"Claw" A Gripping Tale - Book Review by Susanni Douville
POW Camp - Philippines
On a crisp autumn day in October 1940 plucky Franklin J. ("Porky") LaCoste of the small mill town of Athol, Massachusetts and five of his closest friends enlisted in the United States Army, visions of an expenses-paid vacation in Paradise - Hawaii - dancing in their heads. Little did the boys realize that, following an all-too-brief detour to Paradise, they would begin a descent into Hell.
In her powerful, moving novel, In the Claw of the Tiger, author G. Thomson Fraser chronicles the enmeshment of iconic Everyman Porky in the horrors of World War II as he and his compatriots endure the Japanese incursion into the Philippines in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the notorious Bataan Death March, internment in sub-human, malaria-ridden conditions in Japanese-run Philippine POW camps and, finally, transport to Japan in the dark and airless holds of "Death Ships" to toil in ore and copper mines.
Porky (left), Billy and a friend enjoy PI before the war
Improbably, and thankfully for the reading public, the diminutive Porky (who stands only five-feet four-and-a-half inches tall) survived to tell the tale and, many years later, to encounter a particularly keen listener in novelist Fraser, of the neighboring town of Orange, Massachusetts. Fraser, who interviewed Porky periodically over a five-year period and undertook extensive historical research, captures his story with affection, humor and warmth.
Make no mistake: In the Claw of the Tiger is a war novel; Porky and Company come face-to-face with the bloody, the evil and the unsavory, which Fraser does not flinch from describing. Yet it is just as much the story of Porky and his friends; of Athol; of great loyalties and losses; of the silliness and high-jinx of youth, and of sometimes life-saving acts of kindness from quarters least expected, including occasionally enemy quarters. In a certain sense, if you know the story of the Bataan survivors, or of World War II, or of war in general, you know this story. But you don't know it through the eyes of this novel's compelling, likable and hitherto unsung hero, Porky LaCoste, who survived by dint of grit, resourcefulness and, perhaps most valuable of all, an innate kindness to others that in certain critical moments happened to be repaid.
Porky (left), Billy,
Fraser's novel is enlivened by the presence of a number of personal photographs of Porky, his family, and the friends who enlisted with him on that fateful fall day in 1940, some depicting their carefree transport to Hawaii and stopover there and early days in the Philippines, before Japanese bombs struck in December 1941. As Fraser does in the text of the novel, she interweaves the personal and historic by adding to the mix a number of public photos depicting the great events that served as backdrop to the boys' adventures and tribulations, including General King's surrender of the Philippines to the Imperial Army.
Visiting grandmother, stepfather and cousin in Athol before the war
In the Claw of the Tiger contains, in an appendix, the full text of three FDR fireside chats, "On the Declaration of War with Japan," broadcast on December 9, 1941; "Report on the Home Front," broadcast on October 12, 1942; and the "State of the Union Message to Congress," broadcast on January 11, 1944.
In his brilliant 1941 speech, President Roosevelt noted: "We are now in the midst of a war, not for conquest, not for vengeance, but for a world in which this nation, and all that this nation represents, will be safe for our children. We expect to eliminate the danger from Japan, but it would serve us ill if we accomplished that and found that the rest of the world was dominated by Hitler and Mussolini. So we are going to win the war and we are going to win the peace that follows." It is chillingly apparent that, without the courage, vision and determination of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the on-the-ground heroism of another Franklin - Franklin ("Porky") LaCoste - and countless others like him, this promise could not have been kept. In penning this novel, Fraser, who was born in December 1945 - scant months after Porky was liberated from his grueling years of internment and deprivation - provides some small measure of overdue thanks from the Baby Boom generation and all others born since for the world of relative safety, security and freedom we have been privileged to enjoy.
Susanni Douville, a resident of Portland, Maine, has copy-edited and written for The Hartford Courant and The Washington Post, among other publications. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Oberlin College, a Master of Science degree in journalism from Northwestern University and a JD from the Yale School of Law. A Baby Boomer herself, Douville is the niece of Fraser - but hastens to add that all opinions expressed herein are sincerely held.