Alan’s War is a graphic non-fiction book detailing, as the subtitle indicates, “The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope,” as told to artist Emmanuel Guibert and translated from French by Kathryn Pulver. Cope served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II, and despite going back to his home in California for awhile after the war, he returned to Europe as a civilian employee and spent the rest of his life in France. Guibert met Cope by chance in 1994, and during the years before Cope’s death in 1999, the two became friends and worked together to take down Cope’s story.
Because it is graphic non-fiction, Alan’s War is a quick read. I really liked Guibert’s ink washes and the conversational tone of the story, as I could picture Cope as an old man just chatting away with Guibert. Some of Cope’s experiences are really interesting, including his learning to drive a tank and his various travels at the end of the war and in the years after, particularly the trip he made to Sequoia National Park with the troubled German musician Gerhart Muench and his wife, Vera.
However, given that Alan didn’t enter the war until the very end, the book is more about his travels and the various people he met, and because I picked up the book expecting a war memoir, it fell a bit flat for me. I think that has a lot to do with the storytelling, much of which I found disjointed and distracting. In the middle of the narrative, Cope would interrupt himself to move ahead in the story, then go back, and as a result, I didn’t feel grounded and was unsure about what year we were in and how much time had passed.
Moreover, in recounting his tale, Cope gives only cursory descriptions of the people he encounters along the way, even the ones with whom he forged strong bonds or lasting friendships. I’d find one person to be really interesting, only to find out a page or two later that they were never heard from again, so it was difficult to feel any kind of connection to the people he mentioned. For instance, Cope mentions in passing this girl he’d been writing to, a sister of a friend, so she doesn’t seem too important…until you find out they are engaged, and then the relationship ends almost as quickly as it was mentioned. It also was hard for me to connect with Cope himself, which doesn’t help when the book is about his life. I felt bad that, especially early on during the war, I kept wondering how much of his story was the truth and how much was exaggerated in his memory and by the passage of time.
I don’t feel right criticizing someone’s memoir, but because I am very picky about memoirs, the person’s life needs to be exciting or unusual to grab my attention. I found Cope’s descriptions of his time in the army and the time he spent in Germany at the end of the war, when the Germans were surrendering and there was utter chaos, to be interesting, but after that, other than his travels, Cope was like any other young man, searching for himself and trying to figure out what to do with his life. And toward the end, the narrative makes a jarring shift to include his random thoughts about society, philosophy, and religion, which seemed out of place given the rest of the book.
Even though Alan’s War isn’t a memoir with lots of wartime action and excitement, there is a lot to appreciate within these pages. Regardless of whether or not Cope saw much action, his bravery and service are to be respected and honored. He speaks quite frankly about his experiences, and it’s obvious that these experiences and all the people he met along the way shaped him as a person. It must have been difficult for Guibert to present Cope’s story because Cope wanted to maintain a level of privacy, even stating that he wouldn’t talk about this or that, and that may explain why I couldn’t connect with him. The fact that the story is illustrated makes it more interesting than it would have been otherwise.
Disclosure: I borrowed Alan’s War from the public library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.