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The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
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Apr 10, 10


There is always a tension in historical fiction. Make the book too historical, and you might as well man-up, append some footnotes, and make it nonfiction. Make the book too fictional, and you end up in a situation where the relatively trivial problems of the characters overshadow the bigger problems of history. I call this latter phenomenon the Kate Beckinsale Corollary, after the infamous scene in the movie Pearl Harbor where she utters the lines: "Rafe, I'm pregnant. I didn't even know until the day you turned up alive...And then all this happened." "This", of course, was the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, which killed 2,500 Americans, but which seems to pale in comparison to Beckinsale's sordid love triangle with two Army pilots who are also best friends.

Herman Wouk's solution to this tension is to say screw it, and super-size both the history and the fictional drama of the turbulent years leading up to America's involvement in World War II. This is a big, sprawling, ambitious novel set against a factual background and real-life personages. The true-life tragedies are interwoven with the soap opera Wouk constructed around Captain Victor "Pug" Henry, the paterfamilias of an American naval family that includes his unhappy wife, Rhoda; the perfect eldest son Warren (a Naval flier); and their loose-cannon middle child Byron (a submariner).

The easiest thing I could do is make fun of this book. There's so much to pick apart. There's enough melodrama to fuel a dozen General Hospitals. The characterizations can be less than sharp. There is a Gump-like quality to Pug Henry, so that he's always turning up at the right place at the right time, allowing him to roll with the titans of the day (Look it's FDR! And isn't that Churchill! Wait, is that the smell of fish on Stalin's breath!?) Moreover, for a book so overstuffed with dalliances, affairs, and wandering hearts, there is a certain chasteness to the proceedings that is both quaint and irritating. The horrors of the Holocaust, graphically described? Yes. A sex scene or two? No.

But I'm not going to pick apart the book, because I loved it. Everything that works against it can, in the right frame of mind, be seen as advantageous. The messiness and the ridiculousness are endemic of ambition, and despite a slow start, in which we are introduced to the archetypal rectitude of Pug Henry, this huge book is never less than engrossing.

Pug is naval officer sent to England as an observer. This will give him the opportunity to hobnob with historical figures while also fall in love with a woman named Pamela, who is daughter to a British radio star. Later, because of his observer status, Pug will get to chat with FDR and then go to Moscow. Meanwhile, Byron is in Italy working as a research assistant to Aaron Jastrow, a famed Jewish writer. Byron is soon in love with Jastrow's niece, Natalie, and will be with them as the two flee the encroaching Holocaust. Warren, the naval flier, is stationed in Hawaii, and his role is mainly to sit there until December 7, 1941. Meanwhile, while Pug is skirting the line with Pamela, his wife drifts towards a love affair with Palmer Kirby. Palmer is a scientist type, and if you guessed that he'll eventually work on the Manhattan Project, you're right!

Wouk's work is overstuffed with research. At times, he's able to deftly weave his factoids into the narrative. For instance, in this meeting with Roosevelt, we learn a couple of tidbits about the President without breaking the flow of the story:

Roosevelt sighed, smoothed his thin rumpled gray hair, and rolled himself to his desk. Victor Henry now noticed that the President did not use an ordinary invalid's wheelchair, but an odd piece of gear, a sort of kitchen chair on wheels, in and out of which he could easily slide himself. 'Golly, the sun's going down, and it's still sweltering in here.' Roosevelt sounded suddenly weary, as he contemplated papers piled on the desk. 'Isn't it about time for a drink? Would you like a martini? I'm supposed to mix a passable martini.'


Wouk is less successful using excerpts from a fictional nonfiction book called World's Empire Lost, written by the fictional German General Armin van Roon, and translated by the fictional Pug Henry. Wouk uses these excerpts to set the historical stage, and if you are a neophyte to this period, I suppose it's helpful. However, if you already have some facility with this time-period, these excerpts are mainly annoying.

My favorite part about this book is its excellent sense of place. Wouk gives you a vivid, tactile sense of being in prewar and wartime Europe: Germany, Italy, Poland, Russia.

The muddy narrow streets of Medzice - it had rained hard during the night, and the rattling on the rabbi's roof had increased Byron's sensed of snugness - were filled with an autumnal fragrance of hay and ripening fruit, made more tangy by the smells of the free-roaming ducks, chickens, goats, and calves. Some of the fowl were encountering tragedy, happily strutting in the morning sunshine one moment, and the next swooped down upon by laughing children and carried off squawking and flapping to be slaughtered. In the fields beyond the outlying houses and barns - mostly one-room log structures with heavy yellow thatch roofs - cows and horses grazed in tall waving grass spotted with wild flowers. Water bugs skated on the surface of the slow-moving brown river. Fish jumped and splashed, but nobody was fishing.


Wouk presides over this bulging story like some sort of god. Strangely, there are times when he steps out of the story to remind us that we are reading something fictional. He does this, for example, on the eve of Germany's invasion of Russia:

The players in our drama were now scattered around the earth. Their stage had become the planet, turning in the solar spotlight that illuminated half the scene at a time, and that moved always from east to west.


If nothing else can be said of this book, it certainly does not lack for audacity.

The book ends, unsurprisingly, with Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, which neatly sets up the sequel. The battle is described mostly indirectly, and it's actually quite amazing how propulsive this book is without having many set-piece action sequences. I'm actually at a bit of a loss to describe my vast enjoyment of what is essentially a square novel that eschews the salty language, graphic violence, and equally graphic sex I so value in my fiction.

Whatever it is, though, it works, and it sets the stage for an even better sequel.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Jason (new)

Jason I actually have the Winds of War and War and Remembrance on my summer reading list. As always... another stellar review.

Thanks Matt.


Matt You've got some good summer reading coming up!


message 3: by John and Kris (new)

John and Kris You need to read a Harold Robbins novel.


message 4: by Nick (last edited Apr 17, 2010 07:36PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Nick In accord with your excellent review. You might enjoy Irwin Shaw's superior "The Young Lions". A wonderfully written WW II fiction that addresses your criticism of Wouk. I couldn't help thinking that with Shaw's sense of prose and characterization, "Winds of War" would be an incredible outstanding five star masterpiece.


Matt Nick wrote: "In accord with your excellent review. You might enjoy Irwin Shaw's superior "The Young Lions". A wonderfully written WW II fiction that addresses your criticism of Wouk. I couldn't help thinking th..."

Nick, thanks for the suggestion. I liked the movie with Brando, so I really should give it a read.


message 6: by Carolinecarver (new)

Carolinecarver Great review...you should do this professionally. You are much better than the Post reviewers.


Regan Great review. I do have to say, though, that your suggestion of the Gump-like quality is backward. I'd say Forrest Gump had a Pug-like quality, wouldn't you?


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