Fatal flaws, whether real or perceived, are so hard to handle at the Newbery table. Inevitably it’s not the flaw that’s in question, but whether or not it’s fatal, and it’s so hard to persuade those that feel fatalistic.
I need that preamble before I talk about Sheinkin’s book, because so far I’ve not found anyone who feels as strongly as I do about this flaw, but neither has anyone given me any argument to feel less strongly about it.
Shenkin is an engaging writer, and artful at crafting pieces of research into a narrative that is electrifying. He does this with a crutch; a crutch he doesn’t need: he seems to invent “you are there” moments. I say “seems to” because it’s hard to backtrack on his research: this, a not-necessarily-fatal, but notable flaw.
I’d had the same frustrating reaction with THE NOTORIOUS BENEDICT ARNOLD, so this time, I flagged everything I came across, and made an attempt to look back at Sheinkin’s sources, to see if the material he was using was a direct quote from another source. Sheinkin provided references for most direct quotes, but not all, and did not provide page numbers, only bibliographic citations for the sources they came from. If there was any particular scene I was curious about, I had to guess–from the sources used for nearby quotes–which source(s) described the scene, and browse read through them until I found the source material.
Let me show you what I’m talking about. You can find examples on most pages, but here’s: p.19-20 “Szilard sighed…Winger shook his head….Szilard leaned his sweaty head out the car window.” I’ve just pulled out, from a scene, certain gestures that help to set it; but which, frankly, don’t add much, and also are highly suspect to me. Did Szilard or Winger describe this event in such detail that it could be reported that way? Their first-hand accounts are the sources for quote material in that chapter, and I read through them, and they provide no details like this.
A similar situation in the same chapter happens with Roosevelt: p.20 “Rooselvelt said, flashing his famously big smile,”….”He banged his desk,” Sheinkin cites Richard Rhodes’ “Dark Sun” for the quote that issues from Roosevelt’s mouth; and that compares exactly, but without the famously big smile or the banging of the desk.
Meanwhile, in the “Norweigan” chapters as we’re referring to them in comments on Jonathan’s Take…there are many of these sorts of scenes. The two sources cited for these chapters in general are Knut Haukelid’s “Skis Against the Atom,” a highly dramatic and detail-oriented first-hand account, and Thomas Gallagher’s “Assault in Norway,” which is a secondary account from 1975, using the same highly dramatic style of narrative nonfiction as Sheinkin. Since the scenes I was interested in were not cited directly, and these are long narrative sources, I had to just go hunting. I did spend a week of evenings browsing through these two books looking for the scenes mentioned, and found many of them, but not all. They’re probably all there, is my sense, not having read the books cover to cover. But I can’t tell the difference between the scenes above in which it appears that Sheinkin has fictionalized gesture, and, for instance, the one on p.53 “Poulsson tapped ashes from his pipe into the palm of his hand. ‘Interesting,’ he said.”…which, if it was in either of these books (I didn’t find it myself), could be a remembered first-hand account. And if it was there, could have been cited directly with a page number…or a description given by Sheinkin of how he developed the material in this chapter, from which accounts.
We know he can avoid this trap, because in other places he uses the simple technique of quoting a first hand account and citing it. For instance: p.32 ” ‘ After breakfast, I headed for the bus stop to wait for the 8:05 bus to take me to Honolulu where I was to play golf,’ he said.” This quote from Pesek is sourced in the back. We know who said it, and in what context. It is, therefore, a reliable part of the narrative.
So: is this a problem, and if so, why and how big? I know this sort of narrative does not bother many readers. And it’s not as if Sheinkin is the only author that ever develops a narrative with techniques of fiction to accentuate the setting or drama. For instance, Hoose sets up some “imaginary” scenes from the point of view of B95 in MOONBIRD…but he gives them the context of being imagined. In TEMPLE GRANDIN, there are some very detailed scenes…but the reader knows that Montgomery interviewed Grandin, so the intimation is that Grandin reported these scenes.
Why does it bother me in Sheinkin? I don’t see where these gestures add to the narrative, which is already riveting. And because they stand out to me the reader as unlikely to have been witnessed and reported in such detail, and because the citations for these scenes seems arbitrary and almost deliberately unhelpful, it undercuts for me the effect of the rest of his narrative. It makes me distrustful of the narrative, which is probably unnecessary, and gets in the way of his delivery. He makes himself an unreliable narrator. I think this is not being respectful of the intended audience: who want to be gripped by history, and not have to wonder at the show.