A Soldier’s Sketchbook, an illustrated memoir from a World War II soldier, is drawn from the letters, sketches, snapshots, and mementos of Pvt. Joseph Farris, who left his home of Danbury, Connecticut, and set off to war aboard the U.S.S. General Gordon in October 1944, bound for France as part of Company M, 398th Infantry. Farris wrote more than 800 letters home, and he hewed his artistic talents with sketches and paintings along the way. He also secretly copied officers’ notes and, once back home after the war, collected clippings and battlefield accounts, which form a sobering counterpoint to his reassurances to his parents that everything is “swell.”
This book chronicles a young soldier’s experiences from October 1944 through January 1946 in France and Germany. In words and pictures, it tells of Christmas in the trenches, long walks through the rain and mud, landscapes of fear and despair, lost friends and leaders, changing beliefs about human nature, God, and the Jerries (as he calls the Germans).
Transcriptions of many of the 800 letters Joseph Farris wrote home sit side by side with the real thing, reproduced in facsimile on the page. Snapshots and color sketches, painted in moments of reprieve during battle and carried home by this earnest young man and fledgling artist, help us see the world he saw.
“A remarkable new book.” –Newyorker.com (Book Bench blog)
“Farris, best known postwar as a cartoonist for the New Yorker, offers this evocative memoir-album, with a scrapbook graphic design. Replete with faux-yellowed pages, it chronicles his tour of duty using his contemporary illustrations, his letters to his Connecticut family, and present-day reflections on the attitudes and fears of his innocent 19-year-old self. With meticulous National Geographic maps tracking his regiment’s advance through France and Germany, Ferris’ is an honestly written, visually captivating volume and a superb addition to the genre of WWII artwork.” –Booklist “Members of the “Greatest Generation” will enjoy the postcard from the front … an Everyman story told in letters, sketches, photographs and memorabilia, at once charming, naïve and wise.” Mysanantonio.com
Q&A with Joseph Farris, author of “Soldier’s Sketchbook”
Q: Your parents saved hundreds of letters and illustrations that you made during the war. Why did you decide to publish them now, more than 60 years later? A: I didn’t plan to publish them. I hadn’t revisited the letters and drawings in almost 60 years — I couldn’t get myself to — but around 2004, I realized I was nearing the inevitable end of my life and decided to make a scrapbook for my family so that they would know what I went through. Susan Hitchcock [the book’s editor], who is my sister-in-law’s step-daughter, happened to be visiting and when I showed her the scrapbook, she said it should be published. To my great and delicious surprise, it has.
Q: Was art therapeutic for you during the war? How so? A: I drew because I always drew, long before I went into the army. Since I enjoyed drawing, it might be considered therapeutic, but it was just a natural source of communication for me.
Q: Do you have a favorite cartoon from your time serving overseas? A: Perhaps the corny cartoon, shown in the book, that appeared in the service newspaper The Stars and Stripes. It was my first and only published work at that time.
Q: You’re a cartoonist, and a funny guy! How were you able to maintain that sense of humor during the war? A: Of course I wasn’t a cartoonist or anything else at that time, since I had just graduated from high school. I was quite a serious person and my sense of humor started to blossom, I suspect, to counter the fears and horrors of war.
Q: With email and Facebook, it’s now much easier for soldiers abroad to communicate with home than it was when you went to war. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage for today’s soldiers? A: I imagine it’s a mixed blessing. It’s wonderful to see and hear from your loved ones but I wonder if it makes homesickness greater and the contrast between the home front and the war zone almost unbearable.
Q: What do you hope the children and grandchildren of WWII veterans will learn from reading your letters? A: I hope they will have a greater understanding of what the word “war” means. It’s not a fun adventure. It should be an absolute last solution to solving problems.
Q: Do you have any advice for children who want to talk to their grandparents about their experiences during the war, but aren’t sure how to bring it up? A: Some veterans I know find it extremely difficult to converse about their war experiences and I have always respected their reticence. It may be too painful for them to return to that part of their life. A child might tell their grandparents of their interest in that seminal event and perhaps open an avenue for the veteran to share their memories.