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Books We Like

Published 8/10/2015 by Margaret Adam

Books We Like

True stories of heroism and correcting the historic record make satisfying reads. Here are three narrative non-fiction books with wide appeal, true stories of remarkable people in extraordinary circumstances.

Shadow Divers: The True Adventure of Two Americans Who Risked Everything to Solve One of the Last Mysteries of World War II by Robert Kurson tells the full story of the NOVA documentary Hitler’s Lost Sub. Deep sea divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler push their personal limits for six years to identify a sunken sub sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey. Chatterton and Kohler behave heroically by diving so skillfully and by tenaciously working to identity the wreck and its human remains.

Diving at the depths where this wreck was found is from the first splash death-defying. Sadly, three divers among the several who assist Chatterton and Kohler suffer fatal accidents. Imagine the dangers 230 feet down: equipment malfunction, entrapment by wires or falling debris, disorientation inside the wreck, surfacing too far away from one’s boat, or failing to properly decompress. Staying down too long means running out of air and out of time to decompress. Surfacing without decompressing means death.

Chatterton and Kohler experience repeated brushes with death. They each fight the effects of nitrogen narcosis when they work submerged even a few minutes longer than they should. It clouds their thinking, causing hallucinations and overwhelming temptation to panic. Yet they persist. In the months on land in between dives, they weather personal and marital problems. As their story unfolds, we appreciate their deep bond of friendship. We begin to sense the obsession they share to identify definitively what turns out to be the German vessel U-869.

Kurson fleshes out the other divers who work with Chatterton and Kohler as well as the enemy crew of fifty-five young mariners who sailed from Germany in December 1944 knowing their return would be unlikely.

The official military record of U-869’s sunken location was challenged and corrected thanks to these divers. Shadow Divers is irresistible adult nonfiction in the tradition of Unbroken, Into Thin Air, and The Perfect Storm. The next two books, also compelling and research-based, aim at ages 11 and up.

My favorite hero story this summer is Louise Borden’s His Name Was Raoul Wallenberg: Courage, Rescue, and Mystery During World War II. Wallenberg saved the lives of more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews from July 1944 to January 1945. For middle schoolers studying the Holocaust, Wallenberg is a must-read. For anyone else, this biography offers more than a hundred insightful photos of people, places, and documents. A second unique feature is Borden’s free-verse writing style. It makes a great read-aloud for students or elders. Wallenberg’s sister has made it her life’s mission to keep his message alive, the message of standing up to evil.

By 1944 news of the mass murders at death camps could no longer be denied. Accepting a post as a Secretary of the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, Wallenberg embraced a secret mission. With the support of both the United States and his neutral Sweden, he undertook to spare the lives of as many Hungarian Jews as possible. He offered them jobs with the Swedish embassy, protected housing for hundreds that ended up holding thousands, and official-looking protection letters, documents that had no actual legal basis. He influenced Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, the Red Cross, and the Vatican to offer housing and protection papers as well.

The threat of death to Budapest’s Jews intensified monthly as 1944 drew to a close. Political sands shifted, bringing power to a ruthless, Jew-hating terrorist group called the Arrow Cross. More than a hundred thousand Jews were forced to live in two Budapest ghettos, where conditions and security went from bad to worse when Russian troops laid siege to the city. Even though genocide, cold, hunger, and disease threatened every life including his own, Wallenberg held the course for several desperate weeks. To learn the conclusion to these events, read this or another of his biographies.

Wallenberg’s life exemplifies one person making a difference. The third hero tale I couldn’t put down is another example of one person's determination. In Left for Dead: A Young Man's Search for Justice for the USS Indianapolis by Peter Nelson, one of the heroes is Hunter Scott, 11 years old at the start of this story. Scott gave heroic effort to a sixth-grade National History Day project about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, a tragedy he first heard about in the movie JAWS.

The Indianapolis was sunk by Japanese torpedoes on July 30, 1945, after delivering atomic bomb components on a classified mission in the Pacific. The ensuing loss of 879 lives is the worst disaster in US Naval history, made all the more grisly given that sailors surviving the initial blasts were then stranded for four days in the open sea at the mercy of hunger, thirst, sunburn, and sharks.

Scott’s goal was to correct the historic record and reinstate honor to the ship’s captain and crew. Captain Charles Butler McVay, III, was unjustly court martialed in November, 1945, blamed for failure to travel in a zigzag course to diminish vulnerability to enemy attack. McVay took his own life in 1968. Scott continued gathering facts about this tragedy and advocating for justice along with the survivors and their families for several years. Until Scott’s efforts, previous attempts to clear McVay’s name failed.

Left For Dead weaves together three stories. First is the tragic attack and four-days' suffering of the 317 survivors. Second is what happened to the captain and crew after their rescue. The third story, which frames the book, is Scott’s campaign to clear McVay's name and the reputation of all the survivors.

For those curious about this topic, many more sources now exist than when Scott began his research twenty years ago. This book is a good starting point. Left for Dead, along with twenty-six other recommended titles is on this year's Middle School Battle of the Books list. Filming for an upcoming movie, The USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage began this June in Mobile, Alabama. Directed by Mario Van Peebles, it will star Nicholas Cage.