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    Tuesday, June 18, 2024

    Telling the story, hearing the truth

    Thursday’s observance of the 80th anniversary of D-Day was likely among the last ceremonies to include the presence of multiple veterans of that momentous battle. On June 6, 2024 the living remnant of the hundreds of thousands who piloted landing craft or scrambled ashore under fire or parachuted into the escalating fight returned once more to Normandy to receive thanks on behalf of themselves and those who have died.

    By 2029 even fewer D-Day veterans will remain. When dignitaries assemble to observe the 85th, 90th and eventually the 100th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Occupied France, it will be to memorialize everyone who fought there. The witnesses will have passed on. But they have already performed one more sacred duty by telling about the determination, the fear, the waves, the blood, the struggle to take the beach. Their truth is our legacy, and we owe them.

    Through lived stories humans collect the details that filter into the understanding of who we are. Without those true stories, there is no E pluribus unum.

    Access to true stories is one of many reasons the move to ban books endangers all, especially young people. Limiting knowledge stacks the deck. Conversely, reading about the times that led up to now frames the comprehension needed today.

    A few years before World War II, those who would soon be defending the nation were teenagers. The American economy was languishing under the Great Depression. Lack of opportunity had people on the move. Immigrants and African Americans from the South moved into Northern cities, large and small. Jobs, when available, paid poorly. Life was tough.

    Today’s Baby Boomers remember growing up with parents who lived through both the Depression and the war, coloring the way they parented. They valued thrift, patriotism, a sense of community, peace and freedom. They understood the threat of deprivation.

    With the post-War majority pretty much all in favor of similar values, society felt cohesive.

    No one says that about society today. Worse, the divisiveness has persisted long enough to start seeping into America’s sense of self. Since 2016, a divided United States has normalized to the point that one of the few things all agree on is the heroism of World War II.

    To leave it at that would be the ultimate ingratitude for the ultimate sacrifice.

    Just a few days before the 80th anniversary of D-Day I had the privilege of being part of a conversation with a group of friends intent on grasping where other Americans are coming from. Indeed the women of the book group, a 50-year-plus meeting of the minds, have always prioritized books that upend ideas about who did what for whom — and who got left behind.

    Some books contain painful truth, as in David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Some, such as the most recent read, James McBride’s “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store,” lighten up a story that feels utterly true with a little slapstick.

    Set mostly in Depression-era Pottstown, Pa., and already selling at the million-copy level, McBride’s book describes the subsistence lives of Eastern European Jewish immigrants and African Americans sharing a neighborhood called Chicken Hill, which is just as pecked over as its name. But as genuinely different as they are, people in the two groups criss-cross the predictable lines of race and background as they work out what the American dream can or cannot mean for them. Above all, they wanted to be part of America.

    Americans, native-born or immigrants, who risked their lives in war may never have gotten the chance to frame their own dreams. Yet their deeds charge a debt to every succeeding generation: comprehend and uphold the enormous gifts of freedom for all. Take note of the struggles and achievements of other Americans.

    The debt is not hard to repay. Read a book about America, and then read more books. Watch some Ken Burns specials. Understand the world’s first and greatest democracy — on behalf of past heroes and future generations.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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