When & Where: Pulitzer prize winning author Rick Atkinson lectured for about 35 minutes about his new book, The Guns at Last Light: The War in Western Europe, 1944-1945 at the Decatur Public Library on June 12, 2013 (just four days before Father's Day). The word “lecture” is a little misleading because although Atkinson provided attendees an overview about World War II, he fills in the facts with so many small narratives from the book that you see Atkinson more as a storyteller than a journalist-historian.
Attendence: Almost a full house of ~150 people, which was double the number of several years ago (September, 2008), when Atkinson was on tour with the paperback release of Day of Battle: The War in Italy, 1943-1944. Both my longtime partner, Denise and I went last week. It was an older crowd. We are not talking World War II vets (they are in their 90s and disappearing at rate of about 800 veterans a day), but more like us – sons and daughters of World War II vets. Denise's father Mickey Koslow (lower left) was in the Army Air Corp in North Africa and Italy and my father Glenn R. Browne (top left) fought in Western Europe. I remember once, when asked about his tour of duty, my Dad remarked jokingly “that he broke the back of the Wehrmacht taking the port of Marseille.” After I read The Guns at Last Light, I will know more what he meant.
Why I Went. I've read the other two books of Atkinson's The Liberation Trilogy: the aforementioned Day of Battle and An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943. Both books are extraordinary and there is a graciousness and confidence about Atkinson that is refreshing. His books are as he says, take you from the foxhole to the tactics of the commanders, which the latter is influenced by their own personal histories and temperaments. Atkinson often shows us how “the small catastrophe illuminates the major disasters.” I compare him to Shelby Foote, a writer that Atkinson matches in his storytelling prowess. I have personally given many copies of his books to friends, they all read him and are not disappointed. (When Denise's father Mickey was reading Day of Battle, he'd call her daily to tell her not only how much the book brought back his own memories, but clarified the big picture of what was going on.)
Q & A. Before signing books, Atkinson fielded questions for about 45 minutes from the crowd ranging from the particulars of the mutilation of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's body to speculating on what strategy British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery would have implemented if had lead the campaign in Europe instead of U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower. When a woman asked where she could find research information about her father who was awarded the Silver Star for fighting around Rennes, France in August, 1944, Atkinson asked, “Was he in the 4th Armored Division?” When the woman said he was, Atkinson received a round of applause. We were all amazed --- knowing we were in the prescence of a man who was both “archival rat” (Atkinson's self-reference) and parlor magician.
Worth Mentioning. In 2008, when Denise and I saw Atkinson we had a book signed for her father. This time we had the book signed in the memory of our fathers since Mickey died in 2011 and my father died in 1985. As we have come to expect, Atkinson was warm and accomodating. He knew that Denise, myself and the others who attended were following Atkinson's only mandate from the evening: “That it is our first duty to remember.”