Thursday, March 25, 2010

Update on Non-nonfiction

This is an update to my last post. I was remiss in sharing this sooner. A March 8th article in the NY Times tells us that earlier this month Henry Holt and Company, the publishers of Charles Pellegrino’s book Last Train From Hiroshima has stopped printing and selling the book.

The publisher placed a statement in the product description of the books offering on Amazon. However, Amazon is still selling their stock of the suspect book. For a while there was a rousing debate going on in the customer reviews of the product where the author joined in to defend himself and the book that he says is factual with the exception of a small part where he was “duped.”

Back to the NY Times article. It’s a good read for us budding authors, as well as fans of nonfiction. It reminds the reader of several recent and notorious cases of fabricated nonfiction works. I’m still at a loss as to why one would need to make up a story when real life and history is so full of action and excitement in its truth. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, my first book project (research coming along quite well, thank you) concerns the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion in WWII. Their story is so much better than fiction that I can’t wait to tell their story.

One glimmer of hope for us history fanatics: The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose is #5 on the current NY Times Best Seller list for hardback nonfiction. I’m glad to see the interest in military history, even if it is the result of a television miniseries. It put a good history book on the list that is clearly dominated by books about fad diets and “tell all” gossips. I’m reading Mr. Ambrose’s book now and will review it for you later. Spoiler alert! I’d go ahead and buy it. ;-)

Monday, March 1, 2010

Stolen Valor and Getting It Wrong

I want to bring your attention to an article I read in the NY Times recently that frankly got my goat both as a historian and as a veteran. It concerns a recently released book titled “The Last Train from Hiroshima” by Charles Pelligrino. Apparently, sections of the book that reveal never-before-told events and details of the mission to drop the first atomic bomb are based on interviews with a veteran who was never there. Take the time to read the article. This veteran, Mr. Joseph Fuoco, claimed to have flown as part of the crew of one of two observation planes that accompanied the Enola Gay. Fuoco claimed that he was put on the flight at the last minute when another crewmember, Mr. James Corliss, got sick. As it turns out, documents and witness accounts tell that Corliss was on the flight in question. There is no proof available that places Fuoco in the 509th Composite Group, much less on the flight in Mr. Corliss’ place. Both veterans have since passed away. The author says that he now realizes he was “probably duped.”

The book is out there on the shelf at your local bookstore. It is number sixteen on the list of bestselling military history on Amazon. If it is not recalled, it becomes part of the historical record. Historians almost always base their works on the secondary sources created previously. It is quite possible that twenty years from now, a writer might find this book and cite something from it, and perpetuate the fabrications it contains. The fact that the book does not cite any sources and the author admits that it contains fabrications, makes suspect the remainder of its contents. I will not purchase or read this book.

At first our righteous indignation might be directed at the veteran who fabricated his story, and rightfully so. However, I have personal experience in taking oral histories and I know that memories fade and sometimes get filled in with what is learned after the event. We each have our own truth as to what we experienced and what happened and when and who was there. Moreover, some want to have “been there” so bad that they will make up their own truth, whether consciously or subconsciously. You know they are out there. If you do not, or don’t think there are that many, read the book “Stolen Valor” by B. G. Burkett and Glenna Whitely.

As a historian, my ire is directed at the author, Charles Pelligrino, and his publisher. This entire episode could have been avoided with some simple fact checking and review of primary sources. When the author was interviewing Mr. Fuoco, how hard would it have been to look at his discharge or other documents like award certificates? Did the author not make a trip to the National Archives or other repositories to view the official records like flight plans and passenger lists? We do not know because there is no list of sources in Mr. Pelligrino’s book. Moreover, the most distasteful part is that Pelligrino has been published previously (albeit this is his first history book) and had a movie made based on one of his earlier books. Not only should an author of his experience know better, but he also has the financial wherewithal to easily conduct primary source research and fact checking.

I don’t want to tell you how to think or who to blame. Make up your own mind. I’m just going to give you my opinion, my philosophy if you will. I believe that the job of the nonfiction writer, whether an academic or a popular historian, is to honor those who came before us by telling their story so it is not lost to history. The recollections and eyewitness accounts of individuals are an integral part of telling that story. However, the absolute primary function of the interviewer is to check the validity of a claim before publishing it as fact.

As far as we veterans are concerned, I know this in my heart to be true. I think that however you got there; circumstances make the hero. You might have joined or you might have been drafted. You might have volunteered for Special Forces, or prayed for the Finance Corps. Nevertheless, fate, kismet, or karma put you in the line of fire or it didn’t. You either witnessed history, or wish you had, and it wasn’t totally up to you, no matter how hard you tried either way. That being said, anyone who steps forward and signs up, no matter what their role, should be thanked for their service and their courage should never be in question. Not by anyone else, and certainly not by themselves.

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