Nov 11, 2021

VETERANS DAY: And TWENTY-ONE STEPS of Tribute (24/7/365)

Candlewick Press, 2021

There are many appropriate ways to observe VETERANS DAY, November 11. From this year forward, though, I hope that any and all acknowledgments of the day will include a shared reading of TWENTY-ONE STEPS: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldierwritten by Jeff Gottesfeld and illustrated by Matt Tavares.

The cover suggests the glory and grace of this account of the history of our moving national monument and memorial, as well as the solemn dignity of honoring veterans of military service, especially those who have sacrificed their lives in war. 

From an opening text-only display of THE SENTINEL'S CREED, the page-turn lands on a title spread scene of sprawling battle trenches, barbed wire, explosive power with a glimmer/suggestion of light in the lower right corner of the spread. This somber opening turns to a subdued interior scene, with a framed photo of a Black soldier, honored in a family space on a sunlit and lovely surface in a loving home. Gottesfeld's choice is equally sensitive, revealing the history and significance of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier through the first person voice of that soldier, using minimal text, potent phrasing, and direct address to the reader. We learn in very few lines that our first WORLD WAR destroyed countless American soldiers of every identity and background, sending those mothers' sons to their death in a variety of events and battles. Some were identified and buried with honor, but others were unidentifiable, marked not with tombstones but only with photos on mantels and prayers of remembrance.

One of those nameless, faceless veteran warriors was selected to symbolize all the others, returned to American soil to be placed in a tomb of honor, representing all the others in our memories. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in 1921, this unknown soldier was honored and laid to rest in the first recognition of what was then called ARMISTICE DAY. The opening pages of this book capture the powerful and moving memorial ceremony with text and images that draw on perspective, tone, and strategic use of light to place readers in the moment and emotion of the time.

An abrupt change occurs when the voice of the Unknown Soldier reports footsteps. The moonlit scene reveals the polished and tapped shoes, creased uniform, and timed steps of a designated  sentinel. The pace is intentional, symbolic, and reassuring (Click-silence-click-silence... timed to precisely twenty-one seconds apart, repeated twenty-one times, then marked with a turn on the mat to repeat again and again, minute after minute, hour after hour). Unknown Soldier could, from that night on, rest in peace, knowing that even unintentional disrespect or disregard could never again occur. In two hour shifts, these meticulously groomed, spit-shined, measured, and deeply committed sentinels, each one of the elite Tomb Guards patrol, demonstrate with each click and each step that the Unknown will never be forgotten. A sentinel seeks, competes for, and welcomes that post, executing it perfectly, not only during sunny and crowded times, but through the dead of night, through storms and cold and every condition in which the Unknown Solider might have fought.

Since that original internment and the initial steps of the never-ending sentinel duties, a single unknown from successive wars has joined the original resident of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier- one each from World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War. That last body was eventually identified with DNA and returned to his family for internment. Due to that technology, likely no others will occupy this memorial, though many more continue to die from service.The sentinel duty will continue, always honoring the countless veterans well as the three who remain within.

This is certainly a glorious book on many levels, but immeasurably so on Veterans Day. Both creators mastered a symmetry of awe and simplicity in portraying the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the powerful responsibility and achievement of the Tomb Guard Sentinels, and the timeless costs of war. I hope you will give this a close look, and then give it to someone who will appreciate it at any age.

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