The Interpreter

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About The Book

No story of World War II is more triumphant than the liberation of France, made famous in countless photos of Parisians waving American flags and kissing GIs, as columns of troops paraded down the Champs Élysées. Yet liberation is a messy, complex affair, in which cultural understanding can be as elusive as the search for justice by both the liberators and the liberated. Occupying powers import their own injustices, and often even magnify them, away from the prying eyes of home.
One of the least-known stories of the American liberation of France, from 1944 to 1946, is also one of the ugliest and least understood chapters in the history of Jim Crow. The first man to grapple with this failure of justice was an eyewitness: the interpreter Louis Guilloux. Now, in The Interpreter, prize-winning author Alice Kaplan combines extraordinary research and brilliant writing to recover the story both as Guilloux first saw it, and as it still haunts us today.
When the Americans helped to free Brittany in the summer of 1944, they were determined to treat the French differently than had the Nazi occupiers of the previous four years. Crimes committed against the locals were not to be tolerated. General Patton issued an order that any accused criminals would be tried by court-martial and that severe sentences, including the death penalty, would be imposed for the crime of rape. Mostly represented among service troops, African Americans made up a small fraction of the Army. Yet they were tried for the majority of capital cases, and they were found guilty with devastating frequency: 55 of 70 men executed by the Army in Europe were African American -- or 79 percent, in an Army that was only 8.5 percent black.
Alice Kaplan's towering achievement in The Interpreter is to recall this outrage through a single, very human story. Louis Guilloux was one of France's most prominent novelists even before he was asked to act as an interpreter at a few courts-martial. Through his eyes, Kaplan narrates two mirror-image trials and introduces us to the men and women in the courtrooms. James Hendricks fired a shot through a door, after many drinks, and killed a man. George Whittington shot and killed a man in an open courtyard, after an argument and many drinks. Hendricks was black. Whittington was white. Both were court-martialed by the Army VIII Corps and tried in the same room, with some of the same officers participating. Yet the outcomes could not have been more different.
Guilloux instinctively liked the Americans with whom he worked, but he could not get over seeing African Americans condemned to hang, Hendricks among them, while whites went free. He wrote about what he had observed in his diary, and years later in a novel. Other witnesses have survived to talk to Kaplan in person.
In Kaplan's hands, the two crimes and trials are searing events. The lawyers, judges, and accused are all sympathetic, their actions understandable. Yet despite their best intentions, heartbreak and injustice result. In an epilogue, Kaplan introduces us to the family of James Hendricks, who were never informed of his fate, and who still hope that his remains will be transferred back home. James Hendricks rests, with 95 other men, in a U.S. military cemetery in France, filled with anonymous graves.

