As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to RA Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge, and whole-collection readers’ advisory service goes where it may. In this column, World War II airplanes and icy climes lead me down a winding path.
Zuckoff, Mitchell. Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II. HarperCollins. 2013. 432p. ISBN 9780062133434. $28.99.
During the early part of America’s entrance into World War II, a C-53 cargo plane crashed onto the icy surface of Greenland with five on board. Four days later, a B-17 bomber with nine on board crashed while searching for the C-53. Twenty-four days after that, a U.S. Coast Guard Grumman Duck went down during the second leg of a mission to save the men of the B-17, killing the crew and a B-17 survivor they had just rescued. Zuckoff weaves these crashes into a gripping story of arctic rescue, tracing the harrowing struggle of the crash survivors to stay alive, the desperate attempts to save them, and the terrible conditions that made both nearly impossible. Blended into the historic account is a modern excavation story as Zuckoff joins an expedition to locate and recover the Duck, now buried somewhere deep under the ice of Greenland. It is an engaging and highly narrative historic adventure, whose pace builds steadily and which offers a respectful regard for the various crews—strong willed, stoic, and fiercely determined men who fall back on their faith and sense of duty to carry them through. Detailed, tension-filled, and gripping, this examination of methods of rescue and survival vividly places readers on the ice with the lost men and alongside those trying to save them.
Kurson, Robert. Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II. Random. 2005. 416p. ISBN 9780375760983. pap. $16. FIC
While Zuckoff finely balances his attention between the modern and historical stories, the bulk of Frozen in Time is focused on the downed men and their rescue. Readers left with the desire to learn more about modern-day excavations might want to turn to this highly narrative account of the discovery of a sunken U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. Like Zuckoff, Kurson offers a fast-paced and gripping tale of exploration, giving readers an intimate view of the obsession that builds around such quests. The wreck was shrouded in mystery—no one really knew what they had found—and it took years of investigation, tragic loss, and astounding dedication to solve the puzzle. In a narrative that is detailed, richly characterized, and emotionally complex, Kurson offers readers plenty of adventure and angst as well as satisfying amounts of reflection and history.
Grann, David. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Vintage. 2010. 448p. ISBN 9781400078455. pap. $16.95.
To fully follow his story, Zuckoff helped fund the expedition to search for the Duck and traveled with the team to Greenland. David Grann decided to go to the jungles of the Amazon. A writer for the New Yorker, Gann, like so many before him became fascinated with the story of famed British explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett and his quest to discover the City of Z, a fabled Amazonian site thought to be El Dorado. Fawcett disappeared into the jungle in 1925 and was never seen again. Grann decided to follow in Fawcett’s footsteps and set out for the jungles himself. His story details his own journey, what he learned of Fawcett’s, and the stories of others who sought to discover the City of Z and claim its fame. Just as Zuckoff describes the cold and dedication of the airmen and Coast Guard, Grann details the heat, bugs, and landscape of the jungle, and the obsessions of explorers, and provides readers with an involving high-stakes adventure quest that is both vastly entertaining and richly characterized.
Junger, Sebastian. The Perfect Storm. W.W. Norton. 2009. 248p. ISBN 9780393337013. pap. $15.95.
For readers desiring more depictions of powerful weather bringing down crews and for those who enjoy being immersed in a true adventure, check out Junger’s account of the 1991 storm that sunk the fishing boat the Andrea Gail, taking down its entire crew of six, and the rescue attempts by the Coast Guard and the Air National Guard to save others trapped in the same storm. Junger shares with Zuckoff a focus on the hour-by-hour nature of disasters, the same fine eye for telling detail and explanation, and the same respect for men who risk their lives to save others. This account of the fury of the sea and the human response to its terror is a gripping and grim one, richly textured by attention to the back stories of the characters—from members of fishing communities to rescue swimmers—and the worlds in which they operate.
Ehrlich, Gretel. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland. Vintage. 2003. 400p. ISBN 9780679758525. pap. $18.95.
Readers wanting to spend more time on the icy surface of Greenland could do no better than selecting Ehrlich as their guide. A naturalist and essayist, she has spent years exploring the world’s largest island and shares its harsh yet wondrous landscape. She crosses the island by dog sled, plane, and kayak in the company of a shifting set of comrades, leading readers around the vast echoing space, explicating the weather, and offering crystalline descriptions of light, ice, and cold. Balanced against her modern expeditions are the journeys of Knud Rasmussen, an explorer and ethnographer who traveled the island in the first part of the 20th Century recording the culture of the Inuits. The combined perspectives and her lyric sensibility join to create a work that is poetic and ruminative while at the same time gripping and adventurous.
Makos, Adam with Larry Alexander. A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-Torn Skies of World War II. Berkley. 2012. 400p. ISBN 9780425252864. $26.95.
Zuckoff’s book might prompt a desire to learn more about aerial combat and the life of WWII fighter pilots. For those readers, suggest this highly narrative account of German and American fighter pilots and the incredible moment when a sworn enemy did the seemingly unthinkable during war. Franz Stigler was a German fighter ace who was proven, skilled, and deadly. Charlie Brown was a novice pilot, flying a plane with disabled guns and extensive structural damage—a sitting duck. What occurred when the two encountered one another is the stuff of legend. Tracing the biographies of both men, including detailed accounts of Stigler’s career and Charlie’s training, Makos and Alexander create a vivid account of the lives of pilots during the war and recreate with riveting power their combat missions.
Tougias, Michael J. and Casey Sherman. The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Most Daring Sea Rescue. Scribner. 2009. 224p. ISBN 9781416567219. $25.
The Coast Guard plays a lead role in both the historic and modern stories featured in Frozen in Time. Fans who would like to read more about Coast Guard missions and rescues may enjoy this account of the Guard’s gallant response to a 1952 disaster at sea. A terrible storm ravaged New England that year, creating sea conditions of 70-foot waves, fierce winds, and perilous cold. Caught in the storm were two aging oil tankers that were unable to withstand the crushing power of the nor’easter. They each broke in half, leaving their crews to the mercy of the raging Atlantic. The Coast Guard sent ships to aid the men, including three small crews in lifeboats. As the Guard rushed to save the men on the tankers they faced four floating wrecks—the stern and bow sections of each of the ships. Tougias and Sherman describe the unfolding hours, providing readers with an atmospheric, action-packed story, vivid descriptions of the conditions and events of the rescue, and richly crafted characters.
B-29 Frozen in Time. 56 min. Mike Rossiter. NOVA/WGBH. 2006.
Part of Zuckoff’s book focuses on a modern quest to find a plane frozen under feet of snow and ice in Greenland. In this documentary, NOVA follows a team that has one advantage over Zuckoff’s subjects; the plane they are after is still on the surface of the island. Darryl Greenamyer, a highly experienced pilot, and a small team of expert mechanics travel to Greenland in order to restore and repair an abandoned B-29 called the Kee Bird, a bomber that crashed in 1947. After two months of work, weather, illness, and mechanical issues force the team to abandon the Kee Bird for the winter. Greenamyer returns nine months later, haunted by a tragic loss among his team, with plans to finish the restoration and fly the plane out. Instead, he finds Greenland has not finished causing havoc to his plans. Readers particularly interested in Zuckoff’s modern excavation tale should appreciate this low-key film with its details of restoration, shots of the daunting landscape of Greenland, and its focus on the costs and sacrifices required to try to save these lost planes.