In honor of Veterans Day today, Rachel Bomberger shares her review of a World War I war memoir published by Eerdmans last year: Godfrey Anderson’s Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks. In case you’re curious, Rachel loves reading, writing, and all the men and women in her life who have served (or are still serving) in the U.S. armed forces.
As a true child of the postmodern era, I tend naturally to distrust historians — so I appreciate those precious little snippets that let me bypass contemporary historical studies and examine tiny fragments of the “olden days” as they really happened, with my own eyes.
I love Godfrey J. Anderson’s Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks for precisely the same reason. Anderson’s vivid, day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground recollections, born of a memorable episode in American military history, are a rare treat for an armchair historian like me. In this candid, honest account of his experiences, Anderson deftly recalls the adventure, the horror, the cruelty, the compassion, and even the boredom of a young man at war — without either sanitizing or sensationalizing his memories, and with little or no editorializing or retrospective criticism. This is both a riveting true story and a truly valuable historical document.
Anderson’s command of even the smallest details is amazing. When I consider that he wrote this memoir near the end of his life, fifty years or more after the events he describes, I am astounded. I only hope that I can remember key episodes in my life with such great clarity and precision when I am so advanced in years.
His sharp mind retained a vast treasure trove of minutiae: the names of his fellow soldiers, their interesting and often complicated characters; times, dates, and places of key events in their campaign; what they ate, what they wore, where they slept, what games they played — even where and how they answered “nature’s call.” He also provides a wealth of observations about the everyday life and culture of Russian civilians in the towns and villages of North Russia during the early days of the Bolshevik revolution.
In short, the book is an honest, remarkably detailed account of a notable episode in American military history.
This is good, but, well: so far, so ordinary. War memoirs are legion. A quick search on Amazon for “war memoir” pulls up more than 14,000 titles. Still, I would argue that there’s something special about this one.
All war memoirs are (or should be) exciting, and Anderson’s certainly is. He relates plainly the horrifying toll taken by the Spanish flu on soldiers and villagers. He graphically describes “hell at Ust Padenga” — a series of bloody skirmishes that sent the overwhelmed allied forces scrambling from their outlying positions. He recounts a dreadful night-time retreat during which the stalwart (and half-frozen) medical corps shepherded more than a hundred seriously wounded men to safety by sleigh along a tortuous ice-and-snow covered track winding dangerously close to enemy lines. All this is riveting stuff.
Yet this book is more than a series of heart-pounding escapades. For every moment of blood-pumping action or spine-tingling gore, there are myriad moments more mundane — and these are just as interesting to me. I love reading about Anderson’s amusing first encounter with a Russian communal privy (wherein he is joined by a sedate, middle-aged Russian woman). Or his depiction of Christmas in Shenkursk (replete with a full menu of the soldiers’ Christmas dinner, for which the main course was “Fricassee of Rabbit”). Or the exploits of company rogue Freddie Beard, who, as Anderson tells it, spent most of the campaign cleverly dodging work and getting drunk.
The book is littered with piles of unpeeled potatoes, fried bully beef, woolen socks, aluminum mess kits, games of poker, snatches of songs, and “cooties” — and it’s all the richer and more flavorful for them.
What’s more, A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks is also seasoned generously with moments of strikingly lovely prose. Anderson was raised on a farm, never attended college, and worked in a furniture factory throughout his entire professional life — yet, his spare, straightforward, down-home style and his eye for the just the right poetic flourishes here and there mark him as a first-rate writer. I found his memoir (much to my surprise, actually) to be a gripping, beautiful, and highly entertaining narrative.
This is not to say that this book is perfect. The very details that make it such a compelling historical document occasionally cause the story to drag. Anderson wrote this memoir more than thirty years ago, and he lived its subject matter almost a century prior to its publication. It almost goes without saying that his language sometimes sounds a little chauvinistic and unfashionable to modern ears. It is also worth noting that Anderson was a private in the medical core (think M.A.S.H., only more primitive), and his subject matter sometimes borders on the macabre. More than a few pages are spattered with blood and vomit (or worse).
All these less polished aspects of the book are mitigated by the helpful contextual information and running footnotes provided by Gordon L. Olsen — Anderson’s friend and a historian himself — who masterfully edited the manuscript for publication.
What really vindicates this book for me, though, even with its squirm-inducing moments, is the thought of those grainy black and white documentary films I find so fascinating. Here’s one more, just in case, like me, you can’t get enough. Aren’t they swell?
A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks is just like that for me. It’s real history. It isn’t tidied up or gussied up. It isn’t Hollywood actors dressed in period garb trying to reenact an important historical moment on film. It’s history as it happened, through the sharp eyes of a soldier who lived it, remembered it, and wrote it all down.
And in my humble opinion, it is this kind of history — the kind that respectfully listens to real war stories and gives ear to the voices of the people who lived them — that best teaches us how to remember and honor the sacrifices made by our veterans, today and always.