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It can't be easy writing a history book when you are the son of Stephen Ambrose. Ambrose senior was a writer of many popular books - including the famous Band of Brothers tome that was the basis for Steven Spielberg's HBO series of the same name - on a grand scale. Slate referred to him in 2002 as, "a history factory, using his five kids as researchers and assistants to streamline the production process". It was in this production line that Hugh Ambrose learned his trade as a writer of popular American history. It may seem that the only obstacle in junior's way was the hard task of living up to his father, but personally I read this book just hoping that the plagiarism scandals that dogged the last part of Stephen's life were not part of the apprenticeship that Hugh served.
Hugh Ambrose has claimed that he did not set out to write "Band of Brothers 2" when he wrote The Pacific, although that is largely what it is (all the more so given the same production team made a series of the same name, using Ambrose as the historical consultant, and have named this the "official companion book" for the series). There are some quite significant differences between the book and the resulting miniseries, but this seems to be largely due to the ways the different media need to work to tell an effective story. Both are good, but in different ways.
This may seem an odd choice of reading for me given my general disinterest in modern history, and indeed the Pacific campaign of World War 2 was not a part of history that I knew a great deal about until recently. However, a visit to Pearl Harbour in 2009 piqued my interest in the subject and this book is a pretty good way of taking a general interest further, taking as it does a complex series of battles and making them not only understandable and meaningful as historical events, but also providing the immediacy of first-hand accounts.
These accounts are the letters, journals, diaries, photographs and reflections of five participants in the Pacific war, chosen for the wealth of information they provided, and because the five viewpoints "are representative of the experience". These five men take us through most of the key battles of the Pacific campaign, through the viewpoints of officers, senior NCOs and enlisted men from both the navy and the marines. The participants are First Lieutenant Austin Shofner, a marine who spent time as a prisoner of war in the Philippines; Ensign Vernon Micheel, a navy pilot; Sergeant John Basilone, a recipient of the Medal of Honor; Private Sidney Philips, a young man who enlisted the day after the attacks on Pearl Harbour, and Private Eugene Sledge, a student so desperate to serve in combat that he drops out of college to join the marines.
The stories told aim to be more than just family histories and personal diaries rewritten by an author with a historian's training. In this book, Ambrose uses the five accounts to create a coherent narrative of the war, that rises above the "then this happened, then that happened" account that such a project could so easily have been. Through the eyes of these men - often using quotes from their diaries and letters - we as readers are taken straight into boot camps, foxholes and POW camps, feel the fear of front line fighting and the terror of dive bombing an enemy ship, not knowing if you own fleet would survive long enough to give you somewhere to land afterwards. Some parts bring out the humour and humanity of the men, while others show the horrors of war only too clearly. One scene where a marine driven beyond sanity after weeks of fear and exhaustion is killed by his own side because his terrified screaming threatens his entire company by giving away their position is one that I won't forget in a hurry.
The text in this book is supported by two sections of photographs and a few small half-page line drawn maps of key locations. The photographs are mostly a mixture of family photographs and official portraits of the protagonists in uniform, but there is also a selection of images taken by war correspondents. I enjoyed looking through these images, although the placement of them could have been better; a lot of picture captions from the second image section referred to events yet to happen in the text, and did somewhat act as a spoiler for the reader. The small maps were OK, nothing more. I would have liked to see a bigger map showing the Pacific in its entirety to lend more context to the movement of the marines over time, but this was just a minor issue I had with the book.
Ultimately, although it has different lead characters to the miniseries, I think Ambrose's text works quite well as a companion book and I think the two are mutually complementary when experienced together. The book puts a lot of flesh and background information onto the story the miniseries tells, while the miniseries gives an excellent extra visual dimension to what you are reading, thanks to its at times stunning cinematography. At 596 pages (including a substantial number of endnotes) this book represents good value for the £8.99 price tag it comes with, and it is one sure to appeal to readers with an interest in this period of history - regardless of whether or not they have seen or intend to see the parallel HBO series.
=== Book Details ===
The Pacific by Hugh Ambrose
Paperback, 596 pages
RRP £8.99 (currently £7 pbk and £4.78 Kindle edition on Amazon.co.uk)
=== With thanks to Canongate for providing me with a review copy of The Pacific ===
=== This review was originally posted on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk ===