Little Brown, 1972-1978, ???? pages, C$??.?? mmpb, ISBN Various
The Winds of War: Little Brown 1972, 885 pages
War and Remembrance: Little Brown, 1978, 1042 pages
As historians look back on the twentieth century, one single event will loom large over the period: World War Two. Born from the sum of world history up to that point and influencing latter human affairs forever, WW2 has, in a few years, reshaped geography, history, science and countless lives.
Actually, it’s misnomer to call WW2 “one single event” given that it was a conflict made of several elements not always linked together. As it took place over six years, it also contains far too much material to be simply resumed.
So you can imagine the built-in difficulties for Herman Wouk as he attempts to dramatize WW2 in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. The sheer size of the result (nearly 2400 pages all told) is an indication of the magnitude of the task.
Succinctly put, these two books follow the various adventures of the Henry family and their acquaintances, from 1939 to Pearl Harbour (The Winds of War) and them from Pearl Harbour to Hiroshima. (War and Remembrance) Initially, there’s Victor “Pug” Henry (waiting for a command assignment, but shuffled in a diplomatic role), his wife Rhoda (who might or might not be entirely faithful to her husband) and the three Henry children: Warren (promising naval aviator), Byron (devil-may-care wanderer) and Madeline (soon enough responsible for a radio show).
Love affairs, friendship, casual acquaintances and such soon expand this narrow cadre, with the result that we truly get a diverse sampling of the war from various point of view. One character always manages to be at the right place at the right time for most of the war’s events. Though the plot mechanics often threaten to overwhelm the narrative drive, Wouk must be commended for his solution to the size problem of WW2.
Unfortunately, there’s no solution to the size problems of the two books themselves. While a certain amount of padding is probably inevitable in 2,400 pages, Wouk more than overdoes it in this duology, inserting whole scenes of no narrative nor documentary impact and chapters than can be skipped without ill-effect. The Jastrows’ story, in particular, is more than obvious (and manipulative) in its ultimate denouement, and attempts to drag it out only annoy rather than inform.
On the other hand, maybe because of these fluffy passages, Wouk does manage to bring back dramatic tension to World War II. For contemporary readers, it’s a story of the past, a fixed sequences of events that lead to our reality. It’s all-too-easy to forget that the issue of the war was unknowable at the time. The Winds of War excels at showing the possible early outcomes of the war’s beginning; Germany invading England, the Allied powers suing for peace after Poland, etc… This sense of absolute incertitude is the strongest virtue of the first volume.
Wouk should also be praised for the passages presented as translated excerpts of (the fictional) General Armin von Roon’s military analyses of WW2 as interpreted from a German point of view. These passages are clearly written, and present an alternate perspective of the events, often more complete and enlightening that what the story’s protagonists see.
There are a few interesting storyteller’s tricks sprinkled throughout the second volume, such as the remarkable roster call of American airmen sacrificed during the battle of Midway, or a straight admission that a fictional character never existed, but was inspired by hundred of others who did exist. Most of these asides work.
Herman Wouk’s duology makes you not only understand the events of the Second World War, but also instill a certain emotion into them, whether it’s incertitude, suspense, devastation or loss. Both books deserve to be read, if only for fulfilling the second’s book title: War and Remembrance.