As I settled in to the 25 war stories that comprise Neighborhood Heroes, I assumed that by about story #6 or 7, the book would begin to drag. Knowing that they were the products of live interviews, I was sure the stories would become formulaic. How could they not? The author would no doubt have a list of questions, and that list would begin to become obvious from story to story, so that by the middle of the book, I'd know exactly what to expect. I was very glad to be proved largely wrong.
Morgan Rielly has managed so to personalize each story that, in fact, the reader is often taken by surprise. In his introduction, Rielly makes a good deal of the advice he's received to "listen." But he's done a good deal more than that. When you realize that everyone he interviewed was a nonagenarian describing events more than 70 years ago that many of his interviewees had not talked about before, you begin to realize what an accomplishment this book is. Rielly had to do far more than simply listen. He had to coax out of people stories some may have been reluctant to tell, had to convince them their stories were worth telling, had to accompany them to another world--a world that died long before Rielly was born--to help his subjects tell their stories the way they happened.
Anyone who's spent any time with the elderly knows these stories didn't simply fall out of their mouths in chronological order. Rielly's other masterful skill is to take what were surely clusters of rambling or randomly ordered details and arrange them into compelling narratives. The author is a great story-teller, the most important attribute of a good historian.
The book's only drawback is that, while each story is indeed unique, all of them follow a pattern: the war stories, what happened after the war, and what's happening now. It might have been effective to avoid chronological order in a few of the chapters to vary the structure a bit. But I'm quibbling here, because the lively writing and engaging characters make this a small complaint.
That Rielly wrote and published this book in high school is bound to leave most of us wondering what we've been doing with our lives. A great first effort--and thankfully, far from the last.
Inspired by the old African proverb: "When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground," high-school student Morgan Reilly sought to preserve as many Maine libraries as he could by interviewing men and women from Maine who served in World War II and preserving their stories. All of these veterans taught him something, too, not just about how to fight a war, but how to live a life. They were never preachy, never full of themselves. Each of them knew they had participated in something great and special, but none of them thought that they, themselves, were great or special. There was Fred Collins, the sixteen-year-old Marine who used his Boy Scout training to clip a wounded soldier's chest together using safety pins from machine gun bandoliers while under withering fire on Iwo Jima. Or Inex Louise Roney, who served as a gunnery instructor for the Marines, hoping she could end the war sooner and bring her brother home. Or Harold Lewis, who held onto hope despite being shot down out of the sky, nearly free-falling to his death, and spending four months behind enemy lines in Italy. Or jean Marc Desjardins, whose near-death experiences defusing German bombs with his buddy Puddinghead, taught Reilly the value of a good friend.