Thursday, July 12, 2012

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When the first Permanent Record articles appeared on Slate last September, I heard from several writers and researchers who had pursued similar projects. One of them was a historian named James Breig, who had just finished a remarkable book called Searching for Sgt. Bailey.

The book's genesis will sound familiar to anyone who's been following Permanent Record: In 2008, Breig stopped in a Virginia antiques shop, where he purchased a bunch of letters that an American soldier named James Bailey had written and sent home from World War II. Breig quickly found himself sucked into Bailey's story. "Within weeks," he writes, "I would be standing in front of the house he grew up in."

Bailey's letters eventually led Breig on an odyssey that included interviews with dozens of former American servicemen. He pieced together not only Bailey's life but also the larger story of servicemen who, as he puts it, "dutifully did what they were asked to do and then returned to anonymity." So the book isn't just a trip down the Sgt. Bailey rabbit hole -- it's a celebration of the people who helped save the world from fascism. Some did it on the front lines, others from far away (Bailey himself was a quartermaster in New Guinea), but all contributed. Even if you've long since had your fill of "Greatest Generation" chatter, the book is a fascinating look at the WWII experience, and Bailey's letters provide that same intimate connection to the narrative that my report card collection has provided for Permanent Record.

The book is available from Amazon here. And if you want to know more, here's an hour-long video of Breig talking about the Sgt. Bailey project:

"Searching for Sergeant Bailey" by James Breig from Colonie Library on Vimeo.

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