December 21, 2006


We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah. By Patrick O’Donnell. Da Capo. $25.

Small Beauties: The Journey of Darcy Heart O’Hara. By Elvira Woodruff. Pictures by Adam Rex. Knopf. $15.95.

     This may be nominally a season of peace and goodwill, but it is only by the greatest stretch of the imagination that we can imagine all people, everywhere, sharing that belief and orientation.  It is worth remembering that while many people relax and celebrate at this time of year, many others cannot – not even for a day.  It is also worth remembering that America, whatever its divisions and uncertainties, has at its heart a boldness and bravery, in any and every season, that has helped make it a destination for natives of other nations for hundreds of years.

     These somewhat sobering thoughts are occasioned by two very different books, one of the recent past and one of a past more distant.  We Were One is a hard-hitting and emotionally trying description of the time, only two years ago, when Marines attempted to displace al Qaeda operatives and supporters from their greatest stronghold in Iraq: the town of Fallujah.  Patrick O’Donnell marched with the Marines’ 1st Platoon into that town, whose conquest was deemed vitally important, and his story of the many battles there is an outstanding first-hand account of al Qaeda using civilians as shields, sending suicide bombers in from multiple directions and forcing intense house-to-house fighting.  O’Donnell starts with the Marine platoon’s formation in California and follows the men to a deployment that eventually ended with 35 casualties, including four dead.  The devastation experienced by the platoon was emotional as well as physical, and O’Donnell is as effective in detailing the mental anguish as in describing the endless firefights.  The book’s main problem is that it is too intense – it will be difficult reading for almost everyone, and even more so at this time of year.  Still, O’Donnell says, “I was there [in Iraq] to do a job, to record what was going on from a historian’s perspective,” and he has certainly done that.  It is one of those distressing ironies of history that all the other events in Iraq in the past two years have rendered Fallujah little more than a footnote in an ongoing war.  The men who fought there should never become footnotes.  Slogging through their story is a way to make sure they don’t.

     Darcy Heart O’Hara represents a huge calamity that has also become a footnote to many who are unfamiliar with the Irish diaspora.  Darcy is fictional, but her story is based on that of a real family that was forced to leave Ireland for America because of the devastating potato famine of the 1840s.  The real family had an extremely well-known descendant, whose identity Elvira Woodruff reveals at the end of her book.  But it is clear why Woodruff chose not to tell the real family’s story: the tale of an otherwise unremarkable family speaks more loudly than that of a family with an exceptional member.  Actually, Woodruff does make Darcy exceptional in one way: she notices things – the “small beauties” of the title – and collects them as she endures famine in Ireland and eventually travels to a new life in America.  The pebble, dried buttercups and old wooden bead that Darcy keeps take on meaning beyond themselves and beyond Darcy’s family, coming to stand for an immigrant experience that is replicated even today, as people continue to stream toward the United States in hopes of a better life.  It is worth remembering, in this and every season, that it is for those hopes, as much as for anything, that the Darcys of the world come to America and the Marines fight in distant lands.  One need only look at the Irish name of the author of We Were One to see an important level of connection with Small Beauties.

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