Baldacci's 'Summer' mostly a bummer

July 17, 2011 

  • "One Summer," by David Baldacci. Grand Central Publishing. 327 pages. $25.99

    "The Tuskegee Airmen, An Illustrated History," by Joseph Caver, Jerome Daniels and Daniel Haulman. New South Books. 230 pages. $27.95

In "One Summer" by David Baldacci, Jack Armstrong is told by his doctors that his death from cancer is only a short time away. Jack begins a series of letters to his beloved wife, Lizzie. To be read after he is gone, they pour out his love for her. He has been placed under hospice care when Lizzie, racing on snowy streets to get his medicine from the pharmacy, is killed.

The Armstrongs have three children -- a rebellious but musically gifted teenage girl named Mikkie; and two boys, Cory, 12, and little Jackie, who is not yet 2.

After Lizzie's funeral, her parents seem to assume that they will take the children. With the mother dead and the father dying, it seems the only solution.

Then, for no apparent reason, Jack begins to get better. With the help of an old war buddy named Sammy Duvall, Jack not only recovers but gets back in shape. After the astonished doctors have declared him recovered, he takes his children back.

Lizzie had grown up in the Palace, a house on the beach near Charleston, and had told Jack that she wanted to see her home once more. When a relative dies and leaves him the old house, he decides to take his family there for the summer. They object -- particularly the teenager -- but he is determined to carry out his wife's last wish, and they load up the family car and leave snowy Cleveland for Charleston.

The house is badly deteriorated, but Jack, who is -- conveniently -- a building contractor, decides that with Sammy's help they can restore both the house and a lighthouse that stands on the property. Nobody can understand why he wants to put so much work into a house he will leave at the end of summer, but he feels this will keep him closer to Lizzie.

Now begins the unfolding of the novel's highly predictable plot. This is a story "of love, tragedy, second chances, fear and uncertainty," Baldacci tells us. Those elements are certainly there, but not in a convincing way.

He has written 20 best- selling thrillers in the past 15 years, and this is, the publisher says, "a breathtaking literary departure." Despite its current ranking near the top of the New York Times best-sellers list, I hope he goes back to what he does best.


The story of America's first African-American pilots has been told before in books, magazine articles and a Lawrence Fishburne movie, but "The Tuskegee Airmen, An Illustrated History" is the first complete illustrated history.

It contains orders, mission reports, citations and photographs (many previously unpublished) that include everyone who served in the unit. It lists missions flown, and debunks the myths and inaccuracies that have developed around this unique group, including the claim that, as part of their mission to protect the planes attacking the Axis, they "never lost a bomber."

When the war ended they had flown more than 1,500 missions, shot down 112 enemy planes in the air and destroyed another 150 on the ground. They had escorted numerous bombing missions over enemy territory, and had won 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses and more than 700 other awards.

More importantly, they had proved that black pilots could display the same skill and courage as whites, and had become so accepted by the end of the war that separate segregated units were dropped.

Their abilities as fighting men had been proved in other wars, beginning with the Revolution itself, but these brave men demonstrated, once and for all, men were truly created equal.

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