November 20, 2008


I Am Potential: Eight Lessons on Living, Loving, and Reaching Your Dreams. By Patrick Henry Hughes, with Patrick John Hughes and Bryant Stamford. Da Capo. $24.

The Brenner Assignment: The Untold Story of the Most Daring Spy Mission of World War II. By Patrick K. O’Donnell. Da Capo. $25.

     Here are two books that show, in very different ways, the resiliency of the human spirit. I Am Potential is one of those sure-fire tearjerkers about someone with extremely severe handicaps who not only overcomes them but also finds a way to thrive and to get great enjoyment out of life. However, it is possible to celebrate Patrick Henry Hughes’ remarkable achievements without necessarily finding his book a must-read. Hughes has a rare birth defect that makes it impossible for him to walk or extend his arms fully – and he was born without eyes. Yet he has become an award-winning pianist, trumpeter and singer and has performed at venues as different as the Grand Ole Opry and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He plays in his college’s marching band (University of Louisville) as his father, Patrick John Hughes, pushes his wheelchair. And his musical talent showed up astonishingly early: he started playing piano at the age of nine months. Clearly, Patrick Henry Hughes is a remarkable individual, his story serving as proof that being disabled in some ways does not mean being disabled in all ways. But I Am Potential is written in less than captivating prose, even with the help of Patrick Henry’s father (whose voice is heard in some sections, while his son’s is heard in others) and Hanover College professor Bryant Stamford. “My parents were my earliest and best teachers.” “I’d hear [people] say things in front of me as if I wasn’t there or wasn’t smart enough to understand I was being talked about.” “When Granddaddy passed away [from Alzheimer’s disease], I knew it was a blessing that he was back with God.” “What I’m going to do for the rest of my life is an important decision, but I don’t spend a lot of time dealing with it, because I don’t want it to take away from what’s going on in my life right now.” These are all heartfelt sentiments – and very common ones, stated in very plain language. The entire book is written this way, with the result that Patrick Henry’s story is more inspirational than the way he tells it. It is impossible not to be moved by who this young man is and what he has overcome to accomplish so much. But the tale is better than the telling.

     The story of The Brenner Assignment is much more distant in time: this is yet another of the World War II books that continue appearing, in a trickle if not a flood, six decades after the end of the war. The book’s story is told with novelistic, even cinematic impact, and is sure to thrill fans – if “fans” is the right word – of the derring-do of that war. Military historian Patrick K. O’Donnell writes nonfiction as if he is creating a thriller. Nevertheless, The Brenner Assignment will have limited appeal because it is military history, not fiction, and cannot be neatly packaged and perfectly paced to maximum effect. The book is the story of a behind-enemy-lines assignment in the waning days of the war. The Brenner Pass has been a crucial military (and trade) route through the Alps since the days of the Roman Empire, and the Nazis used it to get to and from Italy and continue fighting there. The American special operatives’ mission was to parachute into the area, link up with local partisans, and sabotage the pass so supplies could no longer be brought through it. Some of the characters seem like Hollywood central-casting types, although O’Donnell says they were real, such as the seductive double-agent Italian countess and the fanatical SS officer leading his forces against the would-be saboteurs. O’Donnell takes readers through the planning and preparation for the assignment: “The training for an OG [German Operational Group] operative was informal and rank was dropped. The mission always came first.” He effectively presents not only the American operatives but also their enemies: August Schiffer, Gestapo chief in Northern Italy, “had complete and utter loyalty to the Nazi cause” and “considered himself a patriot” whose use of torture was fully justified in combating those he considered terrorists. O’Donnell often creates cinematic transitions to move the story along: “Unbeknownst to [Stephen] Hall, his journey was about to take a dramatic change of course.” And he traces the Brenner Pass assignment carefully, including what went right and what went wrong – bringing to life the small triumphs and failures that, collectively, can win or lose a war. Indeed, the level of detail will be a lot for casual readers to follow, and the many names of people and places sometimes tumble over each other in a cascade of proper nouns. O’Donnell’s use of primary sources is impressive, as is his ability to knit the various parts of this story together. It is a well-told, true tale, but its very detail and attentiveness to minutiae mean it will be of considerably more interest to World War II aficionados than to the general reader.

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