Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Michael & Elizabeth Norman's "Tears in the Darkness"

Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman are a writing couple from Montclair, NJ. Michael is a former reporter for the New York Times and teaches in the Literary Reportage program at New York University. Beth is a PhD historian in the Humanities and Social Sciences at NYU’s Steinhardt School. Her second book, We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Nurses Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese, was published to critical acclaim by Random House in 1999. Michael’s first book, These Good Men: Friendship Forged From War, an account of his service with the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines in Vietnam in 1968, also garnered wide-spread reviews. The couple has two grown sons. They are already at work on their next book, another non-fiction narrative, this one about public medicine and New York’s Bellevue Hospital.

The Normans applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Tears In the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath, and reported the following:
First, why we failed the page 99 test. We didn’t set out to write history; we set out to create a layered, interlocking non-fiction narrative, a good old-fashioned “story” that unfolds slowly, and you can’t understand page 99 without a bit of setup. Tears In The Darkness is the story of America’s first major land battle in WWII, the 99-day-battle for the peninsula of Bataan in the Philippines in 1942, a battle that became the worst defeat in American military history.

We interviewed more than four hundred people for the book, the American, Japanese and Filipino soldiers who took part, this to create a narrative, a story, that is told from shifting points of view. We also built the book around a central American character, Ben Steele, a young Montana cowboy who became a prisoner of war, survived and came home to become a professor of art. The book has twenty-three of his evocative sketches embedded in the text.

A third of the book is told from the Japanese point of view. Page 99 is in the middle of one such section, the story of a Japanese battalion that was wiped out and one of the nine Japanese soldiers who survived and was captured by the Americans, Kiyoshi Kinoshita.

On the eighth day of battle, the enemy began its attack with a barrage of mortar and artillery rounds. The high-trajectory missiles came crashing down through the canopy and exploded on the hohei in their holes, then the barrage lifted, and behind a loud rattle of rifle fire the enemy advanced.

The Sixth Company was on the right side of the arc now, and Kiyoshi Kinoshita spent the day crawling back and forth with messages. He had to keep low, creep carefully under the heavy wooden lianas and across the green thorns and thistles that tore at his uniform and ripped into his skin. Sometimes, to catch his breath, he hunkered down for a moment in a depression in the ground or tucked himself into a nook between two finlike tree roots. The jungle soil was cool, the only relief from the smothering heat, but he had to keep moving.

He was thirsty—they all were. Some of the men had discovered a small spring in a ravine leading down to the beach, but it took a long time for a man to fill his canteen there, especially under fire. And the heat and dust and smoke and fear left their throats tight and their mouths as dry as rice paper and bitter as vinegar. They were hungry too, down to dry biscuits and bits of candy now. There was little forage on Quinauan Point, a few roots perhaps, some leaves and grasses they boiled to a sour tea. And they were so low on ammunition they often waited until an enemy was almost on top of them to fire. One officer, defending himself only with his sword, cut off his enemy’s right hand before his enemy shot and killed him with the other.

After a week of such savagery, bodies, limbs, hunks of flesh, and viscera…

Now, why we think we passed the Page 99 test. We hope the reader will see the “novelistic” technique of shifting point of view on that page. Overall we tried hard as writers to get out of the way between the reader and the subject. And we tried to create a non-fiction story that was told from ground level, though the eyes of people who experienced it, like Ben Steele and Kiyoshi Kinoshita, old men now living with the ghosts of war.
Watch the Tears in the Darkness trailer and read an excerpt from the book.

Learn more about the book and authors at the Tears in the Darkness website.

--Marshal Zeringue