April 04, 2013


The War to End All Wars: World War I. By Russell Freedman. Sandpiper. $10.99.

The Hive Detectives: Chronicle of a Honey Bee Catastrophe. By Loree Griffin Burns. Photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz. Sandpiper. $8.99.

     These are two paperbacks of books that were originally published in 2010 and have lost none of their power since their original publication. And the photographs in both will take young readers – and their parents – some time to get used to, albeit for very different reasons. World War I is even past the point of being a distant memory nowadays, with all the soldiers dead and so many more-recent wars and atrocities taking up so much of people’s awareness. But this was a transformative war in ways that not even World War II, for which the stage was set by the treaty that ended World War I, can match. The horrors of the Great War, which really was called The War to End All Wars without the slightest trace of irony, are legion, and Russell Freedman’s book makes them all too apparent. This is not a book to be opened lightly or read quickly. The causes of the war were extremely complex – Freedman does not really get into them, simply noting that the great powers of the time had been fighting on and off for centuries – and the alliances that fell into place were cemented by now-old-fashioned notions of camaraderie and kinship. For example, Britain’s King George V, who hoped to head off the war, tried to do so by contacting Russia’s Czar Nicholas II – his cousin. The world in which World War I took place is so different from today’s that the maps at the start, within the chapters and at the end of this book can scarcely do it justice. The war destroyed empire upon empire – the Austro-Hungarian, the German and the Ottoman – and led to the overthrow of the Russian Czars and the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics under the hammer-and-sickle flag of communism. The War to End All Wars focuses on the actual fighting more than anything else, starting with the precipitating event – the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 – and continuing through the armistice that took effect at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. A postscript about the effects of that punitive armistice and the way it paved the way for World War II helps put the history in perspective. But the book deals mainly with the war itself: the way the alliances were made, the propaganda that both sides engaged in, and the utter horror of a war that soon turned into a trench-based stalemate punctuated by frightening battles with huge loss of life, much of it caused by the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons. The small instances of genuine humanity stand in stark contrast to the horrors. There was the famous Christmas 1914 in Flanders and elsewhere, where the two sides stopped fighting long enough to exchange gifts and cigarettes, and the end-of-war incident in which a German machine-gun unit continued fighting until the moment of the armistice, then stopped – with its officer standing up, bowing to British troops, calling his men to order and walking away unharmed, secure in the concepts of peace and chivalry. It was the first war with airplanes, the first with tanks, the first with poison gas, and the last with cavalry. It was a war eventually won in large part because of the late entry into it of the United States, whose troops were too fresh for the exhausted Germans and their allies to withstand. It was a war by the end of which, among the combatant nations, “there was scarcely a family that had not lost a son, a brother, or a father,” a war in which more than 8.5 million soldiers and 10 million civilians died, a war that gave rise to the phrase “lost generation” because so many young people were killed or maimed for life. The War to End All Wars is a frightening book to read, all the more so because its events happened so long ago by the standards of our modern short attention span – but really occurred only a short time in the past by historical standards. This was a war whose ripple effects are still felt today, and one of which today’s young readers know far too little. Freedman’s book will certainly enlighten them – and hopefully sadden them and make them thoughtful.

     The events described by Loree Griffin Burns in The Hive Detectives are far more recent and seen on what seems to be a far smaller scale, that of the beehive. But in their own way, these events also have worldwide impact, because as one commercial beekeeper correctly observes, “The biggest thing about bees is not honey. …It’s that your food supply depends on them.” Bees are immensely important pollinators, and without them, the human ability to grow crops is compromised to such an extent that there could be mass starvation if something catastrophic happened to bees.  And something catastrophic did: colony collapse, a strange and mysterious occurrence in which honeybees died off in enormous numbers, leaving hives empty and the supply of fruits and vegetables at grave risk. The Hive Detectives is about the scientists who set out to discover what was causing colony collapse and what could be done about it. As always in the “Scientists in the Field” series, The Hive Detectives is a fascinating look at how scientists really live, and contains wonderful photos that range from the mundane (people at computers) to the unusual (closeups of cross-sections of the thorax regions of two sample bees). Along the way, there are short and very well-done explanations of bee basics, such as what a honeycomb is and how bees make honey. There are discussions of the roles that various bees play in the hive structure and a look at the parts of bee bodies, interspersed with a narrative about evidence-gathering, data collection and collation, and speculation about what is killing so many bees. There are also pages explaining and showing how honey is gathered and processed (or sold unprocessed). And there is an important part of reality at the book’s conclusion: the scientists do not find out what caused colony collapse – the reasons remain unknown. This is typical of real (as opposed to cinematic or televised) scientific work: neat answers are elusive, and more research is necessary. The closest the researchers can come to a conclusion is an assertion that several factors they have studied may, in combination, have brought on the catastrophe: pesticides plus poor bee nutrition plus mites plus viruses, all combined in some unknown way. The studies continue today, and young readers sensitized by this book to the importance of this particular scientific research will undoubtedly view it, and bees, with new eyes.

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