A breathtaking oral biography of 100-year-old Americans that vivifies the past century while we are on the cusp of a new one. In this ambitious book, Edelman, a photojournalist and editor of Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (not reviewed), speaks to 90 of America's 37,000 centenarians. The book has a few stars (like a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a pitcher who struck out Ty Cobb, a black woman who staged a daring protest for integration, an investor who still goes to work five days a week, and a soldier who was at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and spoke with President Woodrow Wilson) and many people who are only remarkable for their age. In a chapter titled "The Good Old Days," there are memories of a simpler and rougher America, especially for struggling women and minorities. The next two chapters, "Labor Days" and "The Great War" tell the intimate story of the sacrifices earlier generations made to insure 40-hour weeks and freedom from dictatorships. "Brave New World" reminds us how, before the latest medical advances, 21 million lives were lost to influenza. Economically, too, the American Century had a wild start, as chronicled by a businessman who was young during the Depression. Philip Carret (age 102) describes the early New York Stock Exchange as an unregulated gambling den full of various scams and unscrupulous pools for manipulators to make "a quick profit." Less reminiscent of the 1980s is his relation of the fact that no one knew it was "Black Tuesday" or the Great Crash of 1929 until months later; and while he did understand that some people jumped out of the window—nobody he knew did so. One might expect reminiscences from a survivor of the Nazi death camps to be included here, but we also get the testimony of an interned Japanese-American whose son died in the American army. Luxuriating with these oral histories is like getting to spend some precious moments with the grandparents we never got to speak to.
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