Dunkirk: The Battle That Altered History | RA Crossroads

As Lewis Carroll’s Alice so aptly points out, “What is the use of a book…without pictures or conversations?” Welcome to Readers’ Advisory (RA) Crossroads, where books, movies, music, and other media converge and whole-collection RA service goes where it may. In this column, the Battle of Dunkirk leads me down a winding path.

Begin:

Korda, Michael. Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory. Norton. Sept. 2017. 544p. ISBN 9781631491320. $29.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631491337. HIST
In his storytelling approach to the events, figures, and actions of the start of World War II and the Battle of Dunkirk in the summer of 1940, Korda pulls readers in with a mix of history and his own family’s experience of war, using them as both a bellwether and as an example of how war reshapes families. Born to an English actress mother and film production designer father with connections to MI6 and Winston Churchill, Korda recounts the build up to the wider conflict in an accessible, quickly paced, and highly engaging chronicle that spins stories of films and celebrities into those of generals and soldiers until it finally focuses on the unusual battle itself: a defeat, says Korda, with a happy and important ending. With context and detail, this military, political, and personal history spans the uneasy blend of British and French forces, as well as Germany’s plans and achievements, and, importantly, the mistakes, misreadings, and misplaced beliefs that sent the world into war.

Read-Alikes:

Bowden, Mark. Huê 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam. Atlantic Monthly. Jun. 2017. 608p. ISBN 9780802127006. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780802189240. HIST
While Dunkirk was an early moment in World War II and marked a turning point of British confidence, a very different kind of pivot, this time involving the Vietnam War, is represented in Bowden’s newest account. As part of the Tet Offensive, in which communist forces of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army fought against the South Vietnamese, United States, and her allied forces, the capture of Vietnam’s capital, Huê, began the downward shift of opinions about the United States “winning” the war. It is an important story to tell, and just as the author so stunningly exhibited in his best-selling Black Hawk Down, here he offers a compelling mix of on-the-ground action, historical context, strategy, personality, and gripping detail to lay bare the nearly monthlong battle and the resulting horrendous loss of life. Korda’s book may leave some readers wishing for a more vivid, soldierly, account of combat, which Bowden certainly provides, but he also, as does Korda, presents a sprawling, bird’s-eye view of social and cultural perspectives of war as well.

Harris, Mark. Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Penguin. 2015. 528p. ISBN 9780143126836. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9780698151574. HIST
Focused on five famous Hollywood directors—Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler—Harris follows each into World War II, tracing their actions and impact through the years of World War II, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and from the Aleutians Islands to Italy to England. Their talents were in demand by military leaders and the directors shot footage used in war trials, provided evidence of atrocities, created propaganda, and made training films. Some of their work haunted them until their deaths and other work changed how they thought about filmmaking once they returned to Hollywood. The story is specific and compelling, including an intriguing mix of topics, details, and readable history that should certainly interest Korda’s fans (and Korda’s family gets more than one mention in the book). Netflix has adapted the account into a documentary narrated by Meryl Streep.

Sides, Hampton. Ghost Soldiers: The Forgotten Epic Story of World War II’s Most Dramatic Mission. Anchor. 2002. 384p. ISBN 9780385495653. pap. $17; ebk. ISBN 9781400033409. HIST
For readers seeking a stirring rescue story, Sides’s account details a World War II epic of heroism from the Pacific Theatre, a plan to rescue more than 500 American and British soldiers from the Cabanatuan prison camp in the Philippines. Some of the soldiers held there, under horrific conditions, had survived the Bataan Death March yet all remained in constant peril. A little more than 100 U.S. Army Rangers staged the rescue, knowing that they risked not only their own lives in the attempt but those they sought so bravely to save. Collectively, theirs is a story of courage and endurance, the will to survive, and the aid from others in times of war (Sides includes accounts of many involved in the rescue beyond the Rangers). Moving deep within Japanese territory, the mission was astoundingly successful, as recounted in this gripping and historically contextual volume.

Read-Arounds:

Evans, Lissa. Their Finest. Harper Perennial. 2017. 464p. ISBN 9780062414915. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062414946. F
While nonfiction dominates the Dunkirk literary output, there is also a body of novels in which the battle plays a role. Ian McEwan’s award-winning Atonement is an example not to be missed. Evans’s novel, however, is particularly apt for Korda readers as it is set in the world of filmmaking and follows copy editor Catrin Cole, who works for the British Ministry of Information. Her key project in the story is the creation of a spirit-lifting film about Dunkirk, which brings together a quirky and well-realized cast of characters who showcase many of the home front realities of war. By turns funny, wry, romantic, and serious, this charmer is lighter than anything else suggested here but packs its own kind of punch. Also check out the 2016 film of the same name starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, and Bill Nighy.

