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Book 13 Completed

February 17, 2010

Michener is a pro — there is no doubt about that. When it comes to history, the man knew how to suck you in. I’m feeling a little beaten and bruised after finishing The Bridge at Andau, but I really appreciated this book. If you’re a non-fiction lover and/or a history buff, I think you should put this on your to-read list for sure. 

There is so much to talk about with this book — so much that moved me and disturbed me. I can picture the brutality of a communist Hungary, the bloodshed during the revolution, and the panic-stricken refugees as they crossed a tiny foot bridge to freedom. I read the final pages of this book bleary-eyed:  Stories of parents drugging their children so they could carry them silently past Soviet border guards and a dad who swam three times across an icy river taking his kids in turn to Austria — knowing that if he delayed even for a second, he would be a witness to the Russians gunning them down.

Michener’s account of the refugees fleeing Hungary was firsthand. Communist guards who were sympathetic to the Hungarians solicited his help to carry children across the border. He interviewed these young men and women mere moments after they acquired freedom from a government that oppressed them, lied to them, and killed the spirit of their country.

The story of the actual revolution is engaging. Don’t let my slow-reading deter you; yes, it did take an extra amount of energy to finish this book, but that was primarily because the subject matter was so dark. There is a quote in here from a mother of an eight year-old boy who was going to punish her child when he didn’t come home right after school, but then her son told her that he had destroyed tanks with gasoline bombs; she was so proud of him that she couldn’t yell at him. Crazy. 

I was especially entranced by the chapter dedicated to the inner-workings of the communist secret police.What resonated with me most was the paranoia communism bred within communities — even children could be enticed to tattle on their parents for chocolate and oranges and access to movies.

Of course, Russia eventually reclaimed Hungary and Michener’s book — which was published in 1957, a year after the revolution — ends with a reflection on what the future will bring for Soviet Russia. Hey! Wait!! I know this!! Well, James Michener from 1957, I have a little something to tell you. Once upon a time, there was a guy named Boris Yeltsin. 

Yeah, so it was interesting to read a book so outdated in that regard. 

Clearly, despite being born into The Cold War (which means all the bad guys in my favorite movies from my childhood are Eastern European), I don’t have any personal knowledge of The Red Scare. (I did teach Animal Farm for years and that book never ceases to upset me.) But after reading this book, I can understand why the threat of communism was so scary — Michener, even in his attempt to demonstrate how young Hungarians got swept up in the communist party, does not blur the lines. Communism is awful, evil, and hypocritical. Of course, he blames the system that breeds this behavior — how can you effectively engineer a communist state without the torture, the starvation, the obliteration of years of culture and heritage? 

Look, history in hindsight is rarely flattering. Capitalism may not fare well either when looked at through the lens of time. However, lucky for me, I won’t get sent to prison where they torture me for months for saying that or writing it in a blog. This book gives you a lot to think about and certainly sparks empathy for a country that is seldom on the radar. Good read, albeit draining.

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