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What's a Hero? 'The story is always our own'
on 6 April 2006
I've lost count of the number of critically acclaimed so-called 'page-turners'which have left me cold. You've probably read a few despite yourself: The kind of thriller which has sketchily-drawn photofit characters, a tortuous plotline and a kind of moralistic sheen sprayed over it to justify the meagre story. 'Ordinary Heroes', however, is not that kind of book.
I was aware of Scott Turow's abilities as a storyteller, but in his latest novel he has raised his game to produce an extraordinary book- the kind of satisfying read which makes you feel you have truly engaged with the characters, rather than having been a mere spectator. In short this is that rare breed: a genuinely literary novel which still manages to retain the best attributes of more populist fiction. The story poses some of the more intractable questions about what motivates the individual- love, duty, self-interest- and in the context of a family history, arrives at surprising, if ultimately satisfying, answers.
Stewart Dubinsky, a journalist, researches the life of his recently deceased father, David Dubin. He discovers that David was attached to the Judge Advocate General's Department of the US Military during World war II, dealing with Court Martials in the newly freed France and Germany. Against the background of the Battle of the Bulge and the onward push of Allied forces into Germany, David Dubin is sent on a 'Heart of Darkness'style mission to track down a renegade US Officer, Major Robert Martin. Although ostensibly working for the OSS, Martin's motives and loyalties are called into question. He and his nemesis, General Teedle (Dubin's commanding officer, and the source of the mission)crop up again and again in a game of cat and mouse throughout the novel.
In a more literary sense, 'cat and mouse' (or perhaps snakes and ladders?)describes Stewart Dubinsky's search for the truth about his father. He discovers that his father has been court martialled,then mysteriously cleared. Through the oral testimony of his father's now 96 year old court martial attorney Bear Leach, the written narrative of David Dubin, and the inquiries and conclusions of Stewart Dubinsky, we see the 'truth' about his father's history pieced together in front of us, complete with all the motivations and justifications of the characters involved. The juxtaposition of these various sources is a clever chess game with our expectations on Turow's part, yet the story is always crystal clear.
David Dubin's involvement with Gita Lodz, initially Robert Martin's 'companion' (though the edges are blurred as to what this actually meant)forces him to question his own assumptions about relations between men and women, and challenges the foundation of his duty as a soldier. Thrown by chance into active combat- not the expected route for an Army Lawyer- and working with a black Sergeant, Gideon Bidwell who has passed for white and hence is operational (not in the support role for which he otherwise might have been destined)similarly leads Dubin to challenge, in his own mind the whole ratinale behind war. The Legal process may be black and white, but what happens when the world is itself grey?
Stewart's examination of his father's written account allows him to see the true emotional being behind his hitherto distant parent. Indeed, the narrative makes this engagement with his father's story unfold organically until having occasionally re-written or re-shaped passages fromn his father's account for publication "I frequently cannot remember whose lines are whose when I turn the pages".
This is a novel set firmly within an historical context, but the research is worn lightly. The landscapes and people are vividly drawn, and the characters are fully rounded. The atmosphere of the time is accurate but by no means academic.
If you enjoy a fluidly written and engaging novel which rewards you not with cheap thrills but an intelligent and thought-provoking storyline, then buy and consume this book at once.