A New Historicism Analysis of Melissa Bowersock’s Marcia Gates: Angel of Bataan
by Lynn Perretta
Melissa Bowersock has written a moving memoir about an Army nurse and prisoner of war: Marcia Gates: Angel of Bataan. Bowersock had unique access to Marcia’s story. This was not merely a person chosen from the history books or a name pulled from rosters to be explored and uncovered. This was a family member, her aunt. She relates, primarily through exchanged letters, what happened when Marcia Gates was taken prisoner by the Japanese following the Battle of Corregidor and the fall of Bataan in 1942. The story follows not only what Marcia went through during internment but what her family went through, not knowing what had become of her or if she was even alive.
A memoir is interesting to consider from a New Historicism perspective, especially when written about a time already long past. New Historicism concerns itself with the reality of the author’s day and how that plays into the narrative that is presented. In this case, we have the events of the day being presented later, by an author removed from the action by place (the niece and granddaughter of the protagonists) and by time (the book is written almost seventy years later). What answers does this work give to New Historicism’s most common questions and how does this work fit into the wealth of works about the World War II era?
A Reflection of the Present
One of the first questions to ask a memoir is always “why”. Why are you being written? What event are you telling and why does this event matter now? The novel is dedicated to its primary protagonist, Marcia Gates, who passed away in 1970. The first question: why now? Why does the memoir post-date the passing of its protagonist by forty years?
Answering this question is what the internet and a writer’s own blog are good for. Just as critics of the past would dig into letters of authors to glean some clue about their intentions of a work, we can see today why writers choose to write the stories they give us. We get this even more so from the self-published author, who by necessity is far more present and accessible to their readers. For Bowersock, the work followed a resurgence of interest in family history that followed the passing of her parents in 2002. More important than that, however, was a realization she had of the story of Marcia Gates and her mother: “I knew this same story had unfolded for thousands of servicemen and women and thousands of family members still at home.”(1)
How do the events of Angel of Bataan reflect the events of Bowersock’s present? We are at war. We were at war when her research into family history began, having started Afghanistan in 2001 and pushing for war in Iraq in 2002. By the time Bowersock wrote this book, we were well entrenched in a War on Terror on two fronts, a war that to an author exploring the scrapbook of World War II had to look a little familiar. The current war had its own host of unknowns, missing soldiers, and families who had to wonder for days, weeks, months, years, what was happening with their own loved ones.
Support or Condemnation
While all of the focus of the book is on Marcia Gates and her internment, most of it is through the lens not of Gates but her mother. It is through letter after letter to news agencies, government agencies, and anyone else that Mother Gates can write to about her daughter that a story unfolds: a mother’s concern for her brave daughter, who seems to have disappeared from the face of the Earth. Of course, she hasn’t disappeared. We learn from Marcia’s uncovered correspondences home and from various other accounts what transpired, the capture of nurses and wounded soldiers in the Pacific and their internment by the Japanese, polite and almost casual at first, though stricter and harsher as the tide of war turned against the Japanese.
What is interesting is the judgment that is withheld by Bowersock. It would be easy for her to condemn the US government for the secrecy and lack of information provided to the families of military service members following battles. Mother Gates was not the only parent who did not know what had happened to a child. She was perhaps more persistent than some, a stubbornness that seems to be a trait of the Gates’ women. Her story, her fear, was not unusual and not uncommon.
It is also not unheard of today. As a reader, we could be easily persuaded to follow such condemnation. It is easy, reading the various letters not just to officials but to other military families, to sympathize with Mother Gates. It is not just her concern for her daughter that we feel for. She carries others with her as well. The answers that others find are possible answers for her and the answers that she finds are potential answers for them. We feel, through collected correspondences, the community that is being created and we are moved by that collective concern.
And yet, there is no condemnation, not from Mother Gates and not from Melissa Bowersock. That is not the purpose of the book. This book is a tribute to courage and perseverance of two women, a mother at home trying to find the truth about her daughter and a nurse, captured by enemy troops, struggling to survive conditions that, had internment continued on for even a week more, would likely have ended her life there.
To paraphrase Timothy, all writing is good for teaching, for instruction, for guidance (2). There is a wealth of writing about World War II, both fiction and non-fiction, memoirs and historical accounts. There are not many memoirs that I have seen that tell the story of military personnel captured from the point of view of those left behind at home. This is one. It gives a unique and powerful perspective of the struggles, fears, worries, courage, and perseverance of military families, courage that is reflected by our soldiers, nurses, doctors, engineers, and every other person who serves at and behind the lines at war. From a New Historicism perspective, this work deserves its place among the wealth of other works from and about this era of our history.
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(1) Melissa, Bowersock. “Writing Family Stories.” Wordlovers. blogger, 08 11 2011. Web. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. .
(2) You can get the whole quote here from 2 Timonthy 3:16. Scripture Stuff