When John Nelson died in 1993 at age 101, his grandson felt both sad and liberated. Sad, for the obvious reasons. Liberated, because that grandson, journalist James Carl Nelson, no longer felt constrained about researching the most meaningful episode in John's life -- almost dying on a World War I battlefield.
The author, who resides in Eden Prairie, never could get his grandfather, a laconic Swedish immigrant, to talk much about World War I horrors. But James Carl Nelson knew that every year on July 19 the all-work, no-play John Nelson would put down his work tools and drive into the country for a quiet picnic with his wife, Karin. July 19 marked the date -- in 1918 -- that John Nelson fell from a German bullet and nearly became a fatality on a remote battlefield in France.
As James Carl Nelson began researching his grandfather's World War I service record, the obvious dawned on the journalist -- lots of other men assigned to Company D, 28th Infantry Regiment, U.S. First Division, also absorbed enemy fire, and some of those men died. What began as a family research project became a book about those men, those who returned to the United States and those who did not. Eventually, the author collected information on 144 men who served in Company D.
Anybody who pays attention to book publishing knows that volumes about World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War -- and other wars, to a lesser extent -- abound. Trying to keep track of them, much less read them, can bring on a bout of secondhand combat fatigue.
Among those stacks of books, Nelson's stands out as one of the best. Why? For starters, Nelson is an excellent stylist. His sentences are crafted well, and he knows how to tell a story with a capital "S," a narrative with a clear beginning, middle and end, shot through with tension and resolution. In addition, Nelson humanizes the men, now all dead, from Company D. Finding information about most of them was difficult, even arduous, but Nelson's persistence paid off.
Unsurprisingly, Nelson writes more about his grandfather than about any of the others who served in the infantry unit. John Nelson lived out his decades as a house painter, a father and husband. He did not leave a large mark on the world at large, not even during World War I. Yet James Carl Nelson is skillful at finding extraordinariness in his grandfather's ordinariness, giving the saga a comfortable common-man patina that is a welcome switch from war books focusing only on the generals.
Steve Weinberg's most recent book, "Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller," has just been published in paperback. He lives in Missouri.