Book Talk: Stranger than fiction

Truth is sometimes far stranger than any fiction ever created.

A great American author once wrote that truth is stranger than fiction. In fact, truth is sometimes far stranger than any fiction ever created.

If you dare, read The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, is a riveting narrative nonfiction epic by Harrison E. Salisbury about one of the harrowing and heroic chapters in the annals of history. In nine hundred days, beginning in 1941 when a German army blockaded the city, as many people died in Leningrad as the entire war losses suffered by the United States in the whole of its history – nearly a million and a half men, women and children. They died fighting in citizen militias on the front line, fell to the incessant German shelling that pounded the streets and avenues of city, starved in their unheated apartments and hospitals and froze to death in the frigid cold and deep snow of the brutal Russian winter.

It is also believed that some even died to feed a thriving market in human flesh that sprang up in The Haymarket, a great peasant market before the war but now operated by fat, oily, steel-eyed men and women, the most terrible people of their day. There is no question people practiced cannibalism on a large scale during the darkest and most desperate months of the siege: the evidence clearly shows that people butchered corpses on a widespread basis.

More people died in the Leningrad blockade than ever died in a modern city – anywhere and anytime. But 600,000 people remained when the Russians finally broke the siege and Salisbury weaves the stories of these survivors, and those who died in this city of ice and death, through the fabric of this searing narrative.

The Black Count (2012) by Tom Reiss tells the extraordinary true story of General Alex Dumas, the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The man is virtually unknown today but his story still resonates because his son Alexandre Dumas used it to create some of the best-loved heroes of literature. The story of his father, of mixed racial and cultural heritage born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to a slave mother and a French nobleman father, is almost completely lost to history solely due to his race.

But Reiss brings this remarkable man to life in The Black Count. The book is brilliantly researched and the author draws on the material Alexandre Dumas incorporated into his own novels and memoir. The work explores the life of his from the time he arrived in France, through his schooling as a sword-fighting member of the French aristocracy and his subsequent rise from a lowly private in the dragoons to a respected general who marched into Egypt at Napoleon’s side.

Dumas came of age at a unique time in history during the French Revolution, a brief period of equality in the French empire. During this period numerous opportunities arose for the son of a slave that would not have emerged 20 years before or even 20 years later. Dumas, a dynamic individual of tremendous courage and physical gifts, took full advantage of the opportunities and ended up commanding armies at the height of the Revolution in campaigns across Europe and the Middle East, only to one day face an implacable enemy he could not defeat.

Battle Cry of Freedom (1988) by James M. McPherson is an indispensable modern interpretation of the American Civil War by one of its leading historians. In fact, this volume is now considered the standard one-volume history of the great conflict – a war that killed more Americans than all of the country’s wars combined. It is also considered the most readable one-volume history. The author deftly melds the latest research with a traditional understanding of the issues to produce an incredibly concise and brisk narrative that seamlessly integrates the political, social and military events of two decades that began with the outbreak of one war with Mexico and the ending of another at Appomattox.

This dramatic, thoroughly researched work vividly recounts the momentous events that preceded the Civil War – the Dred Scott decision, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry – and shifts into a stunning chronicle of the war itself. The battles, strategic maneuvering, politics and personalities serve as a framework for an insightful discussion of the political, economic, social and diplomatic events. And MacPherson’s innovative views on such fundamental questions as the slavery expansion issue in the 1850s, the origins of the Republican Party, the causes of secession and anti-war opposition in both the North and South are more than noteworthy and deserve the full attention of the reader.

Overall, these are just three remarkable works that prove without a shadow of doubt that truth is far stranger than fiction. These three volumes, and thousands of other nonfiction works, are available through your Okanagan Regional Library www.orl.bc.ca.