I have now read two accounts of the Boyington story, in Palmer’s book and a much shorter version in Brendan Kirby’s Wicked Mobile (review to come). I agree with both authors that there is certainly a story here. While Kirby opts for the highlights in a way that should serve as a teaser for Palmer’s book, Palmer’s book just doesn’t deliver.
Palmer’s first problem is a misunderstanding of her selected genre, creative non-fiction. There is an implied (or perhaps explicit) agreement with the reader that the author will do her best to use the available facts to write a narrative account that tells the facts as though they are a story rather than a macro-level historical report. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns is an example. Many authors in this genre will provide an author’s note in some form explaining their method. No such note appears here.
The first part of Palmer’s book reads like the kind of things that give romance novels a bad reputation. When Palmer does elect to insert useful information, her writing is clumsy and her dialogue rings false. The book improves somewhat when she, using a shift in verb tense as an informal marker, gets more into the heart of the matter. From the documents she does include, she clearly did an extensive amount of research. But she seems at a loss about how to incorporate much of it. The story has no clear timeline, no drive, no momentum. Even though we know the outcome – which is fine – in better hands, there would still be some suspense. The dialogue continues to be wooden, and the different strands of the story get away from Palmer. She ends up creating empathy for none of the characters and while, like Kirby, she brings up some questions about the result of the trial, they are an afterthought, rather than a reflection on what might /should have been. The Author’s Final Notes end the book in a truly amateurish fashion.
Palmer had the right instinct. There is a story here. My biggest suggestion is that she read more narrative or creative non-fiction to see what can be done, especially with stories that involve trials. Then she can try again if not with the Boyington case then another.
Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake