Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book Review: "Fall of Giants" by Ken Follett

Fall of Giants (2010)  

Ken Follett (1949)

922 pages

Well-written texts on history can teach us about the events that occurred during a particular period, and be effective in making clear the motivations of a country’s leaders and even the range of public opinion during that time. History books generally struggle, however, to help us understand the complexity of conflicting emotions and desires of those people caught up in a historical moment, or to engage our sympathy and empathy for them, even those with whom we may not be naturally aligned politically or culturally.

For this level of engagement a reader turns to historical fiction, which when done well fills this void left by the history books. The best such works introduce us to people who trigger our imaginations and pull us into their lives, whether as fictional characters representative of the mood and opinions of the time, or imagined versions of real historical figures. Through them we achieve insights into the personal and interpersonal struggles of that moment in history, and the connection of these struggles to the larger events of the time; rather than just read about history, we enter into it at the intimate level of those directly experiencing it.

By these measures, Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants succeeds brilliantly, illuminating for the reader the complexity of the issues surrounding World War I and their impact at a personal level, in a way a history text could not do as effectively. His novel opens in a Europe of the early 19th century whose highly structured and carefully divided societies will soon be forever changed by the extent and brutality of the first world war; the story then moves to the dehumanizing and disastrous evolution of the war itself, before concluding with the vengeful peace that would set the stage for a new, and even more destructive and bloody world war only a generation later. Using the advantages of historical fiction, Follett brings home to the reader the effects and cultural impact of the war at a personal level on people at different levels of European society, including the frustration of many at the political steps and miss-steps that seemingly made war inevitable, and the conflicts that arose out of the disparate opinions about the war.

Follett makes this history palpable to us through the interconnected lives of a half-dozen families spread across four countries that played a central role in the run-up to and the fighting of the war. Beginning in a small, invented town in his Welsh homeland, Follett introduces us to a fabulously rich earl and his country estate, as well as to a family of miners who work the coal mines on the earl’s land and live in houses leased out by the mining company. The earl, ultra-conservative and married to a Russian princess, uses his wealth and status to influence the government as a member of the House of Lords, where he attempts to argue for the active defense of the honor of the empire and hold back what he views with dismay as the rising tide of anti-establishment and democratic fervor in both Great Britain and the world at large; in these areas he struggles even with his own sister, a passionate campaigner for women’s suffrage, worker’s rights and a peaceful resolution to the struggles between Europe’s political leaders. Toward the far opposite end of the cultural spectrum, the growing outspokenness of exploited workers finds voice through the father of the mining family, who leads the local union, and educates his son, who has followed his father into the mines, and daughter, who works as a servant for the earl, equally forcefully in the fundamentals of Christian religion as well as the need for workers to stand up and face down those who oppress them. In the months before the war --- and later as the fighting rages --- the live of these two families become inextricably linked.

A German military attaché, who has close ties to the earl and his family, works for the German consulate in London and watches in horror as the politicians in countries across Europe at best ignore and at worst encourage the growing signs of conflict. He argues even with his father, a German diplomat and part of the conservative German hierarchy who see war as both inevitable and better fought now when Germany’s opponents are relatively weak and unprepared. He struggles with the conflicting feelings he has of his love for his homeland, his ardent disagreements with its hawkish leaders, and a love affair that could threaten both his, and his family’s, status.

Two brothers in Russia, orphaned by the father of the British earl’s Russian wife, have ended up working in a factory in St. Petersburg. The older brother conscientious and caring, the younger a lady’s man and gambler, both have dreams of going to America, in order to escape the oppressive regime of the czar and be able to live and work in freedom. One finally does manage to leave Russia before the war begins, but both find that the events of the war overtake them, one in the rising tide of Bolshevism which culminates in the Russian Revolution, the other in the aftermath of mistakes that force him to volunteer for service in the American army.

Finally, in the United States, the son of a wealthy family from Buffalo works as an adviser to President Wilson, traveling before and during the war to Great Britain, Russia and Germany to help the administration understand the situation and eventually try and broker a peace. His dealings lead him into repeated contact with the British earl and his family, as well as the German military attaché, and even, in an odd twist of coincidence, to the Russian brothers.

Other families play smaller roles in the story, though linked closely to these main characters. As hinted at above, the coincidences can seem to run thick in the novel at times, as the critical roles the main characters play --- just under the radar of history --- lead them to regularly cross-paths with one another, often with a significant level of engagement. This can leave one at times with the feeling that the novel is on the verge of devolving into a simple soap-opera (it’s easy to see the future TV mini-series in this story). Follett’s approach, however, allows him to create a rich range of characters from various levels of society in countries at the heart of the political and military action in World War I, and so explore a variety of the key social and political movements impacted by the war, while still telling a cohesive and engaging story.

In the spirit of the best in historical fiction, a reader comes away from the novel with not only a better understanding of the dynamics that led to the outbreak of the war, but also the roiling social upheaval present in Europe during those years that lay just barely concealed below what was sometimes only a thin veneer of patriotism and national unity created by the war.

Additional Notes:
* The Prologue, entitled Initiation, could stand alone as a wonderful short story.  Follett movingly portrays the passage into of manhood for a miner's son in a small Welsh town, as he prepares for, and then experiences, his first day down in the coal mine shafts.

*Shortly after finishing the book, I stumbled across an article in National Geographic magazine, The Hidden World of the Great War, that describes the underground life of soldiers in the trenches, and recalls some of the challenges they faced beyond the fighting itself, as Follett does in his story.

*Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier, is an autobiographical novel that gives a first-hand view of the life of a soldier during World War I, and the horror and destruction of the war.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf