The Verdun Affair
In a break with protocol, I decided to interview a novelist rather than a military historian. Nick Dybek, a creative writing professor at Oregon State University has written a terrific novel, The Verdun Affair: A Novel (Scribner, 2018). It’s protagonist is Tom, an American living in France after World War I, having served as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service. He has the macabre task of gathering bones from the battlefield at Verdun, in preparation for the construction of ossuary there. Families come from all over France, looking for news, or perhaps the remains, of loved ones reported missing or dead during the war. One such pilgrim is Sarah, also American, looking for her husband, Lee, whom she is convinced still lives.
You can learn more about the story in the interview (or go read the book!), which also details some of the remarkable historical research that Dybek conducted as he wrote. The sense of global catastrophe, the losses of grieving families, the search for meaning, the efforts to rebuild, all conjure the atmosphere of postwar Europe. Dybek’s descriptions of Verdun, of the battles on the Isonzo and in the Dolomites, the fascist violence in Italy reflect that careful research and teach the history of the period with greater impact than all but the best works of history.