Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review: The Last Leaf by Stuart Lutz

When a significant event occurs, many people are often privy to it, and we read accounts in the newspaper the next day -- 'Journalism is the first draft of history.'  Death's scythe slowly removes the eyewitnesses and participants until there is but one left.  The Last Leaf.  When that final person passes away, no one can challenge our thinking about that particular occurrence.  No witness can give a new perspective to old events or recount anecdotes no one else knows.  Once this Last Leaf dies, the story enters a new realm, one occupied by academic historians fighting over the meanings of the event and ignoring the larger and often more interesting narrative.  (from The Last Leaf, page 24)

Although unintentional, it's fitting that I'm posting a review for a book about the last survivors of some major historical events on my grandmother's 92 birthday.  My gram has a lot of interesting stories to tell.  She lived through the Great Depression, ended her education in the 6th grade to care for her numerous siblings, lost a brother in World War II, and watched her only child leave home to fight in the Vietnam War.  She has outlived her son and all but one of her siblings, but she's twice experienced the joy of becoming a great-grandmother.

I've always been interested in hearing the stories of people who've lived long lives and witnessed many things.  I took two gerontology courses as part of my degree in sociology, and I spent my weekends in high school and college working as a waitress in a retirement home, where I was well liked simply because I listened.  Unlike many of my co-workers who listened only to be polite, I listened because I truly was interested and loved it when they would share old photos with me.  I was devastated when I'd come to work and learn that I had one less place setting to put out.

In The Last Leaf: Voices of History's Last-Known Survivors, Stuart Lutz captures the stories of more than three dozen individuals through extensive interviews.  The book is divided into four parts:  Witnesses to Great History, Survivors, Witnesses to Technological Innovation, and Athletes and Entertainers.  Lutz provides his observations and adds historical information where appropriate, but mostly he lets these "Last Leaves" tell their stories in their own words.  There are photos of each of the Last Leaves, both from the past and at the time of the interview, as well as pictures of important documents and memorabilia.  Unfortunately, most of the Last Leaves passed away during the more than 10 years it took Lutz to complete the book, and this information is included at the end of each profile.

The Last Leaf is a fascinating book, and I applaud Lutz for taking the time to interview these individuals and create a permanent record of their experiences before it was too late.  While I found the entire book interesting, the Witnesses to Great History and the Survivors sections were the most captivating.  A few interviews stood out from the rest:  the stories of the last Civil War widows, women who when they were barely out of their teens married elderly Civil War veterans decades after the conflict; Esther Raab, who survived the escape from the Nazi death camp Sobibor with the help of a message her late mother gave to her in a dream; Adella Wotherspoon, who was only 6 months old when she went for a ride on the General Slocum, an excursion ship that caught fire in New York City's East River in 1904; and Budd Schulberg, who in 1939 worked on a screenplay with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who during his lifetime could not replicate the success of The Great Gatsby.

The one interview that really made understand the importance of the Last Leaves' stories was that of Charles Lindberg, the last man to raise the American Flag on Iwo Jima in 1945.  Lindberg was one of the original flag raisers, but most people don't realize that the famous photo of the Iwo Jima flag raising that was used to create the monument depicts a second flag raising that occurred just hours after the first.
"'Corporal [Chandler] Johnson was worried about our flag that was up there on Suribachi,' he explains.  'He didn't want someone to steal it for a souvenir.  After all, it was the first American flag to fly over Japanese home territory in World War II, and he wanted to preserve it.  So he ordered another flag up.'  (pages 173-174)
The Last Leaf preserves the true stories of people who witnessed well-known historical events or worked with some of history's most influential figures.  Not only does Lutz provide an important contribution to the historical record, but he also teaches us an important lesson -- one that he learned during the course of the interviews.  Most of the Last Leaves were in their 90s or over 100, and some of them continued to lead active lives and even used e-mail.  It just goes to show that people can live full, productive lives at any age and that younger generations have a lot to learn from those who came before them.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Last Leaf from publicist Diane Saarinen for review purposes.  I am an Amazon affiliate.



© 2010, Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not copy or reproduce content without permission.

18 comments:

Serena said...

Sounds like you really enjoyed these stories...and I did know about the Iwo Jima second flag raising. Don't remember where I learned that though.

Great review.

Stephanie Cowell said...

I read this book with the greatest fascination. It is a perfect Father's day gift!

carolsnotebook said...

Wow, sounds like an amazing collection of stories. Also, it sounds like it would have me in tears.

Shelley said...

This sounds like something I would love. Adding to TBR...

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds very good. Did you ever watch the [10-hour] movie Shoah? A lot of it is just interviews with people about their WWII/Holocaust experiences, and for me, it was one of the most fascinating movies I ever saw (but very draining!) It's also interesting to me - how come some people remember so well and some people don't? Or does the event have to be "significant" to imprint a fairly accurate memory in our brains?

Sullivan McPig said...

sounds like a very interesting book.

Trisha said...

It's nice to hear from someone else who enjoys the older generation. I've always loved to hear stories from those who've lived long; they have so many interesting experiences and intelligent insights into the current state of affairs. This sounds like a great collection of stories.

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a fascinating book. Happy birthday to your Gram!

Suko said...

This does sound fascinating! Wonderful, well-written review as usual. I will keep an eye out for this book. Happy birthday to your grandmother. :)

Florinda said...

This sounds interesting, and I enjoy oral history. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention!

Aarti said...

What powerful subject matter for a book! This sounds wonderful- great review and thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Staci said...

This book sounds fantastic and I love how you weaved your own personal experiences with your grandmother and the nursing home within the context of this review. I know that my husband would really find this book fascinating! Thanks for an excellent and thoughtful review.

Stuart Lutz said...

Thank you all for your warm and generous comments. It is wonderful to know that after a dozen years of work, people are actually reading the book. Most gratifying. Sincerely, Stuart Lutz

Heather J. said...

I spoke to this author briefly during BEA and thought the book sounded fascinating. Glad to know it was worth reading! I'll have to keep an eye out for this - it's one I definitely want to read.

Mystica said...

Apart from the story I love the cover!

Marie said...

sounds like a fantastic book- like I'd learn a lot! thanks for the great review!

Teddy Rose said...

This book sounds so compelling. I think it is a must read for me.

Darlene said...

This book really sounds interesting. I love hearing other people's stories too.