Status: Bookseller Picks
I keep racking my brain, trying to figure what the best adjective would be for me to sum up this double recommendation. I keep coming back to two: personal and epic.
The Winds of War (first published in 1971) and War and Remembrance (1978) represent a single, cohesive story that manages to capture the enormous sweep of World War II and the Holocaust, but tells it in a way readers can still feel connected to such a massive narrative. Through the fictional Henry and Jastrow famlies, readers are caught up in the currents and eddies of history and tossed around the globe, from London to Berlin to Moscow, from submarines and battleships to the most infamous of the Third Reich's extermination camps.
There's something for everyone in this story; Herman Wouk manages to expertly blend romance and melodrama with scrupulously researched analyses of historical events and military tactics that would be at home in the military history section of your local B&N. He creates a dizzying cast of characters and gives them each their own unique voice. The story centers on two families: the Henrys, a Navy family led by stalwart everyman Victor (nicknamed "Pug"), and the Jastrows — Aaron, a Jewish-American expatriate living in Italy, and his niece Natalie. Pug (who longs for command of a battleship, but instead ends up hopping around Europe as FDR's unofficial eyes and ears) and his sons Byron (a perpetual student) and Warren (a Navy pilot) are pulled into the war. Meanwhile, the attempts of Aaron and Natalie (who falls in love with, and marries Byron) to flee Europe and the Nazis are blocked at every turn, and they eventually find themselves on a collision course with Hitler's Final Solution.
While it's easy to get caught up in the family drama of Wouk's story, what impressed me most of all were his chapters of historical analysis. By and large these were presented as excerpts from the postwar writings of General Armin von Roon, a fictional German general. So not only is Wouk giving an incredibly well-researched analysis of German military strategy during the war, but he's doing it from the perspective of the other side!
The masterful writing evident in the Roon chapters is perhaps only surpassed by the addition in War and Remembrance of selections from "A Jew's Journey," a diary Aaron Jastrow keeps as he and Natalie pinball around Europe evading the Nazis, before ending up in Theresienstadt, the so-called "Paradise Ghetto." The diaries chronicle not only his physical journey, but a spiritual one as well; Aaron's ordeal reawakens his faith, expressed in some of Wouk's most moving passages.
These books certainly aren't for everyone; 1,900 pages is a lot of reading, and it took me the better part of a year to polish them off (I was reading other books simultaneously). It's well worth the effort. I came away from The Winds of War and War and Remembrance feeling not only emotionally moved, but also with a greater understanding of the Second World War and the Holocaust than before I started.
(NOTE: It's also worth your while to check out the TV miniseries The Winds of War (1983) and War and Remembrance (1988), both of which originally aired on ABC. They're outstanding adaptations of the novels, though the depth of Wouk's historical research isn't easily translated from the written page to the video screen.)
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