Picks and Pans Review: "the Good War"

UPDATED 11/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

by Studs Terkel

Absolutely nothing is more effective than good dialogue. Never has that point been expressed better than in this splendid epic oral history of World War II. The author, a Chicago radio personality who produced a landmark memoir of the Depression in the same fashion, starts with Hawaiian John Garcia's description of the attack on Pearl Harbor when he was 16. He was a swimmer who retrieved the Navy's wounded and dead from bombed, sunken ships. The book ends 570 emotion-packed pages later with Chicago street kids talking about their uncertain future: "I never know if I could die overnight from the bomb or somethin'. So the day wasn't promised to me. I don't know what may happen, uh, my life weren't promised to me." In between, a U.S. Army rifleman (now a Chicago businessman) tells what an ancient, beautiful Germany looked like to a young soldier who saw his companions blown up in a ditch. A Japanese-American describes his internment. A native Japanese recalls living in her country during the war. Another remembers how her mother vanished in Hiroshima and her father gathered human fragments at the site. Germans and Russians tell about their childhoods during the war. A woman shares her experiences in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where her husband was working on a secret project, and describes how thrilled they both were when the A-bomb was dropped. To some who speak here, the war was the major event of their lives, and everything before or since seems much less important. This is a powerful book, repeatedly moving and profoundly disturbing. "The ordinary man," a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war trials observes, "is capable of enormous heroism and enormous bestiality." The ordinary man is also capable, with Terkel's help, of making a difficult time in our past come remarkably alive. (Pantheon, $19.95)

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