Ken Follett is an acquired taste that I had not acquired; however, when I heard that he had written an epic novel about the roots and consequences of World War I, I volunteered to review it. I’m glad I did. World War I has largely faded from popular memory; it is the only war that has no major monument in Washington. That is tragic because it was the root of everything that followed in the 20th century, and much of what we now live in the new millennium.
Mr. Follett does a good job of condensing the major fault lines that shaped the last century into individuals who represent the pent-up feelings of the era. A family of Welsh coal miners represent the nascent British labor movement that eventually gave us Tony Blair. Their aristocratic coal mine owner stands for the upper crust of British society that disregarded their safety and well-being.
The Germans are represented by an idealistic young aristocrat, and his very conservative Prussian army officer father. The son secretly marries an English noblewoman and becomes a storm trooper in the trenches on the western front to show his loyalty to the fatherland. Storm troopers in World War I were not the equivalent of the perversion of the term that the Nazi Party turned it into. They were assault troops roughly equivalent to Marines in the United States or Britain today.
The Russians are perhaps the most interesting and informative characters in the book. The elder brother of a peasant family, whose parents were slain by the aristocracy, becomes a leader in the Bolshevik revolutionary movement only to see it perverted by the communists under Lenin and Stalin.
There is nothing here that wasn’t explored in “Dr. Zhivago,” but that novel has faded into the distant past with this generation of readers. Both the “Tea Party” movement and the Obama faithful can learn something from the Mr. Follett’s description of how a well-meaning movement can go horribly wrong in the hands of cynical and unscrupulous actors.
The younger and dissolute Russian brother flees to America with a passport and ticket that his elder brother saved for years to acquire after an altercation with the law. He later ends up in Buffalo, N.Y., where he eventually becomes a Prohibition-era bootlegger. He marries into a rich Russian immigrant family that interacts with the clan of a young American adviser to President Wilson who shares Wilson’s idealistic worldview. Like all of the other military-age males in the book, the American ends up in uniform and performs admirably. The elder brother becomes a political commissar with the Red Army.
Mr. Follett’s true strength as a writer is to make us care about the main characters despite their human frailties and understand their motivations. There is an “upstairs-downstairs’ subplot in the interwoven stories of the four nations involved in World War I, and Mr. Follett skillfully uses it to highlight the fact that, although the war started out as a conflict between nation-states, it resulted in the rise of some of the notable social-political movements of the past century.
Communism in Russia, the Labor movement in Britain and the origins of the Nazi movement in Germany are described in human terms that the reader can understand. This is Mr. Follett’s true strength as a writer.
As in the case of fiction such as the “Winds of War” and other great conflict epics, the reader has to suspend disbelief that key characters from different nations interact as serendipitously as they do; however, Mr. Follett does a good job of making the story move along.
Mr. Follett uses entertaining fiction to gently teach a lesson in leadership. His Russian aristocrats, who are the only cardboard-cutout bad guys in the novel, flog and beat the hapless peasants and workers in both peace and war; they eventually pay the ultimate price for their misdeeds. But Mr. Follett admirably points out how quickly the communists became repressive once they took power. I would hope there is a proverb here for conservative activists in the book. George Eastman in my native Rochester figured this out early, profited with Eastman Kodak; he treated his workers well and provided for their families. Kodak largely escaped the labor violence of the early 20th century and did so without a union.
I would urge readers who may not have read Mr. Follett to give this one a shot. It is a long book, and probably overpriced in its present form, but it will be good read on the cold winter nights to come.
— Gary Anderson, The Washington Times, 19 November 2010