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.   

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