Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

One of the first books I ever read about World War II was Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist opposed to war who is drafted and becomes a chaplain’s assistant, is captured after the Battle of the Bulge and brought to to a POW camp in a vacant slaughterhouse in Dresden, the city where American firebombing killed 135,000 German men, women, and children. Like the fictional Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut and some other real-life prisoners survived the bombing, along with several German guards, deep in a cellar of that slaughterhouse.

Vonnegut writes:
Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘”Poo-tee-weet?
The book ends as the prisoners emerged after the bombing.
And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. World War Two in Europe was over.  
Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.  
Birds were talking.  
One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?”  
Birds figure in a great many fictional books about war. One reason is that birds eke out their existences apart from us humans, whether in wilderness forests or big cities or war zones. We wield ever more lethal human-designed killing technology against one another while birds try to stay alive as well as they can at the edges of the destruction, eating, sleeping, and even courting and nesting as bombs explode around them. We even take some comfort in that thought, though so many birds die as well—no one ever tallies their death toll after a massacre. The irony of Billy Pilgrim hearing that little bird singing is steeped in our deep-rooted sense of birds being missives of peace, from Noah’s dove returning with an olive branch, to the origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki, the little girl who developed leukemia from radiation after Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima when she was two years old. She started making the cranes to symbolize peace between nations as her disease progressed. She folded her 644th paper crane before she died in 1955, when she was just 12 years old.

Last week I finished another novel about World War II, Anthony Doerr’s 2015 Pulitzer-Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See, about a young German named Werner and a blind French girl named Marie-Laure, whose paths intersect, changing both their destinies. One of the most important secondary characters, a German named Frederick who becomes Werner’s closest friend and ally, is an avid bird lover. His passion for birds becomes a metaphor for ideals so far above and apart from everything the Nazis stand for that Frederick’s very existence within the Nazi Youth, and within Germany itself, is in dire jeopardy.

I can’t even begin to recount the beauty and nuance in the gripping stories of Werner and Marie-Laure. In every way, the novel is engrossing and beautiful and tragic; for me, the story of Frederick brought the entire work to both greater depths and loftier heights. All the Light We Cannot See is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

Tomorrow I’ll review a nonfiction book about World War II, a true account of four British prisoners of war who got through their ordeal thanks to birds.