Monday, December 18, 2006

The Souvenir, by Louise Steinman

The rest of the title is: A Daughter Discovers Her Father's War, and that discovery begins after Louise's father, Norman Steinman, passes away and leaves behind a treasure of old letters from the Pacific, and a souvenir. Like many WW2 combat veterans, Norman never reminisced about the war. He was quite happy to forget it. So his daughter, like many baby boom sons and daughters, grew up with a view of WW2, and war in general, that did not benefit from the experience of the participants.

Norman was a non-observant Jew who came back from fighting the Japanese in the Philippines, went to pharmacy school on the GI Bill, and raised his family without saying anything about the war or revealing the cache of 474 letters to his wife, along with a Japanese flag with inscriptions from a mysterious dead soldier's family back in Japan.

Only after her mother also died did Louise Steinman discover this archive while cleaning out her parents' condo. She reads the letters, some of which mention the flag and her father's regret at having taken it and mailing it home to her mother, but learns little else about the flag. Her curiosity propels her on a search for someone to translate the inscriptions and, eventually, to return the flag to the dead soldier's family.

This is exactly the kind of thing you would expect a politically liberal performance artist/writer (which is what Ms. Steinman is,) to do. And it might be cathartic to write about it, and profitable to publish as well. At least, that's the cynical view. And although I am a bit cynical, and way to the right of most performance artists, I found this to be a riveting, and touching, memoir by a woman who has given a real gift to historians and the public at-large. She travels to Japan and meets the soldier's family, and also visits Hiroshima, and the place where her father did battle on the ground in the Philippines.

I have read a lot of books on WW2, so I was not surprised by the savagery of the fighting, the hatred between the Japanese soldiers and the US Marines, and the atrocities visited upon soldiers and civilians alike by the Japanese military. But this was all news to the author, and her visit to Japan gave her a new appreciation for The Bomb.

I think that hawks and doves alike will find this book immensely authentic, and that it will challenge you to look at war in a way that gets past slogans and propaganda. It was read by Suzanne Toren, and was 7 hours and 2 minutes long, and included an author interview at the end. And I give it 4 stars.

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