Reading Group Guide

Reading Guide
1. For French writer Louis Guilloux, being an interpreter was much more than just a wartime profession. What did serving as an interpreter mean to him, and how did he embrace this role both during the courts-martial and throughout his life?
2. At their core, both the James Hendricks case and the George Whittington case are about two "trigger-happy drunken soldiers" (132). The two men, however, experience wildly different fates. Do you think the American authorities acted with good intentions in both trials, of Hendricks and Whittington? Was there any bad faith involved, or is this a story of good intentions gone awry?
3. In an Army that was only 8.5% black, an astounding 79% of the enlisted men executed for capital crimes during World War II were black (7). What conditions in the Army -- and in the world -- at that time help us account for that appalling statistic? Do you think that those conditions influenced the behavior of James Hendricks on that disastrous night? Were you aware before reading The Interpreter that the soldiers fighting in World War II were segregated by race? With all the attention given to the civil rights movement in the American South, why is so little known about segregation in the Armed Forces?
4. In the Army's handbook for interacting with civilians, U.S. soldiers were informed that French women were "naturally erotic" (21). Where did that kind of misinformation originate? What do you think the effect of that teaching was on the soldiers' subsequent dealings with French women?
5. Kaplan refers us to philosopher Thomas Nagel's essay, "Moral Luck," which describes three kinds of luck: "luck in our upbringing or personal attributes, luck in our life circumstances, luck in the outcomes of our actions" (28). Discuss these three kinds of luck as they apply to James Hendricks and George Whittington.
6. Of the men who served on the Court Martial in Morlaix, who was most vivid to you: Joe Greene? Ralph Fogarty? James Craighill? Juan Sedillo? Louis Guilloux himself? Whom did you identify with, and whom did you dislike?
7. What does it mean that "the U.S. Army was both visionary and reactionary in its sensitivity to rape" (154)? More than fifty years later, where does the U.S. Army stand on the issue? Have things changed for the better?
8. Why was the issue of national identity such an important factor in the Whittington case? Do you think that if Francis Morand's nationality had been more certain Whittington would still have been exonerated?
9. One of Guilloux's more sensitive assignments was soliciting explicit details from Noémie Bignon about her attempted rape. Why did this task in particular make it difficult for Guilloux to remain impartial?
10. The image of James Hendricks as a sexual predator was repeatedly introduced in his trial. Do you think that if Hendricks had shot Victor Bignon through the door but had not assaulted his wife that he still would have been sentenced to death? Numerous scholars have argued that enforcing the death penalty for the crime of rape was "a form of racial control" (85). How do you explain that argument?
11. American soldiers sentenced for crimes of rape and murder of French civilians during the Liberation were hanged in public, in the communities where their crimes had taken place -- this was ten years after public executions had been outlawed in the States. Why did the Army believe it was important to punish criminal soldiers with French witnesses on hand? Do you agree or disagree with the policy? Even today, does the military need different standards of sentencing and punishment than civilian courts?
12. Guilloux wrote his novel about the trials, OK, Joe, in 1964, a tumultuous time and the height of the civil rights movement in the States. How do you think this time period, as well as the events of Guilloux's life after the war, helped shape the novel?
13. In his novel, Guilloux omitted several key elements of the Hendricks case, including the attempted rape and the fact that Hendricks served under a black commander. Why do you think he left these details out? How would their omission affect the story?
14. Why do you think that Guilloux ultimately decided to shape his experiences into a novel instead of a memoir? Why do you think Louis Guilloux gave his novel the title OK, Joe (a strange choice for a book written in French)? What did the way Americans talked to one another tell him about the American character?

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (August 30, 2005)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780743274814

Raves and Reviews

"Alice Kaplan's The Interpreter finally reveals the horrific hidden history of America's blatant World War II military injustice against its own black soldiers. Thank you, Alice Kaplan."
-- Gail Buckley, Robert F. Kennedy Prize-winning author of American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm

"Alice Kaplan's superb work of investigative history is impressively researched and thoughtfully nuanced. The story she tells is as deeply moving and emotionally powerful as any nonfiction can be."
-- David Garrow, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

"For a month in the summer of 1944, military translator Louis Guilloux watched in horror as the American Army brought the cruelty of Jim Crow justice to his beloved France. Guilloux swore that he would bear witness to what he had seen. With unflinching honesty and vivid prose, Alice Kaplan honors the translator's pledge. In this remarkable tale Kaplan has shed a brilliant light on the dark side of America's Good War."
-- Kevin Boyle, National Book Award-winning author of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

"The Interpreter digs under the usual heroes to reveal a U.S. Army out of control in wartime France. Its cast of doomed privates and aloof officers feels familiar -- we see it today, in Iraq -- but the setting is a new kind of World War II, in which the American liberation turns into a Jim Crow nightmare."
-- Edward Ball, National Book Award-winning author of Slaves in the Family

"Alice Kaplan exposes the brutal double standard of justice of America's 'Jim Crow' Army. As in her previous study of the life and trial of the French 'collaborator' Robert Brasillach, Kaplan finds both drama and ambiguity in hitherto obscure aspects of the liberation of France in a beautifully written and imaginatively conceived book."
-- Christopher R. Browning, author of Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

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