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Historical Fiction Review    

 

 

Where the Birds Never Sing:
The True Story of the 92nd Battalion and the  Liberation of Dachau
By Jack Sacco
Regan Books/HarperCollins, 2003
Hardcover, $24.95 (316 pages)
ISBN: 0-06-009665-9
 
 
 

Jack Sacco’s first novel is interspersed with quotations from General George S. Patton, but the real hero of the novel is Sacco’s father Joe, a man who left his home in Alabama to fight in World War II at age eighteen.  The novel, which is in fact a lightly fictionalized version of Joe’s life story, is at once a tribute to Joe, an homage to the men who fought with him, and a harrowing record of war.   

Sacco writes the novel from his father’s point-of-view, and he identifies his father as “I” even in the captions to photographs printed throughout the novel.  This first-person narration, coupled with Sacco’s muscular prose style, lends Where the Birds Never Sing a sense of unremitting immediacy that makes Joe’s story—along with the stories of his friends in the 92nd Battalion—at turns poignant and funny, tragic and mundane.  That is, Sacco captures the soldier’s life without gloss: he emphasizes the small details of meal times and of showers in order to present the day-to-day activities of men who proved themselves capable of confronting crises, torture, and death head on.   

Early in the novel, some of Sacco’s statements suffer from overgeneralization and cinema-style stereotypes.  For example, Joe explains that his family moved to Alabama because of his father’s refusal to drive a car for Al Capone: “Papa, being a decorated veteran of World War I in the Italian army and a man of considerable bravado, told Capone to shove it.  It was just in keeping with Papa’s personality to piss off the most powerful Mafia chieftain of the twentieth century.”  While the paragraph does present Joe’s father as brash and heroic, something rings false in the language—how exactly does a recent immigrant just tell Al Capone to “shove it,” “piss” the Mafia off, and move to Alabama unscathed?  Sacco’s description of the Alabama his father encountered after this near Goodfellas-esque mishap also seems to borrow heavy handedly from movies.  “Alabama didn’t have the Mafia,” Sacco notes, “but they did have rednecks and the KKK.  Neither liked anyone who wasn’t a hick.”  While the presence of rednecks and the KKK in Alabama during the 1930’s and 1940’s is undeniable, Sacco’s stereotypical representation of hicks driving “blacks, Jews, Italians, Catholics and anybody non-WASP” to the “rundown areas” seems simplistic, particularly in a book that later treats questions of race, ethnicity, and religion in a much more complicated manner.   

Sacco is most effective when depicting the ways that the soldiers move from difference to camaraderie and even brotherhood, particularly in his recursive emphasis on place.  The soldiers bond with one another by saying where they come from and by making fun of each other’s places of origins, even as they learn to appreciate differences in accent and background.  After Sacco develops the relationships between the men of the 92nd Battalion in language that is often quick, playful, casual, and real, the narrative transforms into something gripping and powerful.  The losses that the men endure—such as the young father who receives news of his son’s death and learns that he cannot go home for his funeral—make for painful reading, and Sacco handles the relentless progression of horrific stories with an effective balance of tragic sensibility, militaristic gruffness, and historical accuracy.     

This is Sacco’s first novel.  He directed the documentaries Beyond the Fields and The Shroud, and is also a writer and composer.  His credits as a composer include the soundtracks of TR: The Heroic Life of Theodore Roosevelt and Once Upon a Time a Starlit Night.

 

Emily Bowles
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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