Saturday, April 26, 2014

393 (2014 #21). The Monuments Men

by Robert N. Edsel
with Bret Witter

I was stuck in the hospital for six extra hours a few weeks ago after an unexpected (but minor) complication in my husband's medical procedure.  I hadn't expected to be there that long and had not brought anything to read, but I did have my Kindle with me.  So I quickly borrowed this e-book from my local public library's e-book collection, as I'd heard another friend talk about wanting to read the book.

The Monuments Men tells an important story about a group of men (and women), many of whom were art experts, assigned to the Allies' multinational Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) program during World War II.  Their job was to try to protect historic and cultural sites from war damage, and later, as the war ended, to find and return works of art and cultural artifacts that had been hidden for their protection or stolen by the Nazis.

This book focuses on eight of those men (most American, but some British), the director of the French National Museum, and a remarkable French woman named Rose Valland, who risked her life with the Nazis to keep track of the art they were stealing.  The action all takes place in the nine months between D-Day and V-E Day, in France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Austria.  The book incorporates actual journal entries and letters home written by the Monuments Men (which I really liked), as well as a number of period photographs, and some maps (although the latter were very hard to see in the e-book).

According to an interview in the Wall Street Journal, multimillionaire author Robert Edsel moved to Florence, Italy, in 1997, after selling his oil and gas business, "with no grand plan except to find a grand passion. 'I'd always been interested in art and architecture....So if the continent was in shambles, how did all these works of art survive?'" He spent years learning about and researching the Monuments Men, interviewing those still surviving and the descendants of others.

Edsel "had thousands of pages of material: he just needed help turning it into a book," according to his co-writer, Bret Witter, a self-described "professional co-author" who specializes in nonfiction.  Witter's website has a frank discussion of his involvement with this book. "This was not an easy book to write. Even with a sharp focus, the story was complex and sprawling. ... I wish my execution at point had been a bit better: the third person narration is sometimes too close, and the prose too purple. With this many storylines, the structure needed to be as simple as possible, and sometimes it isn’t. Robert didn’t want to write a traditional history, where you sit back observing from a distance. He wanted readers to feel what it was like to be there. We had the source material to pull it off, and I think we created a unique—and uniquely compelling—book, but occasionally, I fear, I took it too far."

That helps explain some of my feelings about this book.  The story is fascinating, it just could have been told so much better.  Some of the chapters are extremely short (only a couple of pages) and jump from one character's story to another, which, with ten main characters, made the plot hard to follow at times.

Edsel has definitely found his passion.  He'd done enough research to write another book about the work of the Monuments Men, Saving Italy, about their work in that country.  His website includes resources for educators, and he also started the Monuments Men Foundation to honor the work of the MFAA, and to continue to search for still-missing treasures from the war years.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This e-book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

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