Historical Fiction

Book Review – The Winds of War by Herman Wouk

Herman Wouk woke me up to the concept of the epic American novel. The Winds of War traced a naval family’s experiences from the summer of 1939 through the Pearl Harbor attack. A magisterial work of historical fiction resulted.

In the process, Mr. Wouk created the most unique literary character I’ve ever encountered in Captain Victor Henry. In a way, he reminded me of Forrest Gump. The captain always seemed to find himself in the middle of many major historical events; at least the ones leading up to the Second World War. While he longed to command a battleship, the brewing “winds of war” swept him up into a fascinating series of positions. At the book’s beginning he received the post of US Naval Attaché in Berlin. Later he travelled to the UK where he “observed” a bombing raid on Berlin. Following that he received reassignment to Moscow during the German invasion. While serving in these varied locales, he met the war’s most influential figures including Hitler, Churchill and Stalin. Interestingly, of all the people he encountered, he only experienced nervousness prior to meeting Churchill.

Of course, Captain Henry’s interactions with FDR served as the sine qua non of the book. In fact, he first met this iconic historical figure during one of his first naval assignments. Here are the captain’s recollections of that encounter prior to meeting Roosevelt the President.

He was wondering whether the President would remember him, and hoped he wouldn’t. In 1918, as a very cocky Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin Roosevelt had crossed to Europe on a destroyer. The wardroom officers, including Ensign Henry, had snickered at the enormously tall, very handsome young man with the famous family name, who made a great show of using nautical terms and bounding up ladders like a seadog, while dressed in outlandish costumes that he kept changing. He was a charmer, the officers agreed, but a lightweight, almost a phony, spoiled by a rich man’s easy life. He wore pince-nez glasses in imitation of his great relative, President Teddy Roosevelt, and he also imitated his booming manly manner; but a prissy Harvard accent made this heartiness somewhat ridiculous. (Page 148)

The descriptions in this passage showed that the author performed significant research while writing this book. This attention to detail continued in the scenes describing the German invasion of Poland, the discussions over America’s support of the British prior to Pearl Harbor and the Nazi occupation of Russia.

In an acknowledgement to the time period, Mr. Wouk referenced the plight of Europe’s Jews. In the most disturbing quote in the book, a Jewish historian presented his thoughts on why Christians persecuted Jews.

“He’s a Jew’s Jesus,” said Jastrow. “That was my point.”

“Then tell me one thing,” said Rabinovitz. “These Europeans worship a poor murdered Jew, the young Talmud scholar you wrote about so well—to them he’s the Lord God—and yet they go right on murdering Jews. How does a historian explain that?”

In a comfortable, ironic, classroom tone, most incongruous in the circumstances, Jastrow replied, “Well, you must remember they’re still mostly Norse and Latin pagans at heart. They’ve always chafed under their Jewish Lord’s Talmudic morals, and possibly take out their irritation on his coreligionists.” (Page 818 – 819)

            The author related most of the story through the exploits of various Americans. He still cleverly fit the German perspective into the novel. Mr. Wouk created a fictitious book titled World Empire Lost written by a German general of his creation, Armin von Roon. He wove it into the narrative through Captain Henry’s postwar translation. He entered the German frame of mind through comments such as, “the one war crime is to lose” (Page 859) and “Churchill was a Hitler restrained by democracy.” (Page 247) He contrasted this with lines such as the following that Captain Henry delivered to FDR, “Mr. President, the quality of mercy is mightiest in the mightiest.” (Page 149)

The Winds of War ended following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Wouk resumed the Henry family saga in the sequel, War and Remembrance. With that acknowledgement, while I enjoyed the reading, I didn’t find the book strong enough to stand on its own. I’d classify it as more of an adventure story since I didn’t get a sense of the characters changing during the course of the story. I detected shades of submariner Byron Henry maturing at the end of the book, however, but not to the point it would justify concluding it.

I applaud the author for crafting a novel this complex and making it reasonably realistic. All of the major characters possessed involved story lines. These multifarious elements help explain why The Winds of War came in at close to 900 pages. While lengthy, I enjoyed the book so much it inspired me to read War and Remembrance. That tome contains close to 1500 pages. If that one’s as good as the first volume, I hope I still remember The Winds of War when I finish.  

 

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Book Review – The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is a welcome anomaly for the work of a modern author. Kristin Hannah crafted an outstanding well-researched story that’s written exceptionally well. I enjoyed her creative usage of language along with the vivid characterization. In addition the author paced it brilliantly. Not once did its 440 page lose my interest.

Nazi occupied France served as the setting for most of the story. It evolved around the lives of two sisters. Vianne Mauriac lived as a conformist. She cooperated as best she could with the German occupiers. Protecting the lives of her children motivated her throughout the book; that and the hope of seeing her husband again. (A French soldier, he’d been captured by the Germans when they overran the country.) Love of family served as her main driving force.

Her sister Isabelle served as an excellent contrast. Always a rebel, the war gave her an outlet for her anti-authoritarian impulses. In spite of the danger, she opted to join the French underground. Under the code name Nightingale, she assisted dozens of allied airmen in their escapes to freedom: so they could “drop more bombs” on the enemy. The nature this journey made the accomplishment that much more remarkable. She personally led them from Paris through the Pyrenees Mountains to the British consulate in Spain.

