The Winds of War by Herman Wouk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Winds of War is the first half of Herman Wouk’s WWII epic. And I do mean epic. I first read this many, many years ago, when I was in high school, and it stayed with me. Some notes on this reread:
1. I hadn’t remembered how unrealistic the dialogue is in this book.
“Dearest, are you hurt?”
“No. Not at all. It went right on through.”
“Thank God! Thank God!”
I mean, cheesy. And stiff and formal, with rather complex sentence structure for conversation. People don’t really talk the way characters do in this book. The only real person I’ve ever heard use “whom” consistently and correctly in everyday conversation was my teacher-and- grammar-freak (and much beloved) grandmother. It was part of what made her her, but on anyone else it sounds incongruous.
2. Throughout the book our protagonist is constantly referred to as Victor Henry. “Aye aye, sir,” said Victor Henry. Or, Victor Henry was answering Mrs. Roosevelt’s questions about Nazi Germany. At page 578 of an 885-page kitten-squisher, I don’t need his full name all the time.
3. Horrific head-hopping. Instead of multiple POV’s we have the omniscient narrator, who unfortunately will tell us what two different characters are thinking or feeling in the same paragraph. I kept going, Huh? and having to reread.
4. The biggie is how contrived the story is. The main protagonist is always perfectly positioned, so that he meets Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, and advises FDR about all of them and more, because this guy is just everywhere, always at the historic moment. He is invited to join the crew of an RAF bomber on a raid on Berlin; he’s holing up at the American embassy during the Battle of Moscow, with a side trip to the Russian front so he can get strafed by the Wehrmacht (see above dialogue example; the bullet went right through). He’s in London during the Blitz and on Wake Island the day after Pearl Harbor. He doesn’t manage to be in Warsaw when it falls but his son is; his daughter-in-law sees the Japanese attack on Hawaii from a hill near her house, and his other daughter-in-law is a terrified Jew clutching her baby in the Piazza Venezia as Mussolini declares war on the United States.
But these are things that would sink a mediocre story, much like the California. This story is not mediocre, and its sweep is impressive enough to render these annoyances minor. It would be easy to roll my eyes at how conveniently we have first-hand observation of so many major events, personal meetings with so many historical figures, on a grand stage that is pretty much the whole planet. Puts me in mind of Forrest Gump. But when I look at the tale as a history text, with characters made up to tell the story in a connected and very human way, I see Wouk’s storytelling genius. The interweaving of political, military, and cultural details is stellar. The soap-opera-ish illicit romances and bed-hopping add another element of humanity.
This is an engrossing read and I recommend it, but it’s also a marathon. It took me 10 days that felt like a month. Even though it just kind of stops and hangs there at the end, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, I’m going to have to take a break before tackling the other half of the story, War and Remembrance.
Bookshelves: epic, world-war-ii, five-stars-means-i’ll-read-it-again, love-the-cover, americana, historical-fiction, bad-dialogue, head-hopping, so-bad-it’s-good
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