Lord, Walter. The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo. Open Road Media. 2017. 370p. ISBN 9781504047548. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781453238509. HIST
There are a number of military histories of Dunkirk, including Joshua Levine’s Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture, a quasi-tie-in edition to the Christopher Nolan film (see Dunkirk review below), and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man. Another take, a recent reprint, is Lord’s captivating work, which places readers deep into the heart of events. As in his other titles, most famously the account of the Titanic sinking, A Night to Remember, and the attack on Pearl Harbor, Day of Infamy, Lord excels at immersive, fact-based storytelling to create a vivid history. Here, he guides readers through the intensity, heroism, danger, violence, and loss of Dunkirk, generating a sense of the multiplicity of events. This account is informed by the hundreds of interviews Lord had with survivors, which gives his work a vibrant sense of verisimilitude.

Listen-Arounds:

Ackerman, Diane. The Zookeeper’s Wife. 9 CDs. 10.9 hrs. Blackstone Audio. 2007. ISBN 9781602834774. $29.95. F
Suzanne Toren deftly reads this account of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who operated the Warsaw Zoo in Poland during World War II. Demonstrating the same heroic nature of the private citizens of Britain who took their boats across the channel to save their soldiers, the Zabinskis also did their part and far more to secrete Jews out of the ghetto, hiding them in the zoo’s cages and buildings. Everyone involved made do with what they had, crafting a rescue mission that sheltered hundreds. Ackerman creates a compelling portrait of life in Warsaw under Nazi control, the violence, depravity, and terror they inflicted is visceral on the page, juxtaposed with the astonishing valor and endurance of the resistance, the Jewish population, and the Zabinskis. This audio version, brilliantly set and realized and deeply compelling, offers a significant example of courage under fire. The book has also been made into a film.

Gallico, Paul. The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk. 1 CD. 7 hrs. Blackstone Audio. 2014. ISBN 9781482950380. $19.95. F
This fable-like novella, first published as an O. Henry Prize–winning short story, is a poetic gem that tells of Philip Rhayader, a painter and bird lover who lives alone in a lighthouse in the marshlands of Essex, England, and Fritha, a local girl who brings him an injured snow goose to care for. Over the years, Rhayader and Fritha form a friendship, tied together by the goose and the other birds Rhayader saves and cares for. When the call goes out for the Dunkirk evacuation, Rhayader answers, with the snow goose flying alongside his sails. Narrator Ralph Cosham is wonderfully adept at capturing the raw emotional draw of the story and fills his reading with an elegiac grace. One of Gallico’s finest achievements is his evocation of the landscape and its cold, stark beauty. Cosham, in addition to his great sense of pacing and characterization, manages to make listeners feel the windblown space of the brief novel as well as its melancholy notes of loss.

Watch-Arounds:

Dunkirk. color. 106 min. Christopher Nolan, dist. by Warner Bros. Pictures. 2017. DVD/Blu-ray release: Nov. 2017. DRAMA
A lyrical, relentless meditation on war, Nolan’s exploration of the British efforts to evacuate their army from the beach of Dunkirk is elegiac even as it is brutal in its depictions of fear, suffering, and desperation. Unfolding in three locations, the movie offers a collage of parts that collectively pack an emotional wallop. On the sweeping, desolate beach, full of sea foam and dead bodies, soldiers stand mutely in lines waiting for a way home. In the sky, a few British planes attempt to stop the German bombing of the rescue ships. On the sea, those ships, full of soldiers, are blown up and tiny pleasure boats bob on the waves as they make their way across the channel. Combined, the three settings provide a shattered sense of the rescue so long in coming that the stakes rise with every passing minute. The storytelling relies on imagery, sound, and the physical movement of its largely male cast and minimal dialog. The result becomes a lament and an elegy, involving and stark.

Saving Private Ryan. color. 169 min. Steven Spielberg, dist. by DreamWorks. 2010. Blu-ray UPC 097360748451. $17.99. DRAMA
In addition to films on Dunkirk, there is an entire canon of World War II movies that might suit readers of Korda’s Alone. This Oscar winner starring Tom Hanks as Capt. John H. Miller serves as a solid choice for its intimate and personal focus as well as the vivid depiction of the D-Day invasion, which gives a sense of the horrifying venerability of soldiers facing overwhelming odds. Miller is ordered to take a group of his men and search France for James Ryan, the only surviving son in a family that has already lost three children to war. Miller and his men have only just survived D-Day, clearing an opening for others to move up the beach to safety. Now they wander through the countryside, alight with war, looking for a lone man in a sea of soldiers. Their bravery, courage, and experience of the grim terror of war and self-sacrifice for a man they have never met powers Spielberg’s emotionally riveting film.

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net

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