Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk

Imagine starving to death in a snowy, besieged Leningrad, licking the glue off wallpaper for nutrients. Imagine watching human beings, your neighbors, herded like cattle onto trains, en route to a clouded fate about which you and they have heard terrible rumors you cannot quite believe. In Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and its sequel War and Remembrance, these scenes from World War II seem vividly, shockingly real. Wouk takes you places you’d never want to go but somehow can’t stop reading about.

Two of Wouk’s own characters sum up the appeal of these books. In one scene, Victor Henry, a U.S. naval officer on a Lend-Lease mission to the Soviet Union, and Pamela Tudsbury, daughter and assistant of a British journalist, witness a tank battle close to Moscow. The Germans are winning. The war won’t end anytime soon. That’s bad news, but Pamela remarks:

"…I felt relieved. Relieved! What kind of mad reaction was that?"

"Well, the war’s something different, while it lasts." Victor Henry gestured at the angry yellow flare-ups on the black western clouds. "The expensive fireworks—the travel to strange places—"

"The interesting company," Pam said.

"Yes, Pam. The interesting company."

The Winds of War and its sequel introduce you to characters you come to know and care about, then follow them around the world from 1939 to 1945. This is more than a book of battles and death. It’s a story full of politics (a French Zionist smuggles Jewish refugees to Palestine, Roosevelt maneuvers around an isolationist Congress to convoy supplies through U-Boat infested waters to Britain), long-distance love affairs, cultural clashes, and ordinary people coping with extraordinary hardships.

Each time I reread these books they remind me a little of The Lord of the Rings. Both are world-spanning travel epics revolving around a war. In both, the protagonists start out together in a peaceful, naïve, untouched land (The Shire and the United States 1939) but then journey to nations where dark clouds gather. Natalie and Aaron more or less travel into Mordor, with Werner Beck as their own personal Gollum. Stalingrad is the Siege of Gondor, with Lend-Lease like Rohan riding to the rescue. And so forth. In the end, the survivors all gather together again, greatly changed—some with wounds that won't completely heal.

The Winds of War, by Herman Wouk