Neill (Two Years of Wonder, 2018, etc.) investigates his late grandfather’s military service during World War II, in an attempt to better understand him.
Robert Lewis Fowler was always an elusive figure. Although he could be gregarious and loving, he also had a darker side, Neill says, and could be a “careless, reckless, belligerent drunk.” The author’s grandfather served in the Second World War and often candidly discussed the extraordinary experiences he had during that time, and after some cajoling, he finally wrote a short unpublished memoir about them. After he died in 2006, Neill felt driven to investigate his grandpa’s life, and to come to grips with the ways in which he was disappointing: “I had to delve into the words he had left me, study the context of the time, and read into the subtext of all he had left us in his memoir.” The author reproduces his grandfather’s recollections, which recount his decision to join the Nebraska National Guard in 1937, when he was anxious to escape “the privation of the failed farms and job shortages.” He eventually fought in France with the 35th Infantry Division in 1944, and he bravely participated in the battle for Saint-Lô, a victory that proved “pivotal” for the liberation of France and the triumph of the Allied powers on the western front. Neill also offers his own account of his independent research, and of times that he spent with his grandfather. In the process of further study about the war, Neill came across the memoir of another veteran, Gordon Edward Cross; he includes it here, as well, noting that Cross’ “lyrical style” offered a perspective that Fowler’s more “terse” prose didn’t capture.
Neill offers a compilation of material that’s eclectically unconventional, and, despite its sundry elements, it comes together as an emotionally coherent whole. His commentary is literary and exceedingly thoughtful, even in its digressions; for example, he discusses his own yearslong infatuation with the work of Jack Kerouac and his final disillusionment with the artists of the Beat Generation. He also tells of how he came to understand the deep-seated contempt that some World War II veterans harbored for younger generations, including their own children: “It was born of their own displaced pain, born of loss, born of trauma. These angry fathers, counter-protesting in their uniforms, were protesting their own lost youth.” Both of the military memoirs are remarkable on their own; indeed, the elder Fowler’s meticulous, matter-of-fact descriptions somehow make the subject matter’s gruesomeness more vivid: “I rushed over to him and saw that a piece of shrapnel had gone through his mouth from the front and had gone through the throat and was in the back of his neck. He bled to death in a matter of a few seconds.” Overall, this is a moving book—a sensitively and lovingly constructed account that lacks even a whiff of false sentimentality. Neill also includes dozens of captivating photos, taken by Cross during the war.
An emotionally affecting and historically instructive trio of remembrances.