It is never easy to review a work of non-fiction. When that book is also the result of somebodies personal experiences in a situation that very few of us have experienced it is even more difficult. I admit that I am not best placed to comment of what it was like to sit inside a B-17 as it tried to maintain formation through flak and fighter attack. I am thankful for this because from the impression I get from Stiles it was rarely pleasant.
Before I talk about the content of Serenade to the Big Bird a few words about its author are necessary. Bert Stiles experienced the air war in Europe first hand serving with the 91st Bomb Group for a full 35 mission tour. Once this was completed, Stiles was offered the chance to return to the United States to serve as a flight instructor. He turned this offer down in order to be allowed to do a second tour as a fighter pilot despite knowing the risks involved. 16 missions into his second tour Stiles was killed in action somewhere near Hanover whilst escorting a group of B-17s. Stiles was just 23. His mother, in an act of remembrance, managed to get Serenade to the Big Bird published and thanks to this his thoughts and feelings are preserved for future generations to experience the tragedy of war.
If you are interested in the technical details involved in flying a B-17 or even a detailed account of how the missions Stiles went on played out please don’t buy a copy of this book. Serenade is a much more philosophical approach to the necessity of war in the first place and an examination of the kind of person it takes to survive in the skies above Europe. At several points throughout the book, Stiles speaks with utter clarity about the chances of long time survival of even the good crews in a war where death is seemingly a matter of bad luck. His writing is clearly troubled and becomes ever more so as the book progresses. One of the most poignant moments comes when Stiles’ feels as though he should write to the mother of his friend who is killed in action. After considering this for some time, Stiles relents because as he writes:
“What can you tell a guy’s mother? She was there first. She knows pretty well what was inside him.” – Page 44
Long streams of consciousness are a hallmark of Stiles’ structure. For Stiles, with little other to do on 10 hour missions than to try to maintain the safety of the formation, there was plenty of time to think. He often spends time considering the landscape passing far below musing upon the idea that eventually humankind may get along. Being so distanced from the war on the ground gives us a completely refreshing perspective compared to the limitless amounts of infantry and armour memoirs. The impersonality of Stiles war let’s him consider his enemy as something less physical, a product of the political and physical landscape.
“Maybe boundary lines have their uses, and tariffs and visas and all the other barriers built up by men on the ground, but the air flows smoothly over all of them and from 20,000 it is pretty hard to see them or any very good reasons for them.” – Page 30
Where many accounts of the Second World War frame it as being a war where good is fighting against evil, Stiles doesn’t seem to see a point to his war. In his mind, the war is there only to put another group of people in charge of Germany that the allies can get along with. He seems to feel that war as an instrument of change is a pretty wasteful idea. A large portion of his thoughts seem to be given over to considering the power of democracy to ensure that those that represent evil never make it into power. He also recognises that an uneducated vote is a worse threat than not voting at all and makes comments on investing in schools rather than banks because “there is a whole lot more wealth in them.” When you take into account that this book was first published in 1947, 70 years ago, it is amazing to hear such modern ideas from somebody so distanced from the present.
Most importantly, do I think this a book worth reading? Definitely. To say that I have enjoyed every page would be to tell a lie. This is not a book that you can express great pleasure about reading. It is a book that contains the sorrows of a young man in a war that he doesn’t see the point in and as such I struggle to feel anything beyond sympathy. Stiles, like so many, had their youth taken from them by a world where hate seemed dominant. Rather than finishing this conclusion myself, I think it would be much better to leave you with Stiles own words on finding value in difficult places:
There it is, they might say, a beat-up, lousy, starving world, filled with hate and manure and revenge, but for all that, look at the moonlight on the willow trees, and listen to the surf on the yellow sand, and the whisper of the wind through the aspen leaves. There is still a little hope there, and a little love and compassion. – Page 56