April 03, 2014

(+++) TRUST AND MISTRUST


Hidden Like Anne Frank: 14 True Stories of Survival. By Marcel Prins & Peter Henk Steenhuis. Translated by Laura Watkinson. Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic. $16.99.

A Trust Betrayed: The Untold Story of Camp Lejeune and the Poisoning of Generations of Marines and Their Families. By Mike Magner. Da Capo. $27.50.

     Serious books tackling serious subjects in ways that some readers will find too depressing to make it possible to read the books through to get to their underlying messages, these works, one primarily for young readers and one definitely for adults, provide useful perspectives on major societal issues – but ones undermined by elements of their presentations. Hidden Like Anne Frank could be thought of, and is intended to be thought of, as the “other side” of the Anne Frank story: a book about Jewish children who hid from the Nazis in the Netherlands during World War II and, unlike Anne, survived the war. A useful counterpoint to The Diary of Anne Frank, with all 14 stories told in the first person by the survivors – who are shown as they look today at the end of the book – Hidden Like Anne Frank is nevertheless difficult reading, and not only because of its theme. Many of the references and words will be unfamiliar to English speakers, especially young ones, so the book is peppered with footnotes and also requires frequent consultation of its glossary. And although the children in the book did survive, they were, perhaps inevitably, damaged in permanent ways, which they discuss matter-of-factly. One writes, “For a long time, I kept looking for the little boy who had lived next door, but he never came back. And neither did my grandparents or my mother’s seven brothers and sisters, the ones my father had arranged hiding places for at the beginning of the war.” Another says, “I couldn’t forgive my parents for handing me over to strangers. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that they’d abandoned me. …I went on visiting [the woman with whom I lived during the war] in the retirement home until she died. ‘She saved your life,’ my father always used to say whenever he dragged me there yet again. That’s true. She saved my life. ‘And she ruined it too,’ I always used to add.”  Prose like this – added to the numerous wartime photos in the book – certainly makes the narrators’ terrifying experiences come alive, and certainly becomes yet another of the very, very numerous discussions of the horrors of World War II, if yet another such exploration is necessary. But it is difficult to see just who the audience for this book is supposed to be. Jews wanting yet another way to remember the war? Young readers seeking to know whether some children’s fates were better than those of Anne Frank? People looking for a series of mostly matter-of-fact narratives to balance the often na├»vely optimistic, nature-focused ones in Anne’s diary, which are a big reason her writing has touched so many? The tales in Hidden Like Anne Frank are certainly worthy of being told, and the first-person narratives often have considerable power, sometimes in spite of themselves. But the book seems more like a work for specialists in World War II than one for 21st-century readers, young or old, in general.

     A Trust Betrayed seems like a narrative for specialists as well, even though Mike Magner tries to turn it into a major matter of concern for American society as a whole. It is about the Superfund site at the Marine Corps training facility of Camp Lejeune in North Carolina – a place that, like the other 140 or so Superfund sites operated by the Department of Defense, is a significant environmental hazard where toxic waste from various sources built up over many years and is now requiring many additional years for cleanup. These sites are among some 1,600 on the total Superfund list, and every such site, whether the responsibility of private industry or the government, is a story of misuse, misunderstanding, and human consequences that reach across years, even generations. So of course the Camp Lejeune site is just such a story. And of course Magner, managing editor of National Journal, tells it in the usual form in which journalists make a large subject comprehensible: he mingles the science, the statistics and the “macro” elements with individual stories of people and families affected by the ways in which toxic waste seeped into the Camp Lejeune water supply.  Make no mistake: this is a major issue, and the effects on individuals are undoubted, serious and long-lasting. Magner’s carefully detailed look at the ways in which the Defense Department repeatedly failed Marine families even as the toxic-waste accumulation appeared to spawn birth defects and cancers is damning, and his discussion of the slow-moving bureaucratic machinery that allowed the toxic-waste problem to go unaddressed or inadequately addressed for so long is enough to infuriate any reader who thinks of the government, and the military in particular, as a sleek, efficient and fast-moving machine. But how many readers think that? Magner considers the Camp Lejeune situation particularly outrageous because it involves Marines, and he points out that the Marines’ famous motto, Semper fidelis, has been betrayed: while these men and women have stayed “always faithful” to their country and their duties, their country has dragged its feet in caring for them and has seemed, again and again, to have abandoned them altogether. This makes for a powerful book – but a rather disingenuous one. Is the treatment of the victims of this Superfund site unique? Is the government, including the Defense Department, fast and efficient elsewhere? Is the mismanagement of Camp Lejeune’s problem unique, or part of an overall pattern of government inefficiency and lack of concern for U.S. citizens, whether military or civilian? Magner wants to elicit feelings of anger, even rage, at what has happened to the victims of  Camp Lejeune toxic waste, by making them – and by extension their problems – into an instance of especially egregious mismanagement. The stories in A Trust Betrayed are indeed awful, the horrible Defense Department bureaucracy infuriating, the dragging-of-heels attitude of the government disgraceful. But this situation is not unique, and therein lies the book’s major flaw. Magner expects readers to come away from his book thinking of what a vast injustice has been done to innocent families – families of people charged with the defense of the United States. But readers are likely to come away with a deeper and far more frightening feeling, one that Magner does not address: what if the Camp Lejeune situation is far from unique? What if it is not an aberration but an indicator of the extent to which an uncaring, soulless, usually faceless government repeatedly and consistently turns its back on the victims of its own misdeeds and mismanagement? That is a far scarier scenario than even the ones Magner details – a pointer toward systemic rot that not even the boldness of the Marines can overcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment