The Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk are the quintessentially classic American novel. However, simply classifying these books as an American saga undermines the true thematic value and presence the story has in our world. They tell the tale of an epic romance, a world devestated by war, and characters who evolve and measure the ultimate theme the author has staked them too: we must stop war not through fear of war, but through love of peace. Wouk's twin tales are long - get ready to tuck in to two-thousand plus pages - but worth every sentence.
The epic tale is about the Henry family and those who come in and out of their orbit. The family is led by pugnacious navel officer "Pug" Henry; his wayward son Byron; shining star Warren; sister Madeline and mother Rhoda. Other characters cycle through the text particularly Natalie, the great love of Byron and her family Aaron and Berel Jastrow.
The Winds of War covers the rise of war in Europe and concludes dramatically with Pearl Harbor. War and Remembrance works through most of the war in the Pacific contrasted with the Holocaust at Aushwitz and across Europe.
However, that is quite simply, too simple a summary. The level of detail within the text is incredible. The main story is interladen with both commentary from a book by Pug Henry in addition to the memoirs of a fictious German General named Armin von Roon. No battle from the Russian saga to the battle of Guadalcanal is omitted and the details are powerful and illuminating. Fictional characters also interweave with historical ones as Churchill, FDR, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Goring, Himmler etc. all make appearences. Wouk handles these characters as deftly as the ones he has created and they never seem hokey or placed in the text under any fake pretenses.
However...the true triumph of the novels is in their description of the Holocaust. No book before or since has really captured in such exquisite detail the excrutiating depravity of the Nazi death machine. Not one horrifying moment is spared. The portrayls of the Nazi extermination system are sparse, taut and harrowing. Again, though, there is more than simply meets the eye.
Take, for example, the character of Berel Jastrow. His brother Aaron, while in a concentration camp in Czechslovakia, tells a group of youngsters the tale of Job from the bible. He discusses his opinions on why Job suffered ultimately for the greater good of his people. Berel is the Job of this story. The story of the Nazi extermination of the Jewish people is mostly told through his stunned eyes. His character experiences every significant event in that terrible oddessey and shies away from none of it.
When I was reading this book, it struck me at the end to make the connection between the story told by Aaron and the character of Berel. I went back and reread several pages - keep in mind I had already thoroughly enjoyed the entire fourteen hundred page book - and suddenly the story made sense in a whole new, exhilerating way.
I cannot recommend these books more highly, for years I was told to read them and demurred. When I developed an interest in World War Two I could not put it off any longer. One gets a true sense of the world being ripped apart in these books. The prose is incredible, the sentences are a beautifully constructed ballet that comes together as well as any other novel I have read. In particular, the final sentences and ending are indelible, fascinating and heart-breaking. As we draw farther and farther from the defining war of our lifetimes, it is important to look back and remember. Wouk's message is as powerful today as it was in his time. If you wish to read books which give an overarching illumination of the second world war, these are for you. If you want to read an incredible story of love, triumph and war - these books are for you. In all truth, Wouk was absolutely correct in his assumptions: we cannot stop war through fear of war, but only, truly, through love of peace.