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the last of the doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and their forgotten World War

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1 review about the last of the doughboys: The Forgotten...

Richard Rubin is a dangerous man

  • Oct 30, 2013
Once in a while you read a book that makes you want to be or do something different, and Richard Rubin makes me want to retire immediately and devote the rest of my life to reading and (in my dreams) writing about history like Richard Rubin.  This is why I say Richard Rubin is a dangerous man:  I will never be able to write with the power, grace, clarity, and humor that he does, so I would be broke and unemployed.

Instead the better approach is just to read Rubin's oral history of World War I.  Early in the first decade of the 21st century, Rubin began seeking out living veterans of the war that had ended nearly 90 years before, not even sure how to start or if he would find any still alive.  He figured out how, and he did find several still alive, and he even learned through the process of several interviews over nearly a decade how to interview a 110 year old veteran (they were all very hard of hearing, he found).  Rubin weaves the veterans' stories into and around a light history of the war.  He always manages to find the human interest at the core of the story and the history; his chapter on sheet music and 78rpm records inspired by the war is at once humorous and enlightening. 

But the stars of the story are the veterans.  Unlike more traditional oral historians who edit the interviews into a narrative while remaining in the background (think Studs Terkel), Rubin weaves accounts of his searches and interviews in and around the oral history, and it is a wise choice.  The men and women are themselves such a powerful part of the story that the history is better for meeting them and not just hearing their histories.  And Rubin is just a flat out good writer.   I looked forward to reading each story and wished its 500 pages had been more ("page turner" is a facile cliche that could apply here), but starting as late as he did there were few survivors left to interview.

I am just grateful that it was a writer of the skill and humor of Rubin who found these veterans and captured their stories.  But you keep your day job and read them, don't get any crazy dangerous ideas like I did about trying to emulate him; he's a dangerous man.

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