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Long before he became a successful lawyer and best-selling suspense writer, Scott Turow was fascinated by his father's war stories.
David Turow, a field surgeon in World War II, told his young son about his parachute jump into Bastogne, his capture by Germans who executed his driver, and his horror at discovering concentration camps.
Eventually, his father "put away those experiences and retreated into silence," Turow writes.
But those stories inspired the best-selling author's most ambitious novel, Ordinary Heroes, about the travesties and mysteries of war and the secrets parents keep from their children.
It's a departure for Turow. The novel's main character is a military lawyer, but it's not a legal thriller.
It's not as much a page-turner as my favorite Turow novels (Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof), but it packs a well-plotted surprise that makes it worth reading.
It's told as a story within a story, which can be a risky and distracting device for any novelist.
One storyteller is a character from Turow's early fiction: 55-year-old Stewart Dubinsky, an out-of-work and "out of love" reporter. After his father's death, Dubinsky discovers a cache of wartime love letters to a fiancee his father never married and never mentioned to his son.
The letters lead Dubinsky to a bigger secret: His father, a military lawyer, was court-martialed in 1945 for helping an accused man, a heroic but insubordinate secret agent, escape from custody. Dubinsky's father was convicted, then mysteriously freed.
Dubinsky remembers his father as "remote, circumspect." He asks, "How could Dad have lived and died without ever letting me really know him?" Then, he adds, "I wanted to know Dad's failings, so I felt better about my own."
He sets out to investigate and write his father's story, only to discover that his father already has written it.
The account, written for his lawyer at the court-martial, becomes the bulk of Turow's novel. It describes, often vividly, how a naive lawyer ends up in the midst of combat, entangled with a man who may be a hero or a traitor and a woman who's equally mysterious.
Using different typefaces, Turow goes back and forth between the 29-year-old father fighting World War II and the 55-year-old son trying to figure out what really happened.
The problem, however, is that for most of the novel, the father's story is far more interesting than the son's. That suddenly changes near the end.
By then, readers who have wondered about their own parents will identify with Dubinsky when he writes that children "hear what we want, believe what we can" about our parents.
"And when we tell our parents' tales to the world, or even to ourselves, the story is always our own."
*Review of Amy Tan's
Saving Fish from Drowning
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