I found the book very moving without drifting into melodrama. That’s an achievement for any author. It’s even more remarkable because I’d classify the story as a plot driven thriller. The depictions of hunger and privation at the hands of the occupiers gave me a sense of what life would’ve been like for the victims of Nazi oppression. As did the deportation scenes. The chaos where soldiers and collaborators rounded up multitudes of Jews combined with the detailed portrayals of the cramped conditions on the trains were disturbingly well written. I couldn’t believe Ms. Hannah an American born fifteen years following the war’s conclusion. The scenes read as though styled by someone who lived through the occupation. The author clearly performed her historical research.

As I mentioned I found The Nightingale extraordinarily well written. It contained perhaps the best opening line ever printed.

If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.

As one can surmise from that passage the book included myriad fantastic uses of language. “The stairs unfold from the ceiling like a gentleman extending his hand.” (Page 2) “She wanted to bottle how safe she felt at this moment, so she could drink of it later when loneliness and fear left her parched.” (Page 16) “She watched the two men have an entire conversation without speaking a word.” (Page 99) And the most memorable: “Inside, the house echoed with the voice of a man who wasn’t there.” (Page 111)

The author utilized the following exceptional alliterative phrases, as well: “smelled of sausage and sweat and smoke” (Page 35),burdened beneath boxes”, and “served supper in silence.” (Page 86)

What all that impressed me, the author did a phenomenal job keeping me guessing. The structure accentuated this sense of mystery. In addition to the narrative of the occupation, several sections took place in Oregon in 1995. In those portions an old woman known as “Mom” reflected on the events of the occupation. I couldn’t tell if “Mom” was Vianne, Isabelle or someone else. I won’t disclose the character’s identity. I’ll allow readers to experience the same curiosity I did when they read the book.

A line from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis comes to mind. “I only wish it had been worse. Only then could I find the proper words to praise it.” The same could be said of The Nightingale.

Book Review – True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

What John Dillinger was to the American outlaws of the 1930’s Ned Kelly was to the ‘bushrangers’ of 1870’s Australia. Folk hero to some, vicious killer to others, his legacy is hotly debated to this day. In this creative tome of historical fiction, Peter Carey presented his take on this controversial figure.

Carey’s presentation reminded me of Mario Vargas-Llosa’s The Dream of the Celt. The author immerged himself in Kelly’s frame of mind. The narrative consisted of various ‘parcels’ written from Ned Kelly’s perspective. The entries included bad grammar, poor subject-verb agreement and downright awful writing. While difficult to understand and at times very tedious to get through, it gave the tale an element of authenticity. I felt like I read words written by Ned Kelly, himself. This made the choice of title an excellent one.

In real life Kelly faced execution before having the opportunity to meet his daughter. The protagonist recorded the memoirs so she could get to know him. For this reason, the author excised the bad language in the text. The word adjectival appeared numerous times. (As most reading this post are adults, I don’t feel the need to point out what four letter word it represented.) Once again, this made the writing even more realistic.

The book’s main strength also served as its major weakness. I found the text very difficult to get through. Keep in mind that I’m a guy. I like ‘bang-bang shoot ‘em up’ action stories. True History of the Kelly Gang didn’t lack any of that. The writing made it very hard for me to follow. I thought the transitions too abrupt. Various scenes ran together. I had to go back and see if I missed something. Most of the time, I hadn’t.

With the use of a first person semi-illiterate narrator, there weren’t many lyrical flourishes in the test. Carey did manage to include a few.

The memory of the policeman’s words lay inside me like the egg of a liver fluke and while I went about my growing up this slander wormed deeper and deeper in my heart and there grew fat. (Page 12)

These things are like the dark marks made in the rings of great trees locked forever in my daily self. (Page 19)

In the heat of the furnace metals change their nature in olden days they could make gold from lead. Wait to see what more there is to hear my daughter for in the end we poor uneducated people will all be made noble in the fire. (Page 265)

At one point the bushranger even added some alliteration to the narrative. He described the morning as a “damp, dripping, dawn.” (Page 231)

The other major criticism I had of this book concerned its one-sidedness. Most of it came entirely from Kelly’s perspective. The author did include a few newspaper clippings, but the story portrayed the protagonist as a victim and a martyr. I would suspect Carey had a political agenda in presenting the story this way. Most writers do (John Steinbeck comes first to mind) so I don’t fault him. I do think he would’ve developed more sympathy for Kelly if he’d presented the other side’s position. If the British provisional government persecuted people for no other reason than their Irish descent, Carey could’ve explained that easily by showing their point-of-view.

I would also add that the author included a colorful cast of characters in this story. I found Ned Kelly’s mother to be the most interesting. How can I put this delicately? She didn’t make the best choices when it came to men. In fact, they were so bad that I wondered if some of the original ‘your mamma’ jokes began in reference to her. But still: one has to respect a woman raising young children while incarcerated.

Peter Carey demonstrated an authentic use of voice in True History of the Kelly Gang. Unfortunately, he made it a very poor writer with little grasp of syntax. Because of this, an interesting story with unending action became a challenging slog. I’m hoping someone will publish a ‘normal English’ translation of this book in the near future.