The following was originally written for Open Books’ Read All About It blog, August 23, 2011. Re-posted with permission. Support literacy in Chicago by supporting Open Books.
One of our getting-to-know you questions we sometimes answer around the room during Open Books writing field trips is “What’s your favorite kind of book.” Depending on the age of the students, we’ll get an array of genres, titles, series, authors, etc. “Scary books” and “funny books” are popular amongst the younger ones. Harry Potter, Junie B. Jones, fiction, non-fiction, and adventure books are all cited. When I’m feeling a little sassy and want to get a reaction, I’ll stray from the more conventional “literary fiction” and answer “World War II Memoirs.” Yeah, that’s my field trip trump card.
I blame Stephen Ambrose. In 2006, I finally got around to watching the HBO-Spielberg-Hanks-produced 2001 Miniseries Band of Brothers based on Ambrose’s book, when I borrowed the DVDs from my brother. A long time history fan, particularly that era that’s still (barely) within our grasp, I hunkered down in my and my partner Ernie’s house in South Bend, Indiana and followed the story of Easy Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne. And sobbed. And became a little obsessed. And found fan sites and official sites. Looked up all the actors on IMDd, found photos of the real guys, found out who was still alive and who wasn’t. Wanted more, more, MORE. I bought my own DVDs in 2009, and have re-watched it in its entirety every summer since. And I’m still a sobbing mess at the end of each episode.
Of course, it started the book. Actually, it started with Hitler and that whole reality of WWII thing. But it started with the book. Which I finally read (my brother’s copy again) last year (and since picked up my own at the Open Books store) and retraced the story, getting a different perspective and more behind the scenes. I’ve also read (SPOILER ALERT) books by Easy Company vets, Easy Company Soldier by Donald Malarkey and Parachute Infantry by David Kenyon Webster (published posthumously and a major source for Ambrose and the screenwriters). Again, different and deeper perspectives.
When Hanks and company produced last year’s follow up series, The Pacific (also very good, though I don’t yet have the DVDs), I rushed out to pick up its source books, E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed and Robert Leckie’s Helmet for My Pillow (with an eye out for their other books, both fairly prolific writers). I recently picked up a book by Gene Garrison, a veteran of Patton’s Third Army, entitled Unless Victory Comes, which will give me another in to the Battle of the Bulge. Band of Brothers as a whole has served as a sort of gate-way drug to further reading, just as Harry Potter and the Twilight series (or Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary depending on one’s age…) have gotten even more books into young readers’ hands. And all that’s a good thing.
There are more books by and about other veterans of both series, which I’d like to eventually pick up. Band of Brothers has really launched an entire niche industry of publications, artwork, lectures, and official tours to Normandy and other sites. It’s inspired a whole legion of fans from history and military die-hards to younger fan girls and boys (not that these groups are exclusive…) who post animated photos on Tumblr.com, write fan fiction portraying the “characters” in less than chaste situations, and edit film clips to rock and pop songs on YouTube. There is also an ongoing series of actor interviews that’s been celebrating the series’ 10 year anniversary since June of last year. Their Jumping For Heroes event to raise money for a memorial in Normandy took place on August 21 of this year.
Thinking about this fandom is fascinating–there is a sort of falling in love with these guys—the real guys, their personas and relationships as filtered through art, the actors who played them, what they did. There is borderline fetish, hero worship, pride, and gratitude. There is a trying to make sense of our own lives through them. It is a connection to our own family histories. With that, I feel in some ways I know more about these guys than I do either of my own grandfathers. I didn’t have all the conversations about these things that grandfathers and grandsons should have before it’s too late. I’ve since been going through my dad’s dad’s Army photos and learning more through my grandmother, and just working with what I have.
During Ernie and my recent trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the Band of Brothers actors was in attendance at the play his fiancé directed. I happened to know he was going to be there because of his recent interview. I saw him come in and sit in his seat. My heart pounded and I squealed inside like the fan boy that I am. But I was cool, yo. And I didn’t end up talking to him, which I’m totally (I think ) at peace with. But it’s like–You’re here, and despite all the other work you’ve done you are still Webster—Webster whose book I’ve read! What would I say? Maybe just a Thank you. That would’ve been good. But I remained calm….
In an essay of mine entitled Playing Guns where I tackle my youthful war games with brothers and friends, my family’s own military past, and my interest in war stories, I write: “Give me one soldier’s memoir over a dry shot-by-shot account. While the places and triumphs and losses in each tug at me, I ultimately prefer legends over maps.”
- Related Post: Band of Brothers Revisited