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NONFICTION

CHAPPIE: America’s First Black Four-Star General by J. Alfred Phelps (Presidio: $19.95; 358 pp.) . While many films and books in the ‘70s made certain we did not forget the victims of American history, many in the ‘80s tried to reaffirm our past by suggesting that these victims often were able to become victors. Movies portrayed independent, self-confident, ‘90s-minded women challenging the chauvinism of men in the 18th Century, for example, or proud, optimistic blacks fighting bravely for freedom and country in the Civil War. These portrayals were intended to inspire today’s minorities, of course, but they were often so idealized as to have the opposite effect: suggesting that past heroes possessed a superhuman strength. “Chappie” often suffers from this problem, portraying the climb of this “big, blunt and burly” African-American military officer (Gen. Daniel James Jr.) as almost effortless. Alfred Phelps claims, for instance, that Chappie never stopped achieving long enough to look back and become discouraged by past injustice. We also see little of Chappie’s inevitable struggles as chief of public relations for the Air Force during and after the Vietnam War. Nevertheless, Phelps is a sufficiently skilled writer to make us admire the way Chappie maintained a simple yet hardy optimism about his country even at its worst moments.


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