The library has a shelf set up near our Toastmasters meeting room, always with some theme and books connected in some way to that theme. One week recently, it was about heroes. Perhaps there were some books about superheroes; I don’t really remember. But the one that caught my eye was Scott Turow’s Ordinary Heroes.
I had read nothing by Scott Turow previously (though I have thought about reading Ultimate Punishment, which is an essay on the death penalty rather than a novel). But I had an idea of his reputation as a writer, so this looked like something worth reading.
Like several other books I have read recently, it deals with World War II. But while those other novels tell the story from the perspective of civilians or spies, this recounts the experiences of a lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corp.
This story forms the bulk of the novel, but it is actually a story within a story. The novel is written from the point of view of this man’s son, who after his father’s death finds out that his father had secrets in his past that he had known nothing about – and which his mother refuses to tell him about.
Stewart Dubinsky learns that his father, David Dubin, while awaiting his own court-martial for allowing a soldier he had arrested to then escape custody, had written a narrative explaining exactly what had happened. This narrative is the real story, though the son’s perspective is also essential to understanding the meaning of “ordinary heroes.”
Heroes of war stories are often those who do great deeds in battle, whether defeating an apparently stronger enemy, or performing a daring rescue of the wounded or non-combatants. Dubin has spent much of his time in a courtroom, sometimes acting for the prosecution and sometimes for the defense. The cases remind us that many soldiers act far from heroically off the battlefield, committing theft, assault, and worse.
Then Dubin is sent to arrest OSS officer Robert Martin, who has refused to follow orders to return to London. Martin is the more conventional sort of hero, leading dangerous sabotage missions against the Germans. Despite the extreme risks he takes, somehow he has always survived to fight another day. He turns out to be a master of evading capture – even by the JAG when they have an order for his arrest.
In the process of chasing Martin, Dubin ends up in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge, and having been first trained as an artillery officer, he finds himself leading men into battle. War is anything but glamorous here, and the best Dubin can do is attempt to keep himself and his men alive. At one point they have no choice but to play dead for several hours and hope the Germans don’t come shoot the bodies just to be sure they’re dead.
There is also a woman involved, a woman who works with Martin and keeps disappearing with him. She is very good at acting a part, and Dubin – who is very much attracted to her – cannot be sure when she is telling the truth and when she is acting.
To say much more might spoil the ending, though after a certain point it is not too hard to guess. What matters is that son learns something important about his father (and mother, whom Dubin brought out of a concentration camp and married), and about the nature of heroism.