The Barley Hole Chronicles: From Hell to Hamburg
When I ordered this book, I was expecting an interesting read, but I wasn't expecting to be totally enthralled with an autobiography.
The first half of the book, 1923: Lies and Testaments, covers only the period from Harry's birth to the end of WWII, but you know the saying, "You had me at hello?" Well, Harry had me with the Author's Introduction. Just that Introduction was worth the cost of the book!
As I read his words that covered his childhood during the Great Depression in England, I could see, hear, and smell a time and place that I had never known. I could feel the pain and strength in a young boy that I had also never known. But, I cared for him; I would have cried for him, but I had read the Introduction and saw the strength and the amazing grasp on life that young boy grew up to have.
I've also read many books about WWII, but never one that took me realistically into the mind and body of a young soldier who thought and acted exactly the way young men do regardless of wars or poverty or other horrors. The book, though an autobiography, reads like a novel, depicts reality with the realism that only novelist generally capture, and captures the reader's heart with the point-of-view of the protagonist, a very real young boy and man.
In the last half of the book, Hamburg 1947: A Place for the Heart to Kip, I found myself reading a love story. He tells his story of meeting and falling in love with Friede, a young German girl, with a realistic poignancy that I have seldom found in the written word. Reading his words about about the young girl who would become his wife and share half a century with him, I remembered for the first time in decades what young love was like. I remembered it just as he described it, "It was primal, it was emotional, and it was natural...." For anyone who loves a love story that depicts truth instead of trite romance, this book is a must read.
But even more, this book is a love story between a man and a place that existed in the restraint of a given time. The place is no longer the place it was, and that time is now long past. But, that love still lives strong, and is now captured forever in the pages of this book. For me, perhaps, the most astonishing thing was to read about a post-war that I had never been taught about and never even imagined. Being an American, I have been taught that we and our allies were the "good" guys. Now I know that innocent people, children, mothers, and old people suffered at the hands of the Allies for simply having been born where they were born. I know that "Friede and her family lived off a soup that tasted like rainwater and ate bread made from animal feed." Such hardships were the result of Allied occupation. This knowledge has given me a greater understanding of the long-term horrors of war, any war, that continue long after the last shot has been fired.
I've never met Harry Leslie Smith; we are continents apart. But, I feel like I know him, that in someway I've shared his experiences, and that he's taken me on a journey through a great depression in England and a war in Europe. I would recommend this book to anyone!