Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Friday, November 29, 2013

"Winter of the World", by Ken Follett (2013)

Winter of the World follows the 2010 Fall of Giants as the second book of Ken Follett's planned "Century" trilogy. Picking up from the 1923 end of Fall of Giants, the second book narrates the years until the first successful Soviet atom bomb test in 1949. Along the way, Follett adds his own versions of many of the most-written-about events of WWII, Pearl Harbor and the Normandy invasion.

The multi-generation, multifamily saga continues to place members of the fictional families in the middle of key historical events. The beauty of the strategy, both for the writer and for readers, is that the second book doesn't need to spend time getting acquainted with the characters. Readers of Fall of Giants already know and care about the Williams, Fitzherbert (now also married into the German Von Ulrich family), Peshkov and DeWar families, and others. Willing suspension of disbelief takes over as Follett constructs "eyewitness" accounts of the 1936 Nazi takeover in Germany, the Battle of Belchite in the Spanish Civil War, the London Blitz, the "Blitzkrieg" German offensive against the French and British, the Russian counterattack before Moscow, the atomic pile test under the grandstand in Chicago, the Labour Party election triumph in postwar Britain, the Berlin airlift and the Soviet espionage that led to acquisition of the a-bomb plans.

Numerous historical characters make cameo appearances, including Roosevelt, Truman, Marshall, Hull and Welles from the US government; Groves and Oppenheimer of the Manhattan Project; Chamberlain, Churchill and Ernest Bevin the Labour party leader; and the Soviet leaders Stalin, Beria and Molotov.

The one notable digression (that I found) from historical accuracy comes in the tale of how the Soviets - four years after the Americans - developed their own nuclear weapon. Follett invents a fictional German physicist named Wilhelm Frunze, loosely based on the historical Klaus Fuchs. Frunze gives Soviet spy Volodya Peshkov detailed plans for the "Fat Man" bomb, allowing the Soviets to build a similar bomb by 1949. Frunze and his wife are later found guilty of treason and executed. The real Fuchs was suspected of espionage, but the charge could not be proved. Convicted of a lesser charge, Fuchs served nine years in prison and was stripped of his British citizenship.

The popularity of the pre-to-post WWII time period in historical fiction means there's a lot of path-crossing among the various fictional characters. Frunze might have been interned on the Isle of Man with John Lawton's fictional Rod Troy (Lily of the Field). Follet's fictional Soviet spies in Berlin and Spain must have known those invented by Alan Furst. The DeWars might have met Herman Wouk's Navy officers at Pearl Harbor. Woody DeWar of the 101st Airborne may have known Private Ryan. Greg Peshkov at Los Alamos certainly must have encountered Joseph Kanon's Michael Connolly (Los Alamos) or Martin Cruz Smith's Joe Pena (Stallion Gate).

Maybe one of these authors will someday write a novel where all the surviving fictional WWII characters get together in 1960 for a big reunion. Oh, the stories they could tell.   

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"Fall of Giants", by Ken Follett (2010)

What a pleasure to get back to a historical fiction author who not only studies history but also writes well. The first book of a planned trilogy, Fall of Giants begins in 1914 on the eve of World War One and ends with news of the failure of the 1923 "Beer Hall Putsch" - led by a young Adolf Hitler - a harbinger of things to come in Germany.

Known earlier in his career for wartime-espionage thrillers like Eye of the Needle, Follett established his historical-fiction reputation with The Pillars of the Earth. He has perfected the popular historical fiction plot device of narrating large historical themes through the more personal stories of  multiple generations of interconnected families.

For best effect, this scheme must include fictional families in different places and in different social strata. Fall of Giants follows the Williams family of Welsh coal miners, the Fitzherbert family of aristocratic Welsh landowners, the Peshkov family of Russian peasants, and the DeWar family of the emerging American business-professional-political class. Through these fictional families, we witness many of the most significant events: the war itself, the reluctant American involvement, the Russian Revolution, the "White" counter-revolution, the Versailles peace conference, the women's suffrage movement in Britain - coinciding with the fall from power of the aristocratic landowner class, and the beginning of Prohibition in the US.

Another effective Follett plot device compares and contrasts the fortunes of two family members who choose different paths. The two Peshkov brothers, for instance, are separated by events leading to the October Revolution. One brother escapes the country just ahead of the police, eventually finding his way to Buffalo, New York, and into the beginnings of organized crime bootleggers. The other brother stays in St. Petersburg, becoming a Bolshevik and confidant of Lenin and Trotsky.  

Through the fictional characters, we meet many of the most important historical figures involved in those events, including Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, the young Winston Churchill , Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Alexander Kolchak, and many others.

No need for the "five criteria" to rate Fall of Giants - straight 5s (am I too soft? - maybe). I'm looking forward to the rest of this outstanding trilogy.