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Friday, January 23, 2015

BPL Book Discussion: The Secret Rescue

On Monday we met for the first discussion of 2015.  It was also the 14th Anniversary of my very first BPL Book Discussion. I find it hard to believe, but it is true. The book on tap, The Secret Rescue: An Untold Story of American Nurses and Medics Behind Nazi Lines by Cate Lineberry.

Here is the summary from the publisher:
When 26 Army nurses and medics-part of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron-boarded a cargo plane for transport in November 1943, they never anticipated the crash landing in Nazi-occupied Albania that would lead to their months-long struggle for survival. A drama that captured the attention of the American public, the group and its flight crew dodged bullets and battled blinding winter storms as they climbed mountains and fought to survive, aided by courageous villagers who risked death at Nazi hands to help them.
Before I get started, please note, there were no prepared questions for this book. I wrote up these questions.  Feel free to use them as long as you credit RA for All. [Details in the questions post.]

I also found this interesting video of Lineberry discussing the book on CSPAN, and this article by her on the history of nurses in the military from The Huffington Post.

Now on to the discussion itself:
  • I was not surprised by our vote totals this month. We have 5 liked [with 2 who LOVED it], 7 so-sos, and only 1 disliked.
  • Most of the so-so votes came from the way the book was written. We actually had quite a bit of back and forth throughout the 90 minutes of discussion [and we filled the entire 90 minutes this month] about the style in which Lineberry told this fascinating story. It was quite polarizing but led to a rich discussion about how nonfiction stories are recounted.  I have compiled the many comments here. This is also the subject of questions 3 and 4 so this issue came up throughout the disccusion:
    • I was genuinely interested in the story, but if it were a novel I would not have tolerated the writing.
    • I wanted to like it, but I felt like I was reading a 200 page long newspaper article. It was too matter of fact and neutral. I wanted more about the survivors feelings.
    • I loved Girls of Atomic City [read for this same group] but this was not written the same way.
    • I prefer more narrative nonfiction, but this book filled a gap in knowledge for me. That was great.
    • I really want a good novelist to get his or her hands on this story and tell it without being restrained by trying to cram in all the facts. I want the feel of this story without fact after fact after fact.
    • I want to see a movie version to get a better sense of the people behind the story. [Note: there is no movie version, she meant hypothetical movie version.]
    • Even though I did not love the info heavy style, it was worth reading to learn all of the interesting stuff.
    • I liked it info heavy. The facts kept coming.
    • I liked how she wrote it. She didn’t try to tell me a story, she simply wanted to neutrally present what happened.
    • I wish it was more like Millard’s River of Doubt, which was adventure and survival with a lot of characters but read more like a griping story.
    • If she had focused on 2 or 3 of the 30 Americans a bit more in-depthly I would have liked it more.
    • But I liked it better than some of the creative nonfiction we have read because it was in between a newspaper and a narrative.
    • This one is my favorite: Lineberry is detached in her writing to reflect the military tone and the medical tone. They both think very pragmatically and attack dangerous and life threatening situations with as little emotion as possible.  She wrote with this tone to show that.
    • She is a journalist and a newspaper is sometimes called “the first draft of history.”  This book is a first draft of this story, of a lost history. She has to get it all down.  Now someone else can take the facts and make a story next.
  • Question: What did you know about medics and Army nurses before this? What did you learn about how their mixed sex squadron functioned? How did the officers, nurses, and enlisted men interact? Were you surprised to find female nurses on front lines at this time? Were you surprised at how strictly they kept rank throughout their ordeal?
    • I was so surprised that they kept their ranks and stayed separate despite barely surviving.
    • My husband was a medic in Korea, and this was very accurate to what he experienced.
    • Keeping their rank and abiding by army rules helped give their chaotic experience structure.
    • I knew there were nurses overseas for America in the army, but I never would have thought they would have ended up behind enemy lines. Just the fact that they were so close to the front lines was surprising.
    • I did not appreciate the condescension by both the Albanians and the Allied soldiers and their constant discussion of how surprised they were by the American nurses' toughness.
    • What about how crazy communication was during WWII? I loved learning about this and seeing what they had to go through to communicate with the outside world from inside Romania. It is amazing that anybody got info to each other and that they were able to be saved.
    • I am still not sure how all 30 of them got out alive. I mean, I know they did, but it seems less probable knowing the details.
  • Question: Did you feel like you now have the “whole story?” Did this book make you question how much we truly know about recent history? Current conflicts and situation?
    • This book made me think long and hard about what I really don't know.
    • It reminded me of that movie Argo.
