18 July 2011

Picture Book Review: Arlington: the Story of Our Nation's Cemetery

I first visited Arlington National Cemetery on a family vacation back in the 80's. My father, a Navy man with a passion for military history, was particularly keen to take my brother and I there. He wanted to show us the grave of Audie Murphy. I was pretty impressed with the place, but what impressed me most was the behavior of my dad. A life-long smoker, he had such reverence for Arlington that he wouldn't throw his cigarette butts on the ground. He carefully stubbed each one on the bottom of his shoe and placed it in his pocket. That image has stuck with me ever since, and whenever I think of Arlington National Cemetery I think of hallowed ground.

Author and illustrator Chris Demarest has written Arlington: The Story of Our Nation's Cemetery with similar reverence. It is clear that it is a special place to him. It is also a place with a "complicated, sometimes troubled history." And when you consider that it was originally chosen as a burial location during the Civil War out of spite, 'complicated' seems the nicest way to put it. The book starts with a history of the property; it once belonged to a gentleman named George Washington Peake who built upon it Arlington House, which would eventually be inhabited by Robert E. Lee, Peake's son-in-law. The history lesson develops into an explanation of the many monuments in the cemetery and the meaning of the routines which take place there. The most well-known is the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknown, but in reading the book one discovers that even the maintenance of the gravestones (and there are more than 300,000) is done with solemn purpose.

Demarest's illustrations capture the symmetry and precision of Arlington. And although graves feature heavily, images of tidy rows of headstones bring a regimented peace to the pictures. Arlington's dual role as a tourist attraction and a functioning cemetery is most evident in the story which Demarest retells of President Kennedy. The young president visited the cemetery in the spring of 1963 and commented on how he enjoyed spending time there, little realising that he would be buried there himself in seven month's time. It is a poignant moment in a book which expertly merges the larger framework of American history with the smaller picture of personal narratives.

Young researchers and tourists alike will find much of interest in this book. Back matter includes a timeline, bibliography, list of websites, notable individuals buried at the cemetery, and notable monuments. There is also a brief mention of Freedman's Village, a collection of houses built for Peake's slaves when the Union Army seized the property and Arlington House--more complicated history. Yet despite the routine and protocol which is part of Arlington's function, Demarest shows that it is ultimately a place of stories, because through remembrance, recognition, and visitation, it is a place of lives--specifically lives in service to one's country. He concludes with an author's note which reveals a personal connection between himself and the cemetery. His father is buried there. Like Demarest, I have my own tie to the cemetery, and it is more than just a striking memory from a past vacation. My father was a bugler at Arlington National Cemetery between November 1, 1962 and November 8, 1963. He, too, is part of the story celebrated in this outstanding and dignified book.

6 comments:

Jeff Barger said...

I enjoyed reading about this book and your personal connections to Arlington. Nice touch at the bottom of the post.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Thank you, Jeff.

Rasco from RIF said...

Thank you for this post, I had no idea this book existed. As a resident of the beltway for more than 20 years now,I get inquiries weekly from family and friends asking about how to best prepare their children and grandchildren for a DC-area visit; I will definitely add this book to my response. And I am printing a copy of your post to put inside the copy of this book I give my grandson for his DC Book Shelf! Thank you, Kara!

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Thank you for your kind words, Carol. That sounds like an awesome bookshelf you are building for your grandson, and I'm honored to be a part of it!

Chris Demarest said...

First of all, thank you for nominating this book. As you have noted, it's a special place for you as well. Ironically/coincidentally, I am working as the artist-in-residence at the women's memorial @ ANC painting portraits of WW II veterans. The stories I hear and have been witness to has added to the richness of the place. Everyone who visits ANC comes away changed for the better.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Thank you for stopping by, Chris, and thank you for the kind comment. Your job as artist-in-residence sounds fascinating, and vital, as we lose WWII vets every day. I hope Arlington goes far with the Cybils!

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