Best of 2014: Seven authors reflect on battles close at hand

A Monitor book critic recalls seven of his favorite author interviews from 2014.

Sarah Churchwell, author of 'Careless People,' made Randy Dotinga's 2014 list of 'most interesting authors I interviewed'.

Not all wars cross borders. History is full of colorful characters who battled within, fighting fighting their own allies or even themselves in a bid to create something bigger. Or better. Or both.

Over the course of 2014, I interviewed dozens of authors for Q&A-style interviews that appeared in the Monitor’s book section. Several were historians who revealed how people both big and small fought with foes close at hand.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, for instance, who couldn’t stop living fast as they chronicled with the excesses of their own generation. And their counterparts, the leftist American chroniclers of the Spanish Civil War who were torn between the truth they wanted to see and the truth they saw. And a pre-war pope who only too late opened his eyes to the true evils of an ally named Mussolini.

There’s also Cesar Chavez, who didn’t share the same dreams as the farm workers he defended. Plus ordinary American men and women who suddenly found themselves fighting for their lives: In a bloody Iowa cornfield in 1989, in the deadly wilderness of the West in the 1840s and 1850s, and in a Minnesota town when a robber named Jesse James came calling.

Here are excerpts from interviews with seven historians.

Sarah Churchwell, talking about the Fitzgeralds and America's "Lost Generation":
 "F. Scott Fitzgerald had a fierce appetite for the gorgeous, an artist’s sensibility that meant he wanted everything to be beautiful, luxurious, sensual. Yet he was also a moralist, with a strong sense of right and wrong. He was in some ways far more straitlaced than people realize today.

“So he was torn, as was [his wife] Zelda. They loved the high life, and didn’t want to admit what it was costing them emotionally, psychically, physically. I don’t think that’s so hard to understand or to sympathize with.”
 – Sarah Churchwell, author of “Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby”

Amanda Vaill, on Ernest Hemingway:
 “He wrote things that had true things in them and led readers to believe something, but the truth was something else. And the truth was often something he did know but he just didn't want to say.... Not being truthful carries incredible costs for people. They corrupt their own lives.”
 – Amanda Vail, author of “Hotel Florida: Truth, Love, and Death in the Spanish Civil War”
 David I. Kertzer, recalling the Pope and the dictator:
 “It's not all that long ago when there was really a much more authoritarian, medieval vision in the Vatican and the church.“There was no sympathy for multi-party democracy in the church at the time. Popes thought it was better to work with an autocratic system. You could have guarantees through a police state that the church will retain rights like freedom from abuse. The church didn't believe in the freedoms we worry about – freedom of speech, of religion, of association.”
 – David I. Kertzer, author of "The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe”
Miriam Pawel, reflecting on Cesar Chavez:
 “When you follow him from his younger years, you see how important it is to him to teach the value of sacrifice and how much disdain he has for middle-class values.“There's an inherent problem with a labor leader who's trying to convince workers they should support the union but also trying to make sure they don't become middle-class. In fact, many workers wanted to be middle-class.’’
 – Miriam Pawel, author of “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez”
 Laurence Gonzales, speaking about on the survivors of United Flight 232:
 “I was surprised at how strong people were, how generous people were, how resilient they were in the aftermath, how people went and got right back on planes.“It's not that they weren't changed by it. But they weren't broken by it. It's a story like the book 'Unbroken,' about people who are able to rise above.... People rise to the occasion. Not every single person, but most people. It gives you new faith in humanity.”
 – Laurence Gonzales, author of ”Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival"
 Mark L. Gardner on a town’s standoff with Jesse James:
 “The townspeople [of Northfield., Minn.] are bank customers, and they also have a sense of right and wrong: We're not going to let a bunch of gangsters come in and do this in our town. We're not going to let this happen.“They had to be a kind of citizen police force, to act as their own law and order.... The people of Northfield amazingly responded to an attack on their community.”
 – Mark L. Gardner, author of “Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West's Greatest Escape”
 Edward Dolnick, on the men of the California gold rush:
“These were not hairy-chested he-men. They were the counterparts of today's cubicle workers, city folk, a lot of them, the counterpart of modern office workers who'd have trouble knowing to get a tent pitched, how to not burn up dinner, how to get the fire to start when it's soggy.“They had very few of the skills they needed. They set out with high hopes and no knowledge and quickly ran into trouble.”
 – Edward Dolnick, author of "The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853” 

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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