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AUTHOR: John Mitchell

REVIEWER: William A. Glass

Date: 12/26/2020

It’s said that no one does poverty like the Irish, but in this memoir, the Scots stake their claim. As in chronicles of Irish squalor, the father in this memoir is a binge drinker, the mother is loving but ineffectual, and the children are dirty snot-noses. They live in crumbling houses that are crawling with vermin. What lends shock value to these Dickensian scenes is that they play out during modern times in so-called advanced countries.

John Mitchell is five years old when we meet him. He lives with his parents, grandparents, and two sisters. His older sister, Margueretta, is getting messages from the devil with instructions on evil tortures to perpetrate on John. She’s mentally ill. That’s what inspires her vicious attacks. They only stop when John is old enough to fend her off. About that time, Margueretta redirects her attacks against herself, and the story increasingly focuses on her.

What I like about this book is its ambition. Rather than giving us a dry memoir from the safe precincts of hindsight, John Mitchell renders his story in the terrifying present tense. It’s stream-of-consciousness technique makes us privy to a young boy’s thoughts and emotions as he goes through the horror movie of his childhood.

With horror movies, you can put your hands over your ears and close your eyes.

However, for John, there is no escape. Even his sleep is tormented by screaming monsters coming up from the basement or down from the attic. His waking hours are infused with dread of Margueretta, knowing that’s it not a matter of if but when she will come for him. Reading this reminded me of what I saw once in the pediatric ward of a hospital burn unit. Nurses would come every afternoon to take children for skin debridement treatment. The dread on the patient’s faces as they were wheeled out of their rooms to face the agony was heart-rending. In The Boy Who Lived With Ghosts, John exhibits the same grim resignation in the face of daily torment from his sister.

The possibility of paranormal malfeasance hangs over John’s story and keeps the reader engaged. It’s not an easy read and I found myself wishing for a respite, if not for John then for me. The author’s frequent use of short declarative sentences enhances the shock value. “That’s gruesome!” Margueretta says at one point, which pretty much sums up John’s childhood.

Often memoirs become self-aggrandizing and fail on that account. Witness John Bolton’s recent effort. But in this one, none of the characters come off particularly well. Teachers are bullies, scoutmasters are perverts, relatives are alcoholics, and neighbors succumb either to madness or Valium. The author owns up to his failings, but it’s his intelligence and loving nature that allows him to climb out of the hell he grows up in. I give this book five out of five stars because of the story’s authenticity and the author’s creative approach to telling it.


AUTHOR: Steve Snyder

REVIEWER: William A. Glass

Date: 12/09/2020

Shot Down by Steve Snyder is a non-fiction book about the air war over Western Europe during World War II. The story focuses on the crew of an American bomber, the Susan Ruth, piloted by the author’s father, Lieutenant Howard Snyder. In 1944 the Susan Ruth was hit by a German fighter and the crew bailed out over NAZI occupied Belgium. The flyers were trained in escape and evasion. The story tells how they put their knowledge to the test.

This is a meticulously researched, clearly written, historical work. Remarkable, in that Steve Snyder is not a trained historian. Since this book sets forth the heroic actions of his deceased father, one can surmise that Steve’s passion for telling the story motivated him to do the on-the-job training needed to master the historian’s craft.

After an informative preface, Shot Down kicks off with a jolting, attention-getting scene that got me interested enough to wade through the next hundred pages of background information. I’m glad because this section puts what happens later into context and explains how the aircrew of the Susan Roth came to be in Germany dropping bombs.

Steve’s research provides a wealth of fascinating details. I’ve read about the vast fleets of allied bombers that attacked Germany, but nowhere before did I learn how they managed to get into formation in the low-to-no visibility conditions that often prevailed over England. Now, thanks to this book, I understand the role radio beacons played in the process.

An aspiring historian would do well to note how Steve enhances Shot Down with excerpts from letters and diaries, statistics gleaned from military records, eyewitness reports, and photographs. It’s one thing to read about the frigid cold B-17 crews endured at 20,000 feet, and quite another to see pictures of airmen in action wearing bulky, arctic-proof clothing. Steve does a great job humanizing the frightful odds that made it statistically impossible for the airmen to survive. After a horrendous day of losses known to the airmen as “Black Friday,” he talks about the demoralization that ensued when crews returned to sleep in rooms containing the empty cots of comrades who didn’t make it.

This book focuses on the story of one B-17 crew that fails to return, but in doing so, the author chronicles the fate of many others. The story of the Susan Ruth is stirring, but it’s only one of many planes whose end the author describes. In dramatic fashion, Steve relates grim tales of other bombers limping home, often bedeviled by German fighters, some with an engine on fire, bomb bay doors jammed open, and horribly wounded crew members struggling to survive. A gunner has his leg shot off, and to stop the bleeding, he pokes it through a hole in the fuselage to freeze it. Incredible courage is routine in this narrative, with many instances of pilots staying at the controls and dooming themselves in order to steer their damaged plane away from populated areas and give their crew time to bail out.

The climax of the story comes when it’s the crew of the Susan Ruth whose bunks are left empty one night. Steve recounts the dramatic shoot down using excerpts from his father’s diary. As he describes what comes next for the survivors, we learn myriad historical facts about conditions in POW camps for those captured and about life on the run for ones who evade the Germans. Shot Down gives us an understanding of the resistance groups operating in NAZI occupied Belgium, the underground escape networks created to aid allied airmen, and the dangers they faced from home-grown Fascists plus the Gestapo. For the evaders lucky enough to avoid capture and summary execution, Steve describes their efforts to rejoin the war. Some flee NAZI occupied Europe by crossing into neutral Spain, hoping to rejoin their units in England. Others continues their fight against the Germans by joining resistance fighters.

I learned much from Shot Down thanks to Steve’s in-depth research and clear writing. My only quibble with the book is that early on, he occasionally gets too detailed. Do we need to know the serial number on the special orders that sent Snyder’s crew overseas, or that his mother gave his father a hickey so powerfully that it was visible weeks later? Still, I give Shot Down five out of five stars for the story’s strength and the author’s excellent rendition. The book is a must-read for anyone interested in World War II. It fills in many important details about the battle in the skies over Western Europe, even for knowledgeable readers.

William A. Glass

  • Writer's pictureBill Glass

At my age, I often wonder why I’m still coaching. Then I think back on our last regular season game. In a hard-fought match against a quality opponent, the USC Salkehatchie men qualified for post-season play while knocking a regional rival out. For the players, it was the culmination of three months of intense training and a tough game schedule. For me, the win brought the quiet satisfaction of seeing all that hard work pay off.

I’m not so shallow as to think college athletics is all about winning. Many of my players wouldn’t be getting an education if not for soccer. Their scholarships keep the cost reasonable. So, the real reward of my job is seeing them graduate.

Still, because it is low-scoring, soccer is emotionally taxing. It’s a rush when your team ekes out a tough win and a downer when the opponent does.

Knowing that the end of my coaching career is in sight, I realize how much I’ll miss both graduation day and the highs and lows of competition. It’s nice to know that I have my writing projects to fall back on. Getting a positive review of a novel that I labored on through many a late night and long day is like the elation of winning a soccer match. I’m thinking of this because a prominent online book club just posted one. Below is link. Please check it out!

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