'The Long Way Home': immigrant soldiers' harrowing service in the Great War
A review of David Laskin's "The Long Way Home," in which the Seattle author entwines two stories: that of immigrants to the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century, and their trial by fire as they served in the U.S. military in World War I. Laskin discusses his book at 7 p.m. April 5 at the Seattle Public Library.
Special to The Seattle Times
David LaskinThe author of "The Long Way Home" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. April 5 in the Microsoft auditorium at the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org); free, co-sponsored by the Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
'The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War'
by David Laskin
Harper, 372 pp., $26.99
There's no shortage of books describing the travails of European immigrants to America in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and similarly no dearth of accounts of the horrors of the First World War. What has been missing — though it's obvious once you think about it — is the story of how those two crucial events intersected.
As Seattle author David Laskin ("Rains All the Time," "The Children's Blizzard") points out in his new book, when the United States entered the war in 1917 fully a third of its people had either been born overseas or were the children of immigrants. So when the Army began drafting millions of men to send to the trenches of France, it was inevitable that many of the new soldiers would be heading back to a Europe they thought they had left behind forever.
Laskin follows a dozen men — four Italians, three Jews, two Poles, an Irishman, a Norwegian and a Slovak — from their homes in Europe to what they'd hoped would be the promised land in America, their return to Europe as part of the American Expeditionary Force, and for nine of them, their homecoming. (One actually spent the war patrolling the border with Mexico, "on the lookout for German attacks that failed to materialize.")
Such a large and varied group allows Laskin to explore different facets of the immigrant experience: the Jewish junk dealer, the Norwegian bachelor farmer and the Italian peasant boy had very different lives, both in their home countries and in this one, and Laskin sensibly goes beyond the familiar Lower East Side archetypes. Once the action moves to the Western Front, however, the large cast of characters makes it hard to keep track of which man is fighting where.
One of Laskin's main points is that the war, for all the death and misery it caused (and which he doesn't stint in describing), did a tremendous amount to integrate the immigrants who served into American society. That wasn't easy: The men in one New York division spoke 43 languages, and officers sometimes had to mime what they were trying to get the men to do.
In that era of casual racism, many contemporary observers scoffed at the idea that men with names such as Chmielewski, Ottaviano or Epstein could ever be made into soldiers, but once they got into the fighting such doubts evaporated. Laskin quotes a letter from a native-born soldier: "I think it is about the finest thing in the world for anyone, who like myself, has always suffered with race-prejudice, to be mixed up in an outfit like this. The last six months of my life in the army, living and suffering with these fellows, has done more for me to get rid of race-prejudice than anything else could have done."
That welcoming attitude did not extend to conscientious objectors, especially ones with German backgrounds. Laskin includes an account of the appalling mistreatment of a group of Hutterite COs — before they were sentenced to 20 years' hard labor.
Laskin has built his book on dozens of interviews (including with two surviving veterans, 106 and 110 years old), family and regimental histories, military records and historical archives. He clearly has a firm grasp on a lot of detail, both military and personal, and is particularly good at drawing parallels and contrasts between the polyglot AEF, where familiarity broke down barriers between people, and war-ravaged Europe, where it seemed to have the opposite effect.
The individual stories that Laskin weaves together into his overall narrative are compelling enough that one can forgive his occasional patches of overwriting. After describing the bureaucratic gantlet the Affatato brothers ran to get onto a ship to America, and then the squalid conditions they endured on board, observing that it was "the last step on their native soil, the last breath of Italy's air, the last time they would turn their faces into the Italian sun" is a bit of overkill.
Still, Laskin has succeeded in taking two familiar American stories and, by combining them, enable us to see them fresh. The industrial scale of the Great War's carnage still has the power to astound: In the six months or so that U.S. forces actually fought in Europe, some 117,000 soldiers were killed and more than 200,000 were wounded. "In a war remembered more for senseless slaughter than personal courage, the service of the foreign-born shines," Laskin says near the book's end. "Nearly a hundred years later, it's one of the few things about the Great War that still does."
Drew DeSilver is a Seattle Times business reporter.