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Friday, October 14, 2016

Fridays Are Non-Fiction Days Review: Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Aside from romance novels, I also enjoy non-fiction, specifically biographies, memoirs, and historical accounts so I thought I'd set aside the occasional Friday for those reviews!

Format: .mobi (A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley for the purpose of an honest review. )
Publisher: GoodKnight Books 
Release Date: October 24, 2016

In March 1941, Jimmy Stewart, America’s boy next door and recent Academy Award winner, left fame and fortune behind and joined the United States Army Air Corps to fulfill his family mission and serve his country. He rose from private to colonel and participated in 20 often-brutal World War II combat missions over Germany and France. In mere months the war took away his boyish looks as he faced near-death experiences and the loss of men under his command. The war finally won, he returned home with millions of other veterans to face an uncertain future, suffering what we now know as PTSD. Younger stars like Gregory Peck were now getting roles that might have been Stewart’s, and he didn’t know if he would ever work in Hollywood again. Then came It’s a Wonderful Life.

For the next half century, Stewart refused to discuss his combat experiences and took the story of his service to the grave. Mission presents the first in-depth look at Stewart’s life as a Squadron Commander in the skies over Germany, and, his return to Hollywood the changed man who embarked on production of America’s most beloved holiday classic.

Author Robert Matzen sifted through thousands of Air Force combat reports and the Stewart personnel files; interviewed surviving aviators who flew with Stewart; visited the James Stewart Papers at Brigham Young University; flew in the cockpits of the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator; and walked the earth of air bases in England used by Stewart in his combat missions of 1943-45. What emerges in Mission is the story of a Jimmy Stewart you never knew until now, a story more fantastic than any he brought to the screen.

Most people know who Jimmy Stewart was. He was a talented actor whose career spanned almost 60 years and gave moviegoers some of the most well loved and recognized movies and characters of all time. Who doesn’t know the story of George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life? That’s a Christmas classic! I personally loved him as Mike Connor from The Philadelphia Story and Tony Kirby in You Can’t Take it With You. However, Stewart was also a real life war hero and served proudly in the Air Force for a number of tours. He adamantly refused to discuss his time in the military and up until now that part of the actor’s life remained a mystery.

Author Robert Matzen diligently and thoroughly sifted through countless combat reports, conducted multiple interviews with survivors who had flown with Stewart during the war, and did his best to retrace Stewart’s steps at the air bases in England. The result of all that work is Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, an in depth look at Stewart’s time in the Air Force.

I have never read a book such as this one before. More than just regurgitating whatever facts he managed to find out through his research, Matzen painted a clear picture of just what Stewart went through as a soldier fighting a very real war. Nothing is glossed over, not Stewart’s anxiety, not his trauma over watching men under his command die, and certainly not his fear that his Hollywood career was over. The most surprising thing about this book was the emotion the author was able to convey and I think that’s what made it such an easy read. The pace and structure felt more like a conversation between two people, it flowed easily and kept me engaged until the very end.

Mission doesn’t just jump into Stewart’s military career though. Matzen sets up the book by starting at the beginning of Stewart’s life and briefly touching on his early Hollywood career and carousing. This somewhat happy go lucky beginning gave insight to how the actor was before the war which to me was instrumental in understanding just how much he changed after the war and how it influenced his acting. It was made very clear early on that this book was focused on the military aspects of Stewart’s life and not his Hollywood persona. That’s not to say it wasn’t mentioned but only as it pertained to his military career.

Final Verdict: Without giving away too much, I have to say that Robert Matzen’s Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe gives a great insight into the one area of Jimmy Stewart’s life that has been in the shadows for so long. I only knew of Jimmy Stewart the actor. Now I feel like I know a bit more about him as a human being.

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