B y E m i l F r a n z i
U.S. DISTRICT COURT Judge William Browning is a native Tucsonan who, with his parents and younger brother, spent part of his childhood as a prisoner of the Japanese in the Philippines during W.W.II. Browning's father was killed when a ship crammed with Americans being taken to Japan for forced labor was torpedoed by an American submarine. The surviving family members were liberated in April 1945.
America's Best is a fictionalized version of that period and those captured Americans by Browning's wife, Sinclair, (known to her friends as Zeke). She's the author of several other books, including Enju, the story of an Apache chief.
This is the toughest kind of historical novel to write--it involves people still living and events that have living witnesses. When L. Sprague de Camp wrote about ancient Greece, there was nobody around who'd been there to argue with him and point out his mistakes.
Browning has done a superb job of finding those who were there. Besides family members, she interviewed one of the nine survivors of the torpedoed ship in which her husband's father perished. She also found victims of the Bataan Death March, many of whom were part of the New Mexico National Guard. Almost all her characters are based on, or were, real participants. Browning's fictional characters are, in a variety of ways, heroic--as were their real-life counterparts.
That she included one of the actual letters written by her husband's father to his wife and smuggled from one prison camp to another gives the book both reality and poignancy.
This is not an easy story--people imprisoned by the Japanese faced brutal conditions. Those who protest America's use of the atomic bomb should note the Japanese government has yet to admit to the massive atrocities it committed against innocent civilians in the Philippines, Shanghai, Korea and elsewhere.
Too many historical novels attempt to impose upon those who lived in other eras the values of the present. People thought and acted differently just 50 years ago. Browning grasps what Frederick Remington called the truth of other times, which makes America's Best comparable to Michael Shaara's magnificent The Killer Angels. And fans of science fiction giants Robert Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle will appreciate the relationship between morality and survival.
America's Best does well against steep competition--Publisher's Weekly compares it to Leon Uris and John Toland. It's good reading, not only for those interested in American history, but for anyone who likes a well-written and chilling story of survival and heroism.
America's Best, 494 pg. Published by AMC Publishers, Tucson, AZ. $24. Available at The Book Mark, Books Southwest, The Haunted Bookshop and Barnes & Noble.
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