You never forget being there, even though decades pass. The solemnity, near reverence, of the atmosphere wraps around all who visit there. Memories swirl in your mind of conflicts past and present and those you know who have served in our military. This place, though, is for those who have served, fallen and are unnamed.
Servicewomen and servicemen have been guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every moment of every day since midnight on July 2, 1937. This book, Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (Candlewick Press, March 2, 2021) written by Jeff Gottesfeld with illustrations by Matt Tavares, gives voice to the history of this monument and those who protect those laid to rest there. It is a remarkable tribute, lingering long after you've finished reading.
I am an Unknown. I am one of many.
We fell for the last time in the Argonne Forest.
At Somme. Belleau Wood.
Facedown in trenches,
faceup on hillsides.
We fell a thousand ways.
The narrator concludes this opening soliloquy with haunting words about his and others' anonymity. They continue with the heartbreak of families who cannot honor fallen members and friends. In 1921, one unknown, is selected to represent all the unknowns. This person is placed in the Capitol so people can morn and pay tribute to his sacrifice. He is then taken to the Tomb.
Soon the importance of the Tomb is lost. People go there to picnic. Fortunately, there are others who stop this violation. Then . . . one night under a waning crescent moon, twenty-one steps are heard. This unknown is forever in the care of another.
To become one of the guards is an earned honor. The clothing they wear, the manner in which they walk, and hold their arms and weapon are the epitome of precision. These men and women come from all walks of life prior to entering the army and becoming part of the distinguished Tomb Guards.
After the World War I Unknown is placed at the Tomb, Unknowns from World War II and the Korean War are laid there. The Vietnam Unknown is eventually removed because their identity is discovered. Today this tomb is empty.
Tomb Guards spend every moment when not on duty preparing for their watch. Everything about them is perfection, their minds, hearts, and that which can be seen by others. In all weather, at all times of the day and night, with and without people watching, the Tomb Guards are vigilant taking their twenty-one steps. The Unknowns are listening, knowing they are not alone.
To open this narrative, a decision was made to include The Sentinel's Creed, author unknown. The first two sentences are brimming with truth.
My dedication to this sacred duty
is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me
never will I falter.
To have an Unknown be the speaker makes these words penned by Jeff Gottesfeld genuinely personal and moving. This Unknown speaks honestly for all those fallen before him and after him. There is a quiet power in what he says. Readers will appreciate his introduction of the first Tomb Guard, the guards' specific work routines and dedication. Into his story he weaves a history of the other Unknowns and a final tribute to the Tomb Guards.
Jeff Gottesfeld's writing in this book is poignant and poetic. Twice he uses a list of single sentences to describe the dedication and work of the Tomb Guards. You cannot read these without feeling a deep sense of respect for them and the Unknowns. Here is a passage.
Late one half-moon night,
I heard footsteps.
The sharp click of heels. Silence.
Another click. More silence.
Twenty-one seconds of silence.
Twenty-one seconds of silence.
Twenty-one more steps.
With each step, my war was over.
done in pencil and painted digitally
by Matt Tavares are striking in their authenticity and emotional impact. The scene of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with a Tomb Guard taking his twenty-one steps on the front continues on the other side of the spine to the far-left edge of the back. The golden glow from the sun is reflected in the clouds on both the front and back. Leafy green tree boughs rise from all sides of the Tomb's platform. You can read the inscription on the Tomb.
HERE RESTS IN
KNOWN BUT TO GOD
If you listen, you'll expect to hear the twenty-one steps and the resounding click.
On the book case, the scene is night. The moon is the same as it was on the first night a Tomb Guard took their first twenty-one steps. A few stars are sprinkled in the sky. On the front the Tomb stands silent and resolute. On the back the Tomb Guard walks to the left, gun on their shoulder. They are wearing a long coat and hat with earmuffs to ward off the chill.
A muted steel blue covers the opening and closing endpapers. The first page turn reveals The Sentinel's Creed. Across the title page is a scene from a war-ravaged battlefield from the first World War. The sky is dark with smoke from a bomb. Barbed wire curls around posts and sandbags are placed in front. A single helmet and canteen litter the ground.
Each two-page picture is a breathtaking reflection of the soldier's words. Three times there are full-page images, two for those lists of sentences talking about the Tomb Guards and the final image in the winter of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, deep snow falling as footprints signify the twenty-one steps. Matt Tavares takes us into a home with a soldier's picture placed on a fireplace mantle, to a vista of Arlington National Cemetery in autumn, to the Capitol rotunda as mourners pass the Unknown Soldier in state, and close to the shoes and bottom pantlegs of the first Tomb Guard walking at the Tomb at night. There is dignity in every line drawn in every illustration.
One of my many favorite illustrations is for the above-quoted passage. It is the close-up of the first Tomb Guard's shoes and pantlegs. It is a double-page picture. To the left of the gutter, the step is down. To the right of the gutter, the step is lifted. You can see the metal on the bottom heel and toe of the shoe. The hems and seams of the pants are creased and trim. The night sky supplies a background with the waning crescent moon above the line of trees on the left. On the right is a portion of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. This picture is brilliant.
This book, Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier written by Jeff Gottesfeld with illustrations by Matt Tavares, pays homage to many, is a history and a reminder of those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country and of those honored few who are sentinels for them. No matter how many times you read this title, each time you will feel an intense appreciation for the Tomb Guards and the Unknowns. I highly recommend this title for your personal and professional collections.
To learn more about Jeff Gottesfeld and Matt Tavares and their other work, please follow the link attached to their names to access their websites. Matt Tavares has a few interior illustrations on the page for this book on his site. Jeff Gottesfeld has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Matt Tavares has accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. At the publisher's website you can download a discussion guide. At Penguin Random House you can view some interior images. You might be interested in reading the information found at the Society of the Honor Guard, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.