    • We talked for awhile about how it takes time after an event for the truth to come out. It has to be declassified. But that means that while an event is happening, we never know the "truth." This topic kept us going for awhile and was interesting to discuss, especially as we pondered if we ever truly get the full story about anything.
    • I took away more questions about the world as a whole after reading this book. How many lost stories to history are still classified? How much don’t I know.
    • I was thinking about when and if we will even known what really happened in Vietnam.
    • We ended this conversation by agreeing that the one good thing about all of these "secrets" is that it makes for interesting books later.
  • Question: How did you feel while reading this story? Were you able to experience the parties’ struggle and feel their hunger, pain discomfort, despair, etc..  Were you able to experience the struggle of those who helped them-- the partisans, the British, the OSS officers? Was Lineberry more successful at articulating some points of view and feelings more than others?
    • This book made me eat all of the old food from the back of my fridge and cupboards. I felt so bad for having so much to eat while they were starving.
    • A few of us talked about how cold we felt while reading this book. They were put through extreme temperatures without proper clothing.
    • One lady blurted out, "I would have died." We laughed, but she said she was serious. Even as a young woman, she could not imagine herself making it through this ordeal.
    • This book made me think about my dad's stories of the depression and how they survived.
    • I really felt badly for the Albanians. I thinks she captured their sacrifice well. I felt connected to them in a way I did not to the nurses and medics.
    • I think the way she chose to write the book-- filling it with facts-- negated empathy for the Americans.
    • I disagree-- I felt more connected to the Americans
    • We went back and forth trying to understand why we had these different feelings.
    • I was heartbroken to see the Albanians, who had so little food for themselves, sharing it with the Americans, who then complained about not getting enough food from their hosts; or even worse, complaining about what they did get not being good enough.
  • Question: Any other characters we haven’t mentioned that you want to talk about?
    • I wanted to hear more details about those who rescued them, both the Albanians and the British and American special agents.
    • Stefa was polarizing. One participant did not like or trust him despite the fact that he ultimately paid for helping them with his life.
    • I wanted to hear more about what happened when they got home.
    • The cave guys! "They were hot!" Seriously though, I really wanted to learn more about living and working as spies in those Albanian caves. So cool.
    • I felt like I was learning about the beginnings of the spy agencies.
    • There were too many medics and nurses. With 30, it was impossible to keep track of them. That’s not her fault since it really happened, but still.
    • To manage while I was reading, I left the character names behind me and let Lineberry carry me through the story.
  • Question: Were you drawn more to the survival aspect of the story or the WWII?
    • We split at about 2-1 in favor of WWII.
    • If a teacher had assigned this to me back when I was in school, I would have loved learning about WWII. This was a textured and layered story that hit on so many of the war issues, while still being accurate.
  • Question: Albania? What did you know before hand? What did you learn?
    • We talked about how it was and how it has changed.
    • We felt like it was and is a fractured society with local structures. It holds the people together to survive, but also holds them back to move forward.
  • Question: The title?
    • The use of the word “Secret”was very apt. Secret means something is deliberately kept from others.
    • But by combining it with the word history, it is asking us to think about what we are all living through and be more critical and question what we don’t know. Find the secrets in our history!
    • It is a title that encourages us to dig deeper in our own lives to uncover the secrets.
  • Words that describe this book:
    • survival
    • WWII
    • lost history
    • journalistic
    • resilience
    • illuminating
    • secrets
    • feminine power
    • fractured societies
    • preserving
    • endurance
Readalikes: A few months ago we discussed The Girls of Atomic City and many people found lots of similarities. Specifically, both deal with the forgotten contributions of women during WWII and big secrets kept for national security reasons.

If you liked the combo of WWII and a survival story you will love Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand or Frozen in Time WWII by Mitchell Zuckoff.

If you want another cold weather survival tale but don’t care about a WWII angle, In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides (new) and Endurance by Alfred Lansing (old) are great choices

If you just want survival, a recent title that might interest you is Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free by Hector Tobar.

As I mentioned above, we compared Lineberry to Candice Millard. Specifically River of Doubt is a very similar story but told more like a narrative while The Secret Rescue is journalistic. Click here for our discussion of River of Doubt and here for Destiny of the Republic.

I also found  user generated lists of books about real nurses and titles identified as "dramatic nonfiction" on Goodreads that some readers may enjoy browsing for more readalike suggestions.

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