Monday, June 14, 2010

Guest Review: The Last Leaf

Summary: When we read about famous historical events, we may wonder about the firsthand experiences of the people directly involved. What insights could be gained if we could talk to someone who remembered the Civil War, or the battle to win the vote for women, or Thomas Edison’s struggles to create the first electric light bulb? Amazingly, many of these experiences are still preserved in living memory by the final survivors of important, world-changing events.

In this unique oral history book, author and historic document specialist Stuart Lutz records the stories told to him personally by people who witnessed many of history’s most famous events. Among many others, Lutz interviewed:

• the final three Civil War widows (one Union and two Confederate)
• the final pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth
• the last suffragette
• the last living person to fly with Amelia Earhart
• the final American World War I soldier
• the last surviving employees of Thomas Edison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Harry Houdini.

The wide-ranging stories involve humor (the 1920 Olympic medalist who stole the original Olympic flag), tragedy (the last survivor of the 1915 Lusitania sinking), heroism (the final Medal of Honor recipient for actions on Pearl Harbor Day), and eyewitnesses to great events (one of the last scientists at the first nuclear chain reaction, and the final Iwo Jima flag raiser).

In more than three-dozen chapters, Lutz blends background information in a lively narrative with the words of the interviewees, so that readers not familiar with the historical episodes described can understand what occurred and the long-term significance of the events.

A book that truly makes the past come alive, The Last Leaf will fascinate not only history buffs but anyone who likes a good story. -- Prometheus

When I heard about the new book THE LAST LEAF: VOICES OF HISTORY'S LAST-KNOWN SURVIVORS by Stuart Lutz, I immediately thought of my dad (aka Booking Pap Pap.) He is always interested in books about our country's history while I prefer to get my history through historical fiction -- both my dad and my husband are cringing about now! Although after reading his review, I will admit that quite a few of the stories do sound very interesting. Here are his thoughts:

In THE LAST LEAF: VOICES OF HISTORY'S LAST-KNOWN SURVIVORS, author Stuart Lutz chronicles 39 events of twentieth century America through first-hand interviews with people who are the last witnesses to these events. The book is divided into four types of eyewitnesses: witnesses to great history, survivors, witnesses to technological innovation and athletes and entertainers. These stories range in emotions from humor to tragedy to heroism.

Although all of the accounts have some historical significance some events were of more interest to me than others. The story of Rose Freeman surviving the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York and Ester Raab’s account of her escape from Sobibor, the little known Nazi death camp, were of particular interest to me because I knew nothing of these rather significant events.

Because of the impact on our lives today, I also enjoyed reading Pem Farnsworth’s accounts of the first electronic television broadcast, Harry Mills’ story of the first commercial radio broadcast, Albert Wattenberg’s perspective on the first controlled nuclear reaction and Arthur Burks’ views on the first electronic general purpose computer. In the entertainment and athletic section, Hal Prieste’s story of the 1920 Antwerp Olympics where the Olympic Flag with the five rings was first introduced has a humorous twist regarding the flag. The historical accounts of most interest to me were Boyce Price’s story of Franklin Roosevelt’s secret map room, Norman Vaughn’s account of Admiral Byrd’s 1929 mission to the Antarctic and John’s Finn first-hand description of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In my opinion some of the actual interviews had little value. For example the three accounts of the Civil War widows have little historical relevance since these women married veterans long after the war was finished and were not even born at the time of the war. Adella Washington, the last survivor of the 1904 General Slocum excursion ship fire was only six months old at the time and would have no detailed memory of the fire. Thomas Brewer, the last participant in the 1925 Scopes monkey trial was only four years old at the time of the trial. These stories are still of interest however because of the historical background information provided by the author. In general Lutz’s input adds an historical perspective that blends well with the individual interviews, particularly in cases where the events are not familiar to the reader.

Through accounts of some of the major events of the twentieth century, The Last Leaf provides the reader with an insight into the history of human activity, much of which would be lost without the efforts of Stuart Lutz. In fact, the story of the ten year journey to gather these stories is in some ways as notable as the stories. Lutz’s task is made more significant by the fact that 29 of these last witnesses to history have passed away between their interview and the publishing of the book. Even though all the stories may not be of interest to each reader, The Last Leaf is a good read and reminds us that ordinary people can be witnesses to historical events.

A huge thanks to Booking Pap Pap for writing a great review and to Diane Saarinen for allowing me to participate in this book tour.


J.T. Oldfield said...

I was wondering if some of these interviews would be worth it considering the ages of the participants at the time of the historical event. As you said, a six month old is not going to form much of a detailed memory of what happens!

Alee said...

I was curious about this book as well. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

bermudaonion said...

It's good to see Booking PapPap on here again! Great review - some of the interviews do sound fascinating.

Beth F said...

I love the idea of this, but I appreciate the fact that Booking PapPap made it clear that some of the witnesses were hardly witnesses at all. On the other hand, some of the stories sound very interesting. I'll have to see if my library has this one -- I think I'd be inclined to read only some of the chapters.

Anonymous said...

I didn't think that their stories were of little value, as it was interesting to learn how these events affected their lives. And in some events, like the General Slocum fire, I'd never heard about prior to reading this book. But I must agree that some of the interviews were stronger than others. Thanks for the review!