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Reviews for The Book Of Charlie

by David Von Drehle

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

When columnist David Von Drehle and his family moved to the suburbs of Kansas City, Missouri, in 2007, he met his neighbor, Charlie White, who at that point was 102 and still going strong. This book chronicles Charlie’s life against the backdrop of the twentieth century and its revolutionary changes in science, technology, medicine, and culture. Born in 1905, Charlie learned early on about the unexpected chaos of life. His father died in a tragic accident, leading his mother to take in boarders to earn money. Some were missionary healers, who inspired Charlie to pursue a career in medicine. Charlie began his medical career in a time before penicillin, when removing a patient’s tonsils was still the cure for many ailments. Von Drehle tells Charlie’s history interspersed with background on concurrent major events and historical figures. Throughout the book, he highlights lessons from Charlie’s experiences: resilience, lifelong learning, and appreciation for the current moment. The Book of Charlie looks at universal truths through the lens of one man’s long life.

Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

In this feel-good entry, Washington Post opinion editor von Drehle (Triangle) collects life lessons from an enigmatic centenarian neighbor. Eager to help his children navigate the modern world, von Drehle sought a role model who’d weathered massive cultural shifts—a “true surfer on the sea of change”—and found one when his family moved next-door to then-102-year-old Charlie White (who died at 109, in 2014). Von Drehle befriended the former doctor and listened to stories from his life, which included train-hopping across the U.S. as a teen in the 1920s and working on cutting-edge anesthesia techniques in the ’40s. Von Drehle explains how White balanced optimism and realism, as when he decided to specialize in anesthesiology (at a time when almost no doctors did so) after recognizing the days of house-call doctors were dwindling. White also embraced uncertainty when he abandoned his medical practice at 36 to serve in WWII—an acceptance of the unknown that’s important in today’s volatile professional climate, the author writes. While White’s verbatim advice is sometimes trite (“Nobody’s going to do it for you. You’ve got to do your own paddling”), von Drehle’s detailed rendering of White’s life—especially his front-seat view of (and sometimes participation in) groundbreaking medical developments—is fascinating, and the men’s friendship affecting. This has a lot to offer. (May)

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A journalist reconstructs the life of his neighbor before his death at age 109. Regarding his motivation for writing this book, Washington Post columnist Von Drehle writes, “I needed to find someone whose early life would have been recognizable to farmers from the age of Napoleon, or of Leonardo da Vinci.” Born in 1905, Charlie White descended from aristocratic Virginia Confederates who shared a family tree with Gen. Robert E. Lee. A boisterous child, he once accidentally set himself on fire while hopping over a flame in fringed pants in an impersonation of an “Indian brave.” After his father’s untimely death in a freak elevator accident, White’s mother designated him “the man of the house,” a responsibility that didn't stop him from traveling across the U.S. in a Model T Ford. During the journey, he remembers complimenting a Navajo man on his English only to find out the man had graduated from Harvard. After medical school, White served as a doctor in the Air Force during World War II and trained in anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic. In 1948, his wife, Mildred, an alcoholic who also suffered from an eating disorder, committed suicide. Soon after, White married a pilot who divorced him for being “a little too possessive.” White’s third marriage ended when his wife, Lois, died of cancer. Von Drehle attributes White’s survival to his adherence to stoicism, a philosophy that requires focusing on what can be controlled rather than what can’t—an approach White was partly able to take because of his race privilege. In a well-researched and often poignant narrative, the author rarely interrogates White’s privilege; maintains his subject’s insensitive language without comments; and quotes from thinkers like Theodore Roosevelt and Rudyard Kipling but never women or people of color. Despite the nuggets of wisdom sprinkled throughout the text, these choices make it feel outdated. A story of a 109-year-old man’s life told through a White male gaze. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.