Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The most aggravating decent book I've ever read

Weeks ago someone dropped off a book at our library for one of the other branches. Entitled The Horseshoe Curve: Sabotage and Subversion in the Railroad City, I immediately went "OOOH!!!". I was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, right near the Horseshoe Curve and my great aunt and uncle worked at the gift shop there when I was a wee lad. We always got goofy trinkets that lasted for a couple of days before they got broken. And despite only living there for three years, I still have family in the area. The fact it was about the Horseshoe Curve appealed to me but then adding sabotage and subversion? Oh yeah!

The book is supposed to be about Hitler's plan to cripple America during World War II by sabotaging key industrial areas on the east coast; the Horseshoe Curve, Alcoa aluminum plants in Tennessee, New York and Illinois, hydroelectric plants in New York and Tennessee, the water supply of New York City, and a handful of others. It is also supposed to be about the FBI searching the homes of hundreds of Altoonans thought to be "alien enemies". Exciting!

Then my inner skeptic kicked in. "Why have I never heard anything about this before"? "Why is this 400 page book written by a professor being published by Seven Oaks Press in Holidaysburg instead of a university press"? "Repeat question two given that the front cover states the author is also the author of the 'bestselling Juniata, River of Sorrows'"? "Why would enough people buy a book on the Juniata River to make it a bestseller"?

Oh, Inner Skeptic, you never fail me. Why don't I listen to you more? When you dive a little more into the background of the author, Dennis McIlnay, you find that Juniata is a regional bestseller. Region is unspecified as is how the bestselling criteria was established. My guess is that Juniata was the bestselling debut book written by Dennis McIlnay.

The rest of my skeptical questions? Well, the book starts off really good. We join the story already in progress as one of two teams of four German saboteurs is landing off the coast of Long Island via submarine. The other team is landing in Florida. As I mentioned, Hitler has sent them to blows some things up. So who are these saboteurs? Crack SS troops, trained to conduct mayhem? A secret elite Gestapo team? Some guys the Germans picked because they had spent time in America? If you chose the last option, you'd be right. That was the main criteria. Granted, the guy left in charge of this operation was also part of the group plotting to assassinate Hitler. Maybe that should have been a tipoff to Hitler. "You sent a cook, an optician, a butler and a bicycle mechanic to blow up the Horseshoe Curve?"

Most of the saboteurs weren't even in Germany because they wanted to be. One was fleeing his pregnant girlfriend in the States. Another one had been in prison. Doomed to fail doesn't even begin to describe this venture. Well, maybe it does. Because as soon as the saboteurs land, the one starts leaving his gear all along the beach so that they are discovered and another runs to the FBI several days later to let them know about the plan.

The first hundred pages covers the failed plan. McIlnay writes with an absurd amount of extraneous detail, like describing the seventy-three sets of items FBI agents find in boxes once the saboteurs are grabbed. Or going into the background of every person mentioned in the book. After the capture of the saboteurs, McIlnay then goes into fifty pages discussing the trials of the saboteurs (most of whom are executed). 150 pages is a short book in and of itself and much of it wasn't necessary. So now the remaining 200 or so pages (there's about fifty pages of notes and index) will be about the FBI raids, right?

Ha, ha. Yeah, right. In fourteen pages, McIlnay talks about an article in the Altoona Mirror from 1942 that mentions the FBI raids. He then goes on to say that he can find no other proof that the raids happened. Even with the Freedom of Information Act, there are no conclusive government records. No one in Altoona seems to remember them. No other mention was made in the press. Sorry. Nothing to write about.

Well then what is the rest of the book about? What isn't it about? We get a huge section on the career of J. Edgar Hoover. We get many pages on life in interment camps in the United States. We get details of lives of people in these camps even though they have nothing to do with Altoona, the Horseshoe Curve, or anything other than McIlany found some info about them. That brings us to page 240. 120 pages to go. What will McIlany write about now? How about the birth of railroads in England. Pertinent, no? McIlany feels the need to discuss the history of railroading and everyone involved in it to introduce everyone to the last couple chapters on the Horseshoe Curve itself. Most of the remainder of the book is about the politics of the Pennsylvania Railroad during the 1800's. Nothing to do with World War II. Nothing to do with Altoona or the Horseshoe Curve. When McIlany does get to the Horseshoe Curve, does he talk about the role it served in World War II? Of course not. He talks more about it today, even mentioning that the Altoona Curve minor league baseball team, named for the Horseshoe Curve, won Baseball America's Bob Freitas Award. And this has what to do with the sabotage efforts?

You know what, though? Despite the total lack of a coherent structure, it was a fun book to read. I learned a lot about numerous things. I enjoyed learning about J. Edgar Thomson (the other J. Edgar), who was a huge player in the railroad business that I will probably track down a book written about him that McIlnay cited frequently. But cow holy, this could have used an editor. Random things just pop up at the end of paragraphs. McIlnay will be talking about railroads and then end a paragraph saying that such and such a person had been married. So what? It has nothing to do with anything. If you want to talk about the personal life of that person, find out a little more and make a paragraph or two out of it. Don't just throw out minutiae because you have it and need to squeeze it in.

Also, the man does not know how to conclude anything. If this were a novel I'd have thrown it across the room because there is nothing approaching a satisfying conclusion. I think it comes from him wanting to stuff everything he can into the book. When you have no direction, it's really tough to know when you've reached the end.

I think it's funny that this is one of the longest reviews I've written but this was quite a book. It covers so much about so many things, I'm not sure who I would recommend this to. Aggravating, but decent.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You missed the most glaring error in the book. The plan was to blow up the tunnels and not the Horseshoe Curve itself. The railroad could have repaired the tracks in a day. It would have taken six months to a year to repair the tunnels.

Its an urban legend that has been allowed to stand uncorrected.