An autobiographical novel about an American medic’s experiences in World War II.
Paul Kramer grows up in Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston, and in 1943, at age 18, enlists in the U.S. Army. He’s shuttled to Virginia’s Camp Pickett for basic medic training, where he’s shocked by the brazenly contemptuous enforcement of racial segregation. Although he struggles with the food during training—he’s Jewish and strictly observes kosher dietary restrictions—he distinguishes himself enough to be sent to medical and surgical technicians’ school at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis for an intensive 10-week course. He then travels to Scotland by ship through waters populated by German submarines, and he’s later sent to England. After discovering a black-market operation within the ranks, he’s assigned to a military police battalion and given combat instruction by British Special Forces. He’s eventually sent to France and hand-picked for a clandestine reconnaissance mission with French Resistance fighters. His experiences abroad are remarkably eventful—he meets generals George S. Patton and Dwight D. Eisenhower, plays jazz piano for British aristocrats, and is serenaded by singer Dinah Shore. Kramer’s military career is also notably honorable: he participates in a mission to save a captured colonel and later gets a Purple Heart. Debut author Kozol says that he wrote this book as a personal memoir but changed some names to protect the anonymity of many of the people he knew. However, the story is told in the third person, his own name is changed to “Paul Kramer,” and the reasons for these unusual authorial decisions are never made clear—or even remarked upon. The book also episodically reflects on the protagonist’s childhood and his life after the war—he becomes an optometrist—but its best moments are in its tales of war abroad, which are consistently engrossing throughout. The prose style is clear, if unremarkable, and the author appears to excise some of the grittier aspects of his experience, including expletives, which makes the work as a whole feel bowdlerized at times. That said, the story itself is as good as anything a novelist could conjure from his or her imagination.
A gripping and often charming wartime story.