Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#10: The Winds of War (Herman Wouk)

Even though it took me over a month, I finally completed the 885 page epic novel by Herman Wouk. The Winds of War tells the story of the Henrys, an American military family, during the early years of World War II. Victor “Pug” Henry, a naval officer, and his wife Rhoda have traveled around the world with their small family. As circumstances in Europe escalate, Pug finds himself correctly foretelling one of Germany’s major offensives early in the conflict. His foresight attracts the attention of President Roosevelt and leads to a level of mutual respect between the two men. As FDR’s unofficial advisor on the Germany problem, Pug sees much of the world firsthand and encounters historical figures such as Churchill, Stalin and Hitler. Pug’s children are also directly effected by the winds of war blowing around the world. Pug’s sons, Warren and Byron, have followed in their father’s footsteps; Warren is a naval aviator while Byron serves on a submarine (though not by his own desire). The Henrys’ daughter, Madeline, has begun working with a radio personality in New York City and experiences the crisis as a member of the press. To further complicate this family dynamic, Byron has married Natalie, a Jewish American currently living in Italy with her uncle. Natalie, her uncle and Byron’s newborn son find themselves trapped in Italy and facing the growing waves of anti-Semitism across Europe. The Henry men find themselves reunited as the novel reaches its climatic conclusion with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

The swelling saga of The Winds of War is filled with historical scenes. Its graphic depiction of the Nazi invasion of Warsaw, the snowy Russian front, and the horror of the South Pacific leave the reader spellbound. Perhaps the most arresting of Wouk’s descriptions for me is that of the tragedy in Minsk. In the years leading up to the war, anti-Semitism could be found throughout Europe. Many believed that the stories of the oppression of the Jews were nothing more than propaganda generated by the desperate British. The horror that occurred near Minsk, Russia was one of the first accounts to reach the world  at large that could not be denied, thanks in part to photographs by some who witnessed the tragedy while hiding from the soldiers. Wouk describes the scene as follows:

Then one night gray trucks had swarmed into the ghetto, and squads of Germans in unfamiliar dark uniforms had cleared out the dwellers along two main streets, house by house, loading the people into the vans — for resettlement, they announced. Some of the Germans were brutal, some polite, as they pushed and urged the people into the trucks. In other streets, behind barred doors, other Jews wondered and shivered. What had happened afterward — according to reports brought by partisans who haunted the woods — was so hideous and unbelievable that the Minsk Jews were still trying numbly to come to grips with it. The gray vans had driven five miles away, to the woods outside a village. There in the moonlit ravine the Germans had ordered the people out of the trucks, had lined them up in groups, and had shot every last one — including the babies and the old people — and then had thrown them in a big hole already dug, and shoveled them over with sand.

Peasants who had dug the huge sandy hole had seen this horror with their own eyes; so the partisan report went. The Germans had rounded them up for the job, then had ordered them to go home, and not to linger or to talk about the excavation, on pain of being shot. A few had sneaked back through the trees, all the same, to see what the Germans were up to; and they had recounted to the partisans the massacre of the “Zhids” from the gray trucks. (The Winds of War, 670)

For the novel to be impactful, important historical figures must be presented in a realistic manner. Wouk is very successful in this department. FDR is seen as a brilliant, powerful man despite his physical limitations. Hitler himself is seen as a gentle man in private who is able to logically and clearly explain German philosophy through history; it’s only in public that we see the wild waving arms and shouts of a lunatic. Wouk’s introduction of Winston Churchill made the audience feel as though they were present at his meeting with Pug:

In a small hot cluttered room that smelled of old books and dead cigars, the corpulent old Prime Minister stood near the window, one hand on his hip, looking down at a spread of photographs on his desk. He was very short and very stooped, with graceful little hands and feet; he bulged in the middle, and tapered upward and downward like Tweedledum. As he turned and went to meet Victory Henry, his walk was slow and heavy. With a word of welcome he shook hands and motioned Pug to a seat. The secretary left. Churchill sat in his armchair, put a hand on one arm, leaned back, and contemplated the American naval captain with filmy eyes. The big ruddy face, flecked and spotted with age, looked severe and suspicious. He puffed at the stump of his cigar, and slowly rumbled, “We’re going to win, you know.” (The Winds of War, 405)

While the novel is the story of one family in the midst of a world at war, it is also an examination of warfare and the human condition. Wouk presents himself as a deep thinking author when he ruminates on the art of warfare in passages such as this:

If two men are standing and amiably chatting, and one suddenly punches the other’s belly and kicks his groin, the chances are that even if the other recovers to defend himself, he will be badly beaten up, because the first man has achieved surprise. There is no book on the military art that does not urge the advantage of this. It may not seem quite decent, but that is no concern of the military art. Possibly the Poles should not have been surprised, in view of the Germans’ open threats and preparations, but they were. Their political leaders probably hoped the German menaces were bluster. Their generals probably thought their own armies were ready.  A lot of wrong guessing goes with the start of a war. (The Winds of War, 170)

Near the novel’s conclusion, Wouk provides the reader with some powerful insight into the modern view of war through the fictional memoirs of a defeated German general, Armin von Roon.

There is no morality in world history. There are only tides of change borne on violence and death. The victors write the history, pass the judgments, and hang or shoot the losers. In truth history is an endless chain of hegemony shifts, based on the decay of old political structures and the rise of new ones. Wars are the fever crises of those shifts. Wars are inevitable; there will always be wars; and the one war crime is to lose. That is the reality, and the rest is sentimental nonsense. (The Winds of War, 859)

The Winds of War has long been on my personal reading list, but I’ve always been intimidated by it because of its size and scope. I am so glad that I finally overcame my fear and allowed myself to be swept up in this glorious work of art. I look forward to reading the sequel, War and Remembrance, in the future.

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#9: King and Maxwell (David Baldacci)

I hate to admit that it’s June and I’ve not even read 10 books this year. I don’t see this being a reading year for the record books.

Anyway, since I had to take a LONG road trip to Guymon, Oklahoma last week, an audio book seemed like the perfect companion to pass the time. David Baldacci’s King and Maxwell certainly kept me entertained and listening intently. The story centers around a young man, Tyler, who has been informed that his father was killed in Afghanistan. Something about the story doesn’t add up, so Tyler hires secret-service-agents-turned-private-investigators King and Maxwell. Through lots of twists and turns, Tyler’s dad proves to be alive and running for his life after a massive delivery fell into the wrong hands. The only question is exactly who has the delivery now? Was the soldier set up or did he betray his country? With lots of references to current events, Baldacci proves once again to be a very smart, thoughtful author.

I enjoyed the distraction that King and Maxwell was. Now it’s time to get The Winds of War finished!

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