THE INTERPRETER by Alice Kaplan (University of Chicago), 240 pages, $17.70 paper. Rating: NNNN
One late fall morning while the Second World War was still raging in Europe, an American soldier was hanged in a tiny town in France.
James Hendricks was only 21 on the day he died and, like the vast majority of American soldiers executed by the U.S. Army between 1943 and 1946, he was black.
Hendricks's story might have slipped into oblivion had historian Alice Kaplan not resurrected it in The Interpreter, her recounting of what was laughably called military justice.
Kaplan tells Hendricks's sad tale and that of Captain George Whittington through the eyes of Louis Guilloux, a French intellectual who served as an interpreter for the U.S. military as it crossed France on its way to Germany,and in its courts martial. After the war, Guilloux would become a literary giant and friend of Camus.
On a hot August night in 1944, James Hendricks was drinking heavily with some of his fellow soldiers when he staggered off. The young soldier wound up at the home of a French farm family and began banging on the door, demanding to meet the women inside.
Hendricks put a bullet through the front door and into the head of the owner of house. He then sexually assaulted the dead man's wife.
Kaplan doesn't claim that Hendricks was innocent. What she does argue, convincingly, is that when it came to deciding who would hang and who would not, race, class and rank were the determining factors.
Captain George Whittington, a white war hero, shot a French Resistance fighter in cold blood in the back. Like Hendricks, Whittington was drunk at the time. But unlike the black GI, the captain was freed to the hurrahs of his fellow officers.
The Interpreter is a well-told story of death and injustice, one of many such tales that are part of the narrative of that war.