Memory is a tricky thing. Decades later, looking back at a time when you were young, in a foreign land and under fire, you can be forgiven if you mistake a few things. In the case of Alan Cope, former U.S. soldier in World War II, there are only a few stumbling blocks in his recollections, but illustrator Emmanuel Guibert has wisely left them intact in ALAN'S WAR. They are few and far between, it seems, and they only serve to render Alan's story all the more human.
To provide just a short background: Guibert met Cope in the mid-'90s by chance, when Guibert asked him for directions. A native of France, Guibert was intrigued by Cope, an American expatriate now living in France. Cope was born in a coastal town in California and drafted into the war immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He did his job, like millions of other men in the greatest generation, and saw the world. He did so without fanfare, and some 50 years later, he still didn't expect any. Cope passed away in 1999, but over their five-year friendship, Cope shared many of his war stories with Guibert, a talented artist who would draw those stories under Cope's guidance. The stories were printed in France, where they were warmly received. Now they've been released here in the United States.
Cope, despite being incredibly open in the sharing of his war stories, was nonetheless a very private man, and Guibert respects that. He recorded their conversations and uses Cope's own words to narrate ALAN'S WAR. It makes it even more personal and renders this long-ago era even more immediate to see Cope's words on the page. There's an innocence at the beginning of the book that speaks to the nature of the world at the time, yet there's also a universality to what Cope experiences that translates through the decades.
When Cope and his fellow draftees miss their train to boot camp, they know they're in trouble. So they decide to enjoy their remaining time by seeing the sights of New York City. In another book, it would almost be a throwaway tale, not worthy of remembering or spotlighting. Here, it becomes a tender look at the playfulness of boys headed off to war, not knowing which, if any, of them would survive the experience.
Cope was an interesting man, and the years that passed since the war did not dull his insight. He kept a soft-spoken viewpoint that allowed him to modestly and subtly detail the friendships he developed and the brutal experiences he endured without ever dwelling in sentimentality. That was his rare gift as a storyteller, and Guibert's knowing move to leave it intact. Better still, Guibert's illustrations shine through with startling clarity in black and white. Cope's stories deserve no less.
--- Reviewed by John Hogan