"The Long Way Home"
Editor's note: Author David Laskin reads from his new book tonight (April 5), 7 pm, at the downtown Seattle library; admission free.
April 1917. The United States declared war on Germany and committed its troops to the Allied cause on the blood-soaked fields of Europe that had seen, since August 1914, the butchery of millions of young soldiers, human fodder for the fearsome arsenal of modern industrialized war: aerial bombs, heavy artillery, machine guns, tanks, and poison gas.
As the U.S. entered what became the First World War, a skeletal American military desperately needed recruits to fill its ranks and fight in France. Of the 2.5 million American soldiers who fought in the war, one in five was foreign-born. They were men like Andrew Christofferson, a Norwegian farm laborer in Montana; Meyer Epstein, a Jewish refugee from the Russian Pale who hauled scrap in New York City; Maximilian Cieminski, a Polish miner and night watchman in Michigan; and Antonio Pierro, an Italian laborer in Massachusetts.
In his vivid and carefully researched new history, The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War (Harper 2010), Seattle writer David Laskin follows the journeys of Christofferson, Epstein, Cieminski and Pierro and eight other immigrant soldiers who fought with U.S. forces in World War I.
When they embarked for war, most immigrant soldiers — conscripts and volunteers alike — lacked citizenship rights and knew little of America except for dingy ethnic ghettos or isolated towns and unskilled, grueling jobs. Some faced harassment and suspicion as nativists — the precursors of today's anti-immigrant agitators — loudly sought an end to most immigration, as a nervous government clamped down on suspected anarchists and Reds, and as credible U.S. scientists embraced eugenics, a new field devoted to achieving racial purity. Yet these foreign-born soldiers, who came to America for freedom and often to avoid compulsory military service in their home countries, fought with distinction in savage campaigns on the Western front and returned home Americans.
Laskin describes the lives of 12 men from their humble beginnings in Europe, their challenging Atlantic crossings, their struggles beginning again in America, their ethnic enclaves, to their harrowing wartime service, and, for most, their survival and return home, at times as heroes. Three of these men died in combat and two won the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Laskin's engaging chronicle is based on extensive archival research, interviews with family members, and, in two cases, interviews of veterans of the war who were both over 100 years old when he met them.
Laskin is well known for his works of narrative history. He won a Washington State Book Award as well as the 2006 Midwest Booksellers' Choice Award for The Children's Blizzard, a history of the Great Midwest Blizzard of 1888. He also won the Washington State Book Award in 2001 for Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals. He has written several other notable nonfiction books on subjects ranging from history and travel to weather and nature.
Laskin will be reading from his new book on Monday (April 5) at the Central Seattle Public Library at 7 pm; on April 21 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park at 7 pm; and on April 30 at the Port Angeles Library at 7 pm.
Laskin recently discussed his new book from his home near Seattle.
Robin Lindley: Did The Long Way Home grow out of your previous work on climate and history?
Laskin: My last book, The Children's Blizzard, was about a killer storm that hit the Midwest on January 12, 1888, and killed scores of children on their way to school. It hit during a period of pioneering on the American prairie and most of the pioneers were immigrants with many from Scandinavia and Germany and German-speaking Mennonites who had lived in Russia in the Crimea.
The immigrant theme lodged in my head and it interested me how these people moved here for opportunity and freedom, and how they were affected by American climate, history, social currents, and so on. After The Children's Blizzard, I started looking into World War I because it's one of the major historic events that drew a line in the sand — the world looked different before and after this event. So much of modern politics, attitudes, art, and national boundaries stem from World War I or its aftermath.
And then, in one of those light-bulb moments, it occurred to me that I could put immigration and the Great War together and write about both. As it evolved, I realized that one out of five soldiers who served in the U.S. forces in that war was foreign-born (and( I thought I'd hit the jackpot, and that's how it started.Lindley: Did you have relatives who fought in World War I?
Laskin: I did. My Uncle Hyman came over from the Russian Pale in 1910. He was drafted in 1917, and served with the Big Red One, the First Division. He saw his captain bleed to death after the battle of Cantigny, the first sustained American action of the war. Then Uncle Hyman was gassed at Soissons where Matej Kocak, a Slovak career Marine in the book, won the Medal of Honor. I'll write about (my uncle) in my next book.Lindley: How did you get from the themes of immigration and World War I to tracing the experiences of the 12 veterans you follow?
Laskin: That was the hard part. I needed to find some guys to write about. The Children's Blizzard was similar in that I told the story of the storm through its impact on the lives of families. I wanted to take the same approach in this book, and I had experience finding these stories.
I contacted the Jewish War Veterans and put an ad in their newsletter asking for stories of people who served. And that's how I got Meyer Epstein. With an Italian-American publication through the Sons of Italy, I got Epifanio Affatato. I went through Polish newspapers and journals, and I got Max Cieminski. I got Tommaso Ottaviano because a guy I had written about in an article for Seattle Metropolitan (told me) his wife's uncle died in the Great War and he was born in Italy. His great-niece had a lot of family research that was fantastic.
I kept casting my net and reeling it in and then there were 12.
Lindley: The harsh imprisonment and torture the conscientious objectors endured in the U.S. was a surprising story. Of the four Hutterites you profile, two died in prison.
Laskin: That story grew directly out of The Children's Blizzard and the story of five Mennonite boys who froze to death near Freeman, South Dakota. In the course of my research, I was kind of adopted by the Mennonites [in] Freeman, a very warm and welcoming, history-minded community. While I was in Sioux Falls on a book promotion, a man named Hofer asked me if I knew the story about the conscientious objectors. I said I didn't, and that's how that came out.
The Hutterites and Mennonites are related sects theologically. And I was really lucky to be in touch with a lawyer, Susan Cohn, who has thrown herself into researching this story. She was really, really generous and sent me huge packets of trial transcripts and other information.
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