LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON by Ted Widmer

The French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville described America as enduring a “quadrennial crisis” every four years as it held its presidential elections.  The 1860 election was an exception because the artificial passions that were easily stoked reached unheard of levels.  de Tocqueville remarked that “a self-absorbed president, catering to the ‘worst caprices’ of his supporters, could easily distract their attention from plodding matters of governance, and whip their enthusiasm into a frenzy, especially if he divided his supporters and his critics into hostile camps.”  He spoke of “feverish obsessions” and warned “the potential for lasting damage was always lurking.” As the ominous warnings came to fruition in the Civil War in 1861, today we stand on another ominous precipice as the 2020 election approaches.  de Tocqueville’s view of America is as plausible today as it was in the 19th century as even a pandemic and how to deal with it has strong partisan overtones and we find that people are storming the offices of governors with AR-15 weapons.  With the current state of our politics in the background it is useful to examine the pre-inaugural period that witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s journey from Springfield, IL to Washington, D.C. after the election of 1860 wonderfully presented in Ted Widmer’s new book, LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON.

Lincoln’s Whistle-Stop Trip to Washington

On the way to his inauguration, President-elect Lincoln met many of his supporters and narrowly avoided an assassination attempt

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One might ask why do we need another book about Abraham Lincoln, but to Widmer’s credit he has unearthed a great deal in his research and by focusing on Lincoln’s thirteen day odyssey he does so in a manner that other authors should envy as his narrative is like a flower that has  buds leading to numerous diversions for Widmer to relate to other aspects of American history.  In a recent CBS television interview Widmer as he does in his book argued that Lincoln’s election was the key to reaffirm the democratic process in America and its continuation as the core of our government.  Widmer argues further that the United States was the democratic model for the world and if it did not preserve its democratic principles the rest of the world would not have developed as it did, particularly in the 20th century and who knows how events would have transpired.  Widmer develops other important themes that in a general way are very pertinent.  The south had enjoyed an idyllic existence with a free labor system as the basis of its plantation economy or “cotton kingdom.”  It did not develop the industrial infrastructure as the north and would soon feel threatened not only by its fear of the emancipation of slaves, but by the growth of the west as evidenced by the new census, which if admitted to the union as free states would result in the loss of its control of Congress.  The north’s industrial development particularly the expansion of the railroads was the main threat.  The railroads provided the transportation network that was making the steamboat almost obsolete and provided the vehicle for the demographic explosion west of the Mississippi to the west coast.

Widmer makes a number of salient points that reflect southern anxiety.  For the first sixty-one years of the Republic slaveholders held the presidency.  For forty-one of those years a slaveholder was Speaker of the House.  For fifty-two years the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was a slaveholder.  Eighteen out of thirty-one members of the Supreme Court were southerners, despite the fact that 80% of cases that reached the court originated in the north.  Lastly, most military officers and Attorney-Generals hailed from the south – no wonder the economic, political, and social changes that were evolving in the 1850s produced so much anxiety below the Mason-Dixon line.

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) Stock Photo

(Dorothea Dix)

Widmer writes with exceptional verve and excitement as he describes Lincoln’s journey to assume the presidency.  A journey that had been preceded by Lincoln’s strategy of silence during the campaign which now would be drastically altered.  Widmer has the ability to focus on his main task, how Lincoln avoided violence and a possible assassination as he passed through eight states.  But, at the same time he fills in the background history of a particular whistle stop and its relationship to Lincoln’s life and career.  A case in point is Lincoln’s arrival in Cincinnati, known as the “Queen City,” as well as “Porkopolis” because of its pork industry (which would give rise to Proctor and Gamble in the 1840s!) which Widmer argues was a key to Lincoln assuming the presidency and the North’s ultimate victory in the Civil War. Sitting across on the other side of the Ohio River sat Kentucky with its myriad of political interests making Cincinnati influential in formulating the attitudes of many Kentuckians.  Being a border state Lincoln feared that if Kentucky seceded, they would soon be followed by Maryland and Missouri which immediately would have threated the capitol and Lincoln’s assumption of the presidency.

Even before Lincoln left Springfield to travel to Washington rumors and conspiracy theories abounded.  Lincoln received numerous threats on his life as he was seen by the south as the embodiment of evil and the ultimate threat to their way of life.  As Lincoln traveled toward Washington his friends and cohorts wondered how they could protect him.  Thanks to the early warnings of Dorothea Dix who had traveled through the south during the secessionist craze learning of a number of conspiracy theories concerning a possible southern seizure of Washington and the depth of hatred for Lincoln in Maryland.   She informed Samuel Felton, the President of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad of the possible coup who then contacted General Winfield Scott, and Alan Pinkerton who would deploy eight detectives, among of which was Kate Warne.  Warne brilliantly acted the part of a recently arrived Alabaman, which produced a large amount of gossip from southern women, she would also frequent southern saloons trawling for information.  This led to a treasure trove of information for Pinkerton’s spies and created an undercurrent of gloom as Lincoln’s odyssey made its way toward the nation’s capital amidst possible assassination plots to take place when Lincoln passed through Baltimore.

