The best books about some human undercurrents of the World Wars, and a father’s war revealed

Chris Dickon Author Of A Rendezvous with Death: Alan Seeger in Poetry, at War
By Chris Dickon

Who am I?

I was a misbegotten child of World War II, my father an anonymous stranger on a train returning to war, thus setting me in search of an answer. While driving through rural France one day in my sixth decade I realized I'd been searching for my father through writing, and an understanding of his experience in war. My seventh decade produced Dutch Children of African American Liberators, with co-author Mieke Kirkels, about the puzzling lives of the European children of African American soldiers of World War II. As I got to its final chapters, my own father’s identity was revealed to me through DNA, and that will be the subject of my final book.


I wrote...

A Rendezvous with Death: Alan Seeger in Poetry, at War

By Chris Dickon,

Book cover of A Rendezvous with Death: Alan Seeger in Poetry, at War

What is my book about?

That drive through the region of Amiens, Reims, and Soissons had followed the last year of the American poet Alan Seeger of the French Foreign Legion toward his certainty of “A Rendezvous with Death.” His own search for meaning had begun in the streets of his beloved Paris. I had been able to look over Notre Dame from the open window of his room on Rue du Sommerard, then submerge myself in the geography through which he marched toward his end in the Battle of the Somme, July 4, 1916. On a second journey, I traveled from his statue in Paris to the centennial memorial of his death in Picardy at Belloy-en-Santerre. He had fallen singing a song and urging his fellows forward into the war, a Hero of France.

The books I picked & why

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1919: Volume Two of the U.S.A. Trilogy

By John Dos Passos,

Book cover of 1919: Volume Two of the U.S.A. Trilogy

Why this book?

Dos Passos’ USA trilogy was a project of the 1930s with 1919 at its center. In its time, the trilogy was a literary precursor of multimedia as we know it today, a mix of fictional narrative and non-fiction documentary.  For me at college age, it was a revelatory journey into the human layers between the 20th-century events of the larger world that I would be entering in search of who I was and would be. Centered on World War I, an industrializing America, and an exotic Paris, it would give me my first effective exposure to the places in which I would live and travel, and the stories I would not begin to tell with my own writing until fifty years later. 


Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Novel

By Philip Kerr,

Book cover of Field Gray: A Bernie Gunther Novel

Why this book?

Eventually, my travels to understand and write about the times in which I had been born took me to the Auschwitz concentration camp near Krakow, then to its source in Berlin and some excellent walking tours into the heart of its lights and shadows – which is much of the world of Philip Kerr’s fictional Bernie Gunther. A 1930s Berlin detective, Bernie must navigate the attempt to maintain a humanity that is both moral and faulted in a time of brutality and absurdity over the course of fifteen novels that will puzzle through the human dilemma of World War II Europe. Field Gray, which ranges from the Spanish Flu epidemic of World War I to the corruption of 1950s Cuba is perhaps the most comprehensive of the series.


A Hero of France

By Alan Furst,

Book cover of A Hero of France

Why this book?

Je suis las,” is the first human utterance of A Hero of France. “I am tired of the way I have to live my life.” In the lights and shadows of Alan Furst’s Europe at war the challenges are almost elegant in their quiet persistence, and their demands for endurance through the endless nights of the European underground. Occupied France is often the transit point through the center of it all. Paris is the delicate city of hard dangers and the closed doors upon, or hidden stairways to, the French Resistance. Mathieu, without a surname, is the leader of one of its cells of ordinary men and women who love their country and its magnificent, brutalized city. Like my friend Alan Seeger, he becomes A Hero of France.


Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

By Lynne Olson,

Book cover of Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Why this book?

I can only read Lynne Olson’s work with an aspiration for research and excellence that I will never fulfill. In this case, the Hero of France is the nonfictional Marie-Madeleine Fourcade, who, like the fictional Mathieu, brought together the most ordinary people to do the most extraordinary work of espionage and resistance. It would not be enough to say that Olson has finally brought forth the largely unknown and remarkable story of a female spy against the Nazi occupation of her country. Much more than that, it is the story of the particular qualities of what it is to be a woman applied in their own way, and with great courage, to a history of World War II that is made unique by her presence in it.


The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler's U-Boats

By William Geroux,

Book cover of The Mathews Men: Seven Brothers and the War Against Hitler's U-Boats

Why this book?

As I was finishing Dutch Children, my own DNA began pointing to the watermen, boatbuilders, and seafarers of Middlesex and Mathews counties, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay. The Mathews Men took me deep within a story of the war that I had not much known and which would soon turn personal. These were the Merchant Mariners who carried the people and supplies of war through treacherous seas of German submarines, and lost beneath the waves the highest percentage of members of all military branches. Geroux’s fine telling of the lives of these men and their families prepared me for the eventual discovery that my mystery father had been one of them, raised in Middlesex County, a survivor of the war who had sailed everywhere in the world, though I would never meet him.


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