Book Review – War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk

But these Germans are different. Orders do not seem merely to guide their actions; orders, as it were, fill their souls, leaving no room for a human flicker in their faces or eyes. They are herdsmen, and we are cattle; or they are soldier ants, and we are aphids. The orders cut ties between them and us. All. It is eerie. (Loc 11365)

This chilling paragraph serves as a good summation of Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance. While the sequel to The Winds of War took readers along the Henry family’s continuing journey, the ‘remembrance’ portion focused on the Holocaust. That made reading this novel much more uncomfortable than perusing its predecessor.

As in the book’s precursor the war’s impact on the Henry family played a key role in the overall narrative. I enjoyed reading about Victor Henry’s ascent to two-star admiral. Aside from the Second World War’s effect on his career, Mr. Wouk described how the conflict generated much disturbance in his private life.

The tales of his son Byron’s development into a proficient submariner made for engaging reading, as well. I liked the character’s continuing transition from a carefree, directionless kid into a mature leader of men. The author enhanced this portion of the drama by adding a personal conflict for him to battle, as well. His wife Natalie—a Jewish woman, no less—and newborn son found themselves stranded in Fascist Italy at the war’s outbreak.

The author crafted extraordinary secondary characters for this novel. I’ll refrain from giving away spoilers. I will note that both Leslie Slote and Aaron Jastrow would have made for great protagonists in a shorter tale.

As in The Winds of War, the author inserted the German perspective on the war. This gave the story more balance than I’m used to reading in historical fiction. Mr. Wouk utilized the histories of fictional General Armin von Roon as one source. To allow readers a sense of how trustworthy this member of the German General Staff, one comment in his book read, “From Adolf Hitler alone proceeded the policy regarding the Jews.” (Loc 2876)

In War and Remembrance, the author took the German point-of-view even further. He added a priest’s thoughts on the German mindset.

 You must understand Germans, Herr Slote.” The tone was calmer. “It is another world. We are a politically inexperienced people, we know only to follow orders from above. That is a product of our history, a protracted feudalism.” (Loc 2730)

The author also included actual historical figures in the book. Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, appeared as a character. Mr. Wouk used his point-of-view in expressing this figure’s thoughts regarding efficient means of execution.

No, the poison gas in rooms of large capacity has always been an idea worth trying; but which gas? Today’s experiment shows Zyklon B, the powerful insecticide they have been using right along at the camp to fumigate the barracks, may be the surprisingly simple solution. Seeing is believing. In a confined airtight space, with a powerful dose of the blue-green crystals, those three hundred fellows didn’t last long! (Loc 2310)

To provide even sharper insight into the character’s mind, the very next paragraph opened with the words: “Well, time for Christmas dinner.” (Loc 2323)

Mr. Wouk added some exceptional use of language throughout the narrative. Some notable examples included, “Laughing into each other’s eyes” (Loc 4598), “…Things happen once then roll away into the past, leaving one marked and changed forever.” (Loc 3412) “Forbidden fruit has its brown spots, but these are not seen in the dusky glow of appetite.” (Loc 6953) “A look like a long conversation passed between them.” (Loc 9807)

My favorite occurred in these poetic thoughts regarding the British Empire’s dissolution.

When an empire dies, it dies like a cloudy day, without a visible moment of sunset. The demise is not announced on the radio, nor does one read of it in the morning paper. The British Empire had fatally depleted itself in the great if laggard repulse of Hitler, and the British people had long since willed the end of the Empire, by electing pacifist leaders to gut the military budgets. (Loc 1936)

Mr. Wouk performed exceptional research on the time period. I found many of his descriptions very realistic; at times, frighteningly so. At one point the author crafted a passage that depicted the scene from inside a gas chamber as the poison filled the air. He wrote it in such detail that I felt like I was in the room suffocating. It bothered me so, I can’t bring myself to quote it here.

I had two criticisms of War and Remembrance. One involved its scope. I read the digital version of its nearly 1400 pages. The inclusion of so many characters involved in so many events of the Second World War necessitated the book’s size. This segues into my other issue.

To hook readers, the author used an exceptional technique; perhaps too well. Mr. Wouk often concluded chapters by placing his characters in horrible situations. Of course, I wanted to know the outcomes. He would follow such scenes with several chapters concerning the other characters’ stories. Those would also leave off at their own harrowing endings.

I understand that a writer must keep his/her readers engaged. Because of the nature of the character’s peril, this became annoying at times. I don’t mind the “cliff hangers.” I do have a problem when I have to wait several hours to discover their resolutions.

Mr. Wouk did something extraordinary in War and Remembrance. In it, he crafted both a great sequel and a fantastic work of historical fiction. It’s difficult to do either of those things. This author did them in the same book. That’s why some have referred to him as “an American Tolstoy.” That’s quite an encomium for a Jewish kid from the Bronx who simply wanted to be a writer.

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