Widmer does a wonderful job linking Lincoln’s journey to future historical figures.  For example, the sixteen-year-old Thomas A. Edison, the sixteen-year-old  Benjamin Harrison,  William Howard Taft, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, all future presidents in addition to John D. Rockefeller all who witnessed Lincoln’s odyssey.

Photo of Allan Pinkerton

(Alan Pinkerton)

The journey was dominated by political calculations as at each whistle stop Lincoln would make a speech designed for the audience that came to see him by the thousands. Lincoln went further than any president had gone before in addressing the American people.  It appeared as if he was having direct conversations with voters and with newspaper and the telegraph, he was able to reach people across America and make a Lincoln presidency more real.  Despite Lincoln’s exhaustion he eventually came to relish the relationship he was establishing with his constituents.  Lincoln would experience many ups and down during his journey which at times was compounded by his bouts with depression highlighted by the fact he was almost certain that he left Springfield he would never return alive.

As Lincoln traveled from city, hamlet, and village he had to navigate the political minefields of each location.  None was more problematical than Albany and New York, NY which had been under democratic control for decades under the stewardship of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed.  Lincoln’s coat takes elected a Republican governor which would only exacerbate the problem as  Fernando Wood, the unstable mayor of New York City leaned toward the south and argued for an autonomous zone for his city.  Widmer also does a fine job comparing another political minefield as he follows the odyssey of Jefferson Davis, the newly elected president of the Confederacy.  Widmer follows Davis’ sojourn from his plantation in Mississippi to the new capitol in Montgomery, AL comparing his executive actions and powers with those lacking in Lincoln who had a  ways to go in getting his administration up and running as he tried to survive and reach Washington.

Widmer deftly measures Lincoln up against other historical figures throughout the narrative.  His favorite is George Washington who had his own partisan and foreign policy travails who Lincoln studied particularly his “Farwell Address” and how he dealt with enemies within his own administration.  It seems that Widmer is able to choose a historical personage from each city that Lincoln visited and compare the future president with that individual on a personal level and the historical context of each.

Kate Warne

(Kate Warne)

Lincoln gave numerous speeches throughout his travels which were roundly critiqued at the time.  Widmer does the same but singles out his addresses in Philadelphia as perhaps his most important.  When Lincoln arrived in Philadelphia, he immediately grasped its iconic importance in American history as is evidenced by his references to the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” supposition and the work of the founders in the city.  For Lincoln, the city and its shrines were sacred, a message he put forth during each speech.  Lincoln focused on a “sincere heart” and the holiness and sacred walls of Independence Hall.  It was if he were experiencing his own “Great Awakening.”  His speeches raised the level of his bond with the union he vowed to protect as he restored the radical promise inherent in the Declaration of Independence.    As Widmer continuously reminds us, throughout his visit to “the city of brotherly love” he received numerous messages of hatred concerning plots that were unfolding in Baltimore which clouded the president-elect’s visit.

Widmer ends his superb narrative after tracing his deception that frustrated the potential assassins surrounding Baltimore by reversing Lincoln’s odyssey, this time departing Washington for Springfield in late April and early May 1865.  Widmer has written an excellent account superseding most if not all books on the topic, but also, he has completed a narrative that should join other classics written about the fallen president.

“I don’t think it’s ever been done, what we’re doing tonight, here, and I think it’s great for the American people to see,” President Trump told the Fox News interviewers on Sunday.

(Trump at Lincoln Memorial, May 3, 2020)

THE WINTER SOLDIER by Daniel Mason

2 G55 F1 1915 8 Fatally Wounded in French Field Hospital History WWI France Fatally Wounded in a Field Hospital Stock Photo
(World War I Field Hospital)

Recently I read Daniel Mason’s THE PIANO TUNER and I enjoyed it immensely.  This led me to his next book, THE WINTER SOLDIER a novel dealing with the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a young medical student Lucien Krzelewski joins the army with the outbreak of World War I and is sent to a small village in the Galician Carpathian mountains called Lemnowice, the site of an aid station at the Church of Our Lady of Lemnowice.  The story encompasses a range of human emotions, the brutality of war, and an individual’s need to fulfill a void in his life and make up for what he perceives to be an error that haunts him.  Mason employs a number of characters that range from aristocrats who have seen better days, young men destroyed by war, a nurse that Lucien cannot put behind him, and a number of historical figures.

Mason’s portrayal reflects the bureaucratic incompetence of the Austrian army, the remnants of the Victorian Age at the conclusion of the Habsburg monarchy, and the desperation that war creates for individuals who long for a degree of normalcy.  Mason writes with verve and the ability to employ humor as it pertained to Austrian society, in addition to expressing the humanity of Lucien who finds himself in an untenable situation.  Lucien has not graduated from medical school and has limited practical medical experience.  He finds himself thrust into a situation with soldiers arriving for treatment for limbs that need amputation, neurological issues that today we refer to PTSD, wounds to the abdomen and other parts of the body.  He has never conducted surgery and feels inferior to the nurses he must work with.  One in particular, Margarete from the Sisters of St. Catherine takes him under her wing to fill in the gaps in his education.

The Eastern Front, where troops from Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, Russia, and the Balkans fought, was larger than the Western Front.

The novel centers around Lucien’s attempts to overcome how overwhelmed he feels as he tries to treat his patients in a humane manner with limited supplies, freezing weather, and the shifting battle between the Hungarian Hussars and Russian Cossacks.  Mason reflects on the horrors of war as Lucien does his best, but many succumb after clinging to life.  One patient in particular, Sergeant Jozef Horvath encapsulates the situation that Lucien finds himself in.  Most of Lucien’s training had been in neurology and he believes he knows what is best for Horvath who has been diagnosed with nervenshock with symptoms that seem taken from psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton’s  landmark book on surviving trauma, DEATH IN LIFE.  Lucien does his best to deal with Horvath’s symptoms but he will lose the patient to a sadistic German officer who believes that people who suffer from combat fatigue/shell shock or whatever battlefield malady exists to be shirkers and deserters and he rips him out of Lucien’s care.  Lucien cannot get over this and blames himself for the loss of his patient.

The fate of Horvath and Lucien’s inability to let go produces nightmares and difficulty in coming to terms with what has occurred creating a major subtext of the novel.  The second subtext revolves around Lucien’s relationship with Sister Margarete who seem to fall in love with each other.  After an outing Lucien and Margarete become separated and he will spend a good part of the story searching for her as she is his first love and cannot accept that fact she is gone.  As the war winds down Lucien returns to Vienna where his mother decides he must marry which zeroes in on Lucien’s inadequacies and memories of his war experiences as he is placed in charge of a rehabilitation hospital in Vienna by his former medical school professor.

Stock photo of Vienna at the Beginning of World War I, 1914
(Vienna during World War I)

Mason has excellent command of historical and geographical detail as well as the clash of old Victorian Austria destroyed by the war and the new Austria that will be created at the Paris Peace Conference.  Once the war ends it is ironic that Lucien is deemed unworthy of being a doctor by the new Austrian government that argues that a physician at war is not well rounded enough and must return to medical school.

Mason who is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford is well placed to write a novel that deals with PTSD as he brings Lucien through his training, experiments on animals, and the dearth of facilities and care for patients.  It is a story of redemption as Lucien is pulled in many directions as he deals with his own feelings of inadequacy and loss at a time when Europe is undergoing a complete transformation as is Lucien and the patients he treats because of the cruelty of war and the incompetence of those who cause it.

A British Red Cross hospital in France during the conflict which claimed 6 000 men s lives per day

(World War I Field Hospital)

THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY by John Barry

As I sit at my desk and examine the latest Covid-19 statistics and fantasize about what might have occurred had the Trump administration carried out its constitutional duties to care for American citizens instead of fomenting a civil war against democratic governors and denying their role in the current pandemic I am appalled and overwhelmed.  At this moment there are 927,000 cases of people testing positive for the virus in the United States out of 2,790,000 worldwide.  The death rate is 52,400 in the U.S. out of 196,000 worldwide, and each day we add thousands to the total.  Words like mitigation, social distancing, ventilators, and numerous others have entered our everyday vocabulary.  The questions that pervade the news are when we will “open up” the country? what happens if we do it too fast? and what will happen if each state goes its own way?  Writer and philosopher George Santayana is credited for stating that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  In our current circumstances it would be best for those in charge of leading us through the crisis to heed Santayana’s words.  All one has to do is turn the clock back one hundred years to learn certain lessons.  Those lessons are portrayed based on excellent historical research in John Barry’s 2004 book, THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY.  A pandemic that “likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million.”

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(President Woodrow Wilson)

Barry immediately caught my attention with his opening section that dealt with the state of the American medical infrastructure, readiness, and state of mind in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Barry’s discussion of American medical schools and their lack of standards, i.e., it was not necessary to have a college degree, once admitted no work on actual human bodies, and engaging in no laboratory science is eye opening in addition to being appalling.  In the late 19th century the United States lagged behind the rest of the world in the study of life sciences and medicine.  The inability of American medical schools to accept science as part of the curriculum is shocking.  American physicians would travel to Europe, Germany in particular to study laboratory science and the advances that existed in record numbers and returned to implement what they learned in American classrooms and setting up laboratories.  The key development was the launching of Johns Hopkins in 1876 and their medical school in 1893, along with their hiring of Daniel Gilman as the school’s president, and William Henry Welch who studied in Europe to head the medical school, a man who would become the most influential scientist in the world.

Hopkins would begin the transformation of American medicine as they employed Welch’s reputation to hire the best physicians and researchers in the world and developed a laboratory research component.  In a sense Dr. Welch was the Dr. Fauchi of his era!  The other important development that Barry delves into is the role of the Rockefeller Foundation whose donations led to the creation of the Rockefeller Institute in 1901.  The Institute would be headed by Simon Flexner, a protégé of Welch. Flexner had a large vision; “in his own work, he had what Welch lacked: the ability to ask a large question and frame it in ways that made answering it achievable.”  The Institute developed a small affiliated hospital to investigate disease, where patients would pay no fees but only those suffering from diseases that could be studied were admitted.  Flexner saw the hospital as a testing ground for ideas generated by laboratory scientists.  Further, Flexner used Hopkins as a model medical school and was also able to attract philanthropic funds to deserving institutions.  Those institutions were weeded out as medical schools were ranked based on how well they prepared their students to practice.  As a result, those schools that did not measure up dropped their medical schools and others either reformed their approach or faded away. The next important reform on Welch’s agenda was the creation of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, which was scheduled to open October 1, 1918, toward the end of World War I.

William H. Welch
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Barry correctly develops the role of World War I in fostering the worldwide influenza pandemic.  Evidence seems to suggest that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas.  By January/February 1918 Dr. Loring Milner who had treated influenza throughout his checkered career noticed a much more virulent type that was killing people and it completely overwhelmed him.  New cases declined in the spring but would reemerge later in the year.  With the American entrance into World War I in April 1917 one of the training centers was Camp Funston, part of the Fort Riley Reservation, located about 250 miles from Haskell County.  On March 4, 1918, a soldier was diagnosed with influenza at Camp Funston, three weeks later there were 1100 cases – the problem is that there was a great deal of traffic flow between Haskell County and Camp Funston.  These soldiers would carry the flu virus with them as they were assigned to units that then traveled to Europe.

Barry points to a great deal of disturbing statistical information for the reader to digest.  He examines the history of warfare and concludes that more soldiers died from disease than wounds suffered in combat.  In the Spanish-American War more men died of disease in a 6:1 ratio than on the battlefield.  The US lost more personnel to disease 63,114 than to combat 53,402, largely due to the influenza epidemic of 1918.  If one includes the overall US losses to influenza it is roughly 675,000.  In terms of combat losses, the American military was in no condition to deal with an epidemic with 776 doctors in the military out of an overall total of 140,000 for the entire country.  Lastly, influenza-related deaths reflected that one in 67 American soldiers in the army died of influenza and its complications, nearly all in a ten-week period beginning in mid-September 1918.  It was a disease that targeted those in the prime of their lives as opposed to the old and weak.

The ramp up to prepare for WWI created a situation that made the possibility for an epidemic in the US extremely plausible.  In an important chapter, “Tinderbox,” Barry focuses on the number of physicians who were needed overseas leaving the US short of physicians to care for civilians, and those that remained stateside were mostly over 45 and trained in the older methods that were not very effective.  Further, by the fall of 1918 research laboratories could only function on a reduced scale.  Research was cut back and focused on the war, on poison gas or defending against it, on preventing infection of wounds, on ways to prevent diseases that incapacitated troops like typhus.  Laboratory animals were unavailable, and the war sucked into itself technicians and young researchers.  As a result, the US was at a disadvantage in fighting the flu epidemic from the get-go.

Barry dissects the impact of politics on the spread of the flu and combating it in detail.  The role of machine politics in New York and Philadelphia are cases in point.  In Tammany Hall, the New York Health Department was purged replacing qualified people with patronage weakening the response to the virus.  In Philadelphia State Senator Edwin Vane’s political machine and the response of Public Health Director William Krusen were a disaster.  The Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 is a case in point.  Health officials advised against it, but Krusen who did little in preparation to mitigate the disease allowed it to take place with disastrous results.  The Liberty Loan parade is emblematic of the role of President Woodrow Wilson.  His administration was obsessed with morale and did everything they could to keep news of the epidemic from the public.  Between J. Edgar Hoover’s new internal security agency in the Justice Department, and George Creel’s Committee on Information prosecutions increased markedly as anyone seen as a security threat was arrested, i.e., Eugene Debs who ran for president in 1912 and Congressman Victor Berger were incarcerated.  Newspapers did not report accurate information and a good percentage of the public was left in the dark.

(Oswald Avery)

The horrific details of the epidemic appear in a number of chapters from its impact on the treatment and deaths of soldiers in various army encampments, i.e., Camp Devens in Massachusetts and the Philadelphia Naval Yard.  The impact on civilians is described as is the attempts by scientists to combat the disease.  The work of William H. Park, Chief of the Laboratory Division of the New York City Health Department and his deputy Anna Williams in what was considered the best laboratory in the country is explored in detail as was the work of Paul Lewis who earlier proved that polio was a viral disease and centered his research at his lab in Philadelphia, and Oswalt Avery from the Rockefeller Institute.  The overriding issue for all of these scientists is that of time and the need for speed which meant they had to forgo the usual protocols and approach to research which of course caused many problems.

Barry does not neglect the scientific details of research.  He describes in detail how viruses were determined, explores previous research dealing with pneumonia, typhus, malaria etc. as a means of introducing the reader to what scientists were up against and their approach.  Barry assumes the reader knows nothing as he treats the reader to mini lectures in microbiology, immunology, and epidemiology.  There are a few chapters that engage in this material and for a “biology novice” like myself it became  much to detailed particularly the various types of bacteria, other aspects of lab research, and as a result the book comes across as very text bookish.

Barry’s work is important and should be consulted by public health officials and members of the Trump administration to learn lessons that seem to have bypassed them today.  Though the flu epidemic was a hundred years ago certain aspects provide important lessons – it comes in waves and Covid-19 will return in some degree in the fall and possibly well past.  Ignoring the past is akin to signing a death warrant for many.  Barry has done a service for the American people and though the book was written in 2004 it provides many important guidelines and is  a very effective piece of historical research.

THE PATRIOTS by Sara Krasikov

A photo of Gulag prisoners in Perm (undated).
(A photo of Gulag prisoners in Perm (undated).

In March 1953, the Russian people could breathe a sigh of relief with the death of Joseph Stalin. From 1929 to 1953 roughly 15 million people were exiled to what Alexander Solzhenitsyn framed as the Gulag Archipelago and another 7-8 million were sent to other parts of the Soviet Union resulting in the deaths of countless millions. Stalin’s paranoid motivation was to seek scapegoats for starvation caused by forced collectivization and the purges and show trials that followed during the course of the 1930s. The Great Patriotic War against the Nazis produced another 20 million casualties and following its conclusion Stalin’s paranoia visa vie the west heightened resulting in the increase in internal deportations to the Gulag sweeping up hundreds of thousands or perhaps millions more. At the time of his death Stalin had organized an antisemitic campaign known as the Doctor’s Plot.  In 1951–1953, a group of predominantly Jewish doctors from Moscow were accused of a conspiracy to assassinate Soviet leaders resulting the arrests of numerous Jews and possibly laying the groundwork for a massive pogrom of Russia’s Jewish population. Once Stalin died in early March 1953 the “collective leadership” instituted an amnesty that led to the release of hundreds of thousands of exiled prisoners.

The tension, fears, and horrors of the Stalinist system as well as life in Russia under Vladimir Putin are accurately portrayed with compassion by Sara Krasikov in her novel THE PATRIOTS. In her opening scene we meet Florence Fein as she arrives at the train station in Saratov having just been released from exile after seven years. Her twelve-year-old son Julian is present to meet her, but he hardly recognized her and chose to return to his orphanage. From this point Krasikov dives into the lives of her main characters, a number of which represent a dysfunctional American family who will acquire a Russian branch when Florence Fein decides to move to Russia to volunteer her service for the Soviet regime. Fein is the main protagonist as we follow her idealistic journey to Stalin’s planned city of Magnitogorsk past the Ural Mountains. Jewish from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn she had grown dissatisfied with the inequalities of American life during the depression. Bored and tired of her daily routine she had no idea what forces would be unleashed and what evils she would witness and come to accept in acts of expediency to her idealistic vision for the Soviet system.

Cenzura.

(Stalin visiting an area of the Gulag)

Krasikov will develop