By Christopher Wright
There are three writers from the Greatest Generation who achieved fame for their words but backed it up humbly with deeds. All three are from English-speaking countries and wrote prolifically about everything but their own experiences. Eventually they got around to writing about themselves.
Tony Hillerman (1926-2008)
I first discovered Hillerman on a ship in the Middle East during Desert Storm. I bought a paperback copy of his book, A Thief of Time, in the ship’s store and quickly devoured it. Hillerman wrote 18 mysteries about the Navajo Tribal Police set in the Four Corners region, and several have been made into movies. He was a boon to tourism for the area. He wrote nonfiction and other novels as well and was a tireless giver to the people of New Mexico and a mentor to many aspiring writers. In 2001, he finally published his biography with a title that tells you all about the man: Seldom Disappointed. Readers find out Hillerman was a highly decorated combat veteran of the fighting in France and Germany. As a mortarman in the 103rd Infantry Division, he was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart. Chapter 12 of Seldom Disappointed is entitled, “How to Get A Bronze Star Without Knowing Why.” Yet his memoir is not a war memoir. The war only takes up a few chapters of his rich and rewarding life.
George McDonald Fraser (1925-2008)
Fraser is known for his Flashman series, which was serialized in Playboy magazine in the 1970s. There are 12 novels in this series written from 1969 through 2005. Flashman is a British officer in the mid-19th century who had the good fortune (or the bad luck) to have been present at every powder keg event of significance. Here are a few of the places/events: The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the Indian Mutiny in 1857, Harper’s Ferry with John Brown, and with Custer at the Little Bighorn. Flashman is at heart a coward, a womanizer and a liar, but he is nevertheless a charming scoundrel and a survivor. Time and time again, just when he thinks he will be found out, fate intercedes and he comes out of a disaster with a medal or a knighthood. We have the complete collection at the Dana Point Library. Fraser finally got around to writing his war memoir in 1993, Quartered Safe Out Here: A Recollection of War in Burma. The title has the ironic, self-deprecating, stiff upper lip stereotypically associated with Brits. Fraser was also an infantryman fighting in a theater in which the environment was as much a foe as the Japanese. The great military historian Sir John Keegan has called it “one of the great personal memoirs of the Second World War,” yet too few have heard of it or read it.
Farley Mowat (1921-2014)
I first became acquainted with Farley Mowat when I buried my father. I found his biography, Born Naked, in a bookstore and it was just the antidote for a sad week back home. I soon realized I had known Mowat from the movie Never Cry Wolf, so my discovery of his writing was actually a reunion. Born Naked, about Mowat’s childhood of wonder and hilarious adventures in the natural world of Saskatchewan, was a joy to read. His dad was also a librarian—little did I know that would be my calling one day. Mowat was a prolific author of books on Canada’s environment and an ardent environmentalist. During World War II, he saw heavy fighting in the Italian theater with the Canadian Army. It was traumatizing, and he was removed from the infantry and placed in intelligence. His wartime memoir, And No Birds Sang, is no ode to glory, but a rather sobering account of his ordeal.
Next month’s column will be my last as I am retiring and moving to New Mexico. It will be about my new home state.
The Dana Point Library’s informal group, the Tea Time Book Club, meets every fourth Monday of the month from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and tea is served. Bring your favorite tea cup and join us. All are welcome. Next month’s meeting on Monday, May 23 will feature The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. For a list of future featured titles, call the library at 949.496.5517.
For more information about upcoming events across the Orange County Public Libraries system, visit www.ocpl.org. The site also provides access to online databases, digital copies of popular magazines, PDF copies of historical sheet music, ebooks, audiobooks, jobseeker resources and more.
Chris Wright is not sure if he lives to read or if he reads to live. He has been a public librarian with the OC Public Libraries since 2006 and currently works at the Dana Point branch.