This is the first of two books recounting the story of an American family during the period just prior to and then throughout the Second World War. If we could take the real history away from it altogether, a compelling fictional drama would still remain. To mix this invented family saga in with that of the war, means that we have a novel of another order altogether.
In this first novel, we are taken inside Hitler's Berlin and allowed to see the inner workings of the regime, as experienced by Victor `Pug' Henry, a senior American naval attaché and the story's main hero. Slowly we are introduced to his family and we follow them as they become dispersed in different corners of the planet in preparation for the coming conflict. At the same time, we are given the necessary background to the American political arena of the period, as Pug becomes drawn into the unique role as the President's unnamed (and therefore secret) military aide. He is subsequently sent to all the major scenes of political influence in the Allied Command, a device which not only works well for the plot, but gives the reader a very wide reach, beyond what one feels is the normal grip of propaganda. It's another reason I like the book: it is about a war in which the truth was continuously bent during and afterwards by all and sundry (albeit for different reasons). It is good do be able to feel such confidence in the integrity of Wouk the author, as he reports to us through the eyes of Pug Henry.
In addition to the ordinary (some would say, far from ordinary) events occurring in the lives of his characters, Wouk sets the stage for the second book's main story, which is that of the Jewish ghetto known as Theresienstadt.
This is a major work of fiction and, I would argue, a major work of history as well. Our understanding of a period in which so much false information was produced, can only be enhanced by a work in which, right from the beginning, we are not asked to believe that everything stated is true. We are then left to see for ourselves what sort of world this was half a century ago, and the clarity and openness of the text leaves us in no doubt.