Book Report: All manner of new biography, serious history books

There’s  all manner of biography and serious history new to bookshelves this winter.

For starters, try “Geronimo,” by Robert Utley (Yale University Press, $30).  Utley a National Parks historian traces the Apache’s reputation as it changed from killer and plunderer, to Native American icon, to prisoner of war to what Utley calls our most famous Indian.

Writing about Geronimo isn’t an easy task thanks to the U.S. War Department’s handling of Geronimo’s story from his point of view.  Whenever he said something nasty about American military officers or the army, these passages were expunged.

The autobiography itself would have been banned had it not been for President Teddy Roosevelt who nixed the idea just before it was totally censored.

Utley seems even-handed in his appraisal of Geronimo, saying that he was a very contradictory character, brutal to some, kind to others.

Sometimes drunk, sometimes clever as all get out.  He was cunning and self-serving by turns.

Utley’s passage on his being converted to Christianity by Dutch Reformed missionaries is hilarious. Students of the American west will treasure this book for its vivid detail and even handedness.

When I first watched the World War II movie “A Bridge too Far,” I figured the portrait of the Polish general attached to the British strike force, played by Gene Hackman was probably overdrawn for dramatic effect.

But then I read “The Eagle Unbowed: Poland and the Poles in the Second World War,” by Halik Kochanski (Harvard University Press, $35) and I changed my mind.

Kochanski’s account of Poland’s gallantry and skill in the face of French incompetence and British stuffiness made for delicious reading.

My favorite chapter dealt with the Polish airmen who escaped to Britain and flew with Britain’s Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain.

Once they got into Britain’s superior Hurricanes its legendary squadron 303 outscored British fliers three to one and lost three times as many pilots because of their devil-may-care attitude.

Their success was achieved by flying to within 100 yards of German fighters before they began firing. That’s how a Pole named Antoni Glowacki shot down five Messerschmitts in one day.

Especially infuriating is the French military, which used Polish emigres as cannon fodder to permit French soldiers to escape into Vichy France.

Of related interest is “Iron Curtain,” by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, $35), which is a National Book Award finalist this year.  Subtitled “The Crushing of Eastern Europe,” it recounts how country after country fell under Soviet influence when the war began to be won by the allies in 1944 and how all of Eastern Europe was curtained off by 1956.

And for listees who collect “Christmasiana” on their reference shelves, there’s “Inventing The Christmas Tree,” by Bernd Brunner, translated by Benjamin A. Smith (Yale University Press), a charming history of the Christmas tree, all the countries who claim to have invented it with marvelous illustrations from past centuries.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.