In the book’s opening pages, the “Authors’ Note,” explains the title – ‘tears in the darkness’ is a literal translation of the Japanese kanji for anrui, “the kind of pain and sorrow that, literally, cannot be seen.” But beyond the explanation is a warning against war: “It is true that some men – men of greed, ambition, or raw animus – love war, but most, the overwhelming number who are forced to bear arms, come home from the killing fields and prison camps with anrui, ‘tears in the darkness.’”
The New York University husband-and-wife professor team of Norman and Norman spent 10 years researching on three continents – the U.S., the Philippines, and Japan – to create this historical tome that ultimately feels like an overwhelmingly convincing treatise against war.
At the center of some 450 pages of tragic history is Ben Steele, a young cowboy from rural Montana who enlisted in the army on his mother’s advice. He thought he might like to go to California, might like to see the world; not yet 23, Steele became a private in the U.S. Army Air Corps in October 1940. A year later, Steele was stationed in Manila, Philippines … where his odyssey of deprivation, starvation, and torture would begin. In April 1942, the U.S. lost control of the Philippine Islands to the Japanese Army, forcing 76,000 American and Filipino soldiers to surrender, and marking the single largest defeat in U.S. military history. Only a fraction of those prisoners would be alive at war’s end.
Remarkably, against all odds, Steele survived the Bataan Death March, the degrading prisons, transfer via slave ships to Japan, and slave work camps … all while weakened by starvation, disease, dehydration, beatings, and endless hard labor. He watched too many around him die, tortured, lost, murdered, and abandoned. Words cannot describe what Steele endured, and the miracle of how he came home, and learned to live life again as a caring, nurturing, lucky human being.
Weaving detailed World War II facts and history with Steele’s personal stories, the Normans also give voice to the so-called ‘enemy,’ offering substantial testimonies of Japanese soldiers and officers, who were also victims of an unforgiving system of brutal patriotic loyalty.
The Normans continue to follow Steele’s life decades after the war, most poignantly including his experience as an art professor to a young Japanese American student whose parents spent World War II in U.S. prison camps by order of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which imprisoned some 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent without due process. Decades after the death and destruction, student and teacher learn to make a lasting peace.
A note of advice: Tears is a book to be read, not listened to. The paper book includes dozens of haunting sketches made by Ben Steele that memorialize his experiences – and through the decades, helped him stay sane (and human). These certainly should not be missed.
To listen, alas, proves to be a painful experience, not for the book’s graphic dehumanizing content which is certainly difficult in any form, but because of the annoyance over what can only be labeled as irresponsible laziness. Again, why can’t a recording team call ONE native speaker of a non-English language to get the proper, consistent pronunciation of foreign words? Millions of people speak Japanese. Millions speak Tagalog and other Filipino dialects. Okay, maybe TWO phone calls??!!
With the achingly detailed translation work the Professor Normans did across the world (in Japan alone, they had a “nearly flawless” simultanous translator on site, and then had the recorded interviews/translations checked back in the U.S. by a doctoral candidate and NYU Japanese instructor!), they must be cringing at the recorded version of their decade-long efforts! So skip the 17-plus-hour commitment … do make sure to pick up the real book instead.