evening Post and took copious notes that later became his bestselling book, The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Neither Michener nor that book will ring an immediate bell for many readers today, so Such Men as These is clearly designed for a limited and older audience. What historian David Sears does is to use Michener’s writings to track down a number of the actual pilots whose exploits became the basis for Michener’s novella. Sears then tells the pilots’ stories, not to counterbalance Michener’s work of fiction but to indicate that the historical occurrences were every bit as riveting – if scarcely as neatly packaged and wrapped up – as what Michener created. Such Men as These is an oddly multifaceted book, being in part yet another story of wartime heroism; in part a deconstruction of Michener’s 1953 work (which was made into a 1954 William Holden-Grace Kelly film that won an Oscar for its special effects); and in part a book that humanizes the pilots who would otherwise be lumped (ceremoniously, to be sure) into the “war heroes” category by giving some of their personal history from before, during and after their time in Korea. The mixture of elements leads to a mixture of styles and focuses. “Nonluck came as a big bang and a sickening thump in the gathering darkness,” writes Sears at one point. At another, in a passage replete with cliché: “As [pilot Harry] Ettinger stood near the shallow depression he had just created [at the command of his captors], one of the guards ceremoniously cocked a pistol and put the barrel to Ettinger’s head. There was angry shouting and, for Ettinger, an agonizing, breath-stopping pause at eternity’s doorstep before the guard finally pulled the trigger and the hammer clicked sharply on an empty chamber. Ettinger shuddered and opened his eyes, momentarily uncertain if he was alive or dead.” And at yet another point, in exegesis-of-Michener mode: “James Michener, whose job it was to sort through the complexity and frustration of this lost (or at least uncertain) cause for his reading audience back home…went about acquainting himself with the new group – hanging around the wardroom and squadron ready rooms, continuing to interview pilots, scribble notes, and build his understanding of how such men did what they did and why.” It will take a small, devoted cadre of readers to appreciate Such Men as These in the spirit in which Sears has written it: they must be interested not only in the Korean War and the undoubted heroism of many who fought there but also in one of that war’s prime literary chroniclers – and they must be willing to overlook Sears’ rather choppy pacing and inelegances of style.

     Emma’s Poem is also a book about the words of an earlier author, but it is intended for younger readers and is designed to showcase the immigrant experience of freedom in the New World in a way that is very different from Sears’ treatment of war. Emma Lazarus’ poem. The New Colossus, is well known for its association with the Statue of Liberty, but the poet’s reasons for writing her sonnet are less known. “At that time,” writes Linda Glaser, the statue “had nothing to do with immigrants. But Emma knew that immigrants would see the huge woman when their boats arrived in New York Harbor. Wouldn’t they wonder why she was there? ...And what if the statue were a real live woman? What might she think when she saw immigrants arriving hungry and in rags?” Emma’s Poem is a story of transformation. The New Colossus transformed France’s gift to the United States into a symbol of immigrant striving and hope, turning this statue celebrating the shared freedoms of France and the U.S. into a focus on “your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Emma Lazarus herself was transformed by the plight of poor immigrants – she grew up as a privileged child and was already a well-known writer when she created her famous poem. And her poem had a specific financial purpose: it was written so it could be used to raise the money needed to assemble and mount the statue, which was shipped from France in 214 crates. Although Emma Lazarus died in 1887 (at the age of only 38), before the Statue of Liberty was erected, Emma’s Poem traces what happened to her words after her death, as it became a plaque, a part of school textbooks, even an Irving Berlin song. Glaser tells the poem’s story simply and movingly, and includes a brief biographical note about Emma Lazarus – plus the entire sonnet – at the end of the book. Claire A. Nivola’s elegant paintings look like period pieces and help keep the story firmly grounded in the late 19th century (albeit a cleaned-up 19th century in terms of how the poor and their environs appear). This is a lovely book, if perhaps a touch too intensely earnest to appeal immediately to young readers who do not already know a bit about the Statue of Liberty. As a companion piece to an actual trip to the statue, though, families will find it most welcome.

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