Paul Hendrickson makes top ten list
2003: A road map to the best - nonfiction
By Michael Kenney, 12/7/2003
The clouds of a continuing war hung over the process of singling out the best nonfiction books of 2003. It is too early by far to find a ''best of" entry coming out of Iraq, although the arrival of Rick Bragg's ''I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story," and several media in-the-field accounts, give notice that day will come.
Even without those looming clouds, David Maraniss's ''They Marched Into Sunlight" would command attention. This is a gripping crosscutting between two events in October 1967, an ambush of an American battalion in Vietnam and an antiwar protest at the University of Wisconsin.
In Maraniss's account (he was a freshman at Wisconsin), they come together to define the tragedy of Vietnam. As the Globe's reviewer, former senator Bob Kerrey -- Medal of Honor winner in Vietnam -- wrote, everyone seemed to be marching into sunlight, political leaders and generals, students, and ''the soldiers who were shipped blindly into combat." Kerrey wrote that he wept as he considered ''the tragedy of this story." It is indeed that powerful.
This year's National Book Award winner and one of the finalists were memoirs of enduring charm. The former, Carlos Eire's ''Waiting for Snow in Havana," told of growing up in pre-Castro Cuba and longing for all things northern, not just Nordic asceticism, but blond movie queens. Reviewing it for the Globe, Sven Birkerts wrote that Eire seems gifted with ''lyric precision -- a knack for grasping the life of a moment through its sensuous particulars."
When the sale of the George Howe Colt family's hundred-year-old summer home on Buzzards Bay appeared imminent, Colt returned with his own young family. In ''The Big House," he wrote with the sensitivity of an insider and the detachment of an observer of the family rituals, secrets, and escapades. On that final visit, Colt found the wind funneling up Buzzards Bay to be ''the house's song, a blend of the voices of all the people who have lived here."
In ''Gulag," Anne Applebaum details the labor camps that were at the heart of Stalin's apparatus of repression. ''Gulag" was a National Book Award finalist, and the Globe's reviewer, writer Matthew Price, found it a ''titanic account." Noting that there is no museum in Russia devoted to Stalinist repression, nor any monument to its victims, he called Applebaum's book ''something very like a memorial to those brutalized millions."
A signal event in the civil rights movement was the court-ordered admission of James Meredith to the University of Mississippi in 1962 against the defiance of state officials. Journalist Paul Hendrickson saw a key to that defiance in a photograph of six Mississippi sheriffs watching admiringly as a colleague hefted a billy club they expected to use in the efforts to block Meredith's admission.
In ''Sons of Mississippi," Hendrickson asks ''How did these seven white Southerners get to be this way . . . ? How did a gene of intolerance and racial fear mutate as it passed sinuously through time and family bloodstreams?" His answers, wrote Globe reviewer Stanley Dearman, employed ''an exquisite narrative skill and a sensitive antenna for detecting the nuances of racism."
Four authors with New England connections explored the far corners of the world, suburban malls, and city streets to produce books whose merits extend beyond local pride.
Michael Kenney regularly reviews for the Globe.The Big House: A Century in the Life of an American Summer Home By George Howe Colt A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America By Lizabeth Cohen Gulag: A History By Anne Applebaum Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World By Tracy Kidder Republic of Shade: New England and the American Elm By Thomas J. Campanella Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1832-1842 By Nathaniel Philbrick Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy By Paul Hendrickson They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967 By David Maraniss Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy By Carlos Eire