Two books that involve World War II. Two books about young American men. So which is a better book?
I am a fan of Stephen Ambrose, particularly of Undaunted. He is an admirable historian, and he can bring place, character and adversity to life. Ambrose doesn't need me to be his fan, of course. He's a bigfoot. Pretty much anything he writes is likely to sell big. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem.
Daniel James Brown, on the other hand, has had a breakout hit from obscurity. Why?
The differences between the two books are stark, and they point toward a recipe for a well-told piece of nonfiction, especially historical nonfiction. Brown hits all the notes: His book is about underdogs; it's built around a few characters and one principal character; he is masterful at recreating the era in which those characters lived; and he tells his story so powerfully that the reader is riveted, even though we all know how it ended.
Ambrose, on the other hand, fails to hit these notes. Rather than being a book per se, Citizen Soldiers is a compendium of stories from many, many characters. We follow none of them through the course of the war to Berlin's surrender. He has created a pastiche rather than an arc. He does give a good sense, through this process, of the life of the front-lines grunt and the realities of European combat. But there is no compelling storyline to draw the reader forward -- just more of the same. Plenty of people want to read "more of the same," because there is an endless hunger for WWII books. By the end I felt that Ambrose did his readers a disservice by publishing substandard fare. My cynical side has to wonder if his publisher pleaded for "one more book," since his books sell so well. If that's the case, it's a shame he gave in to the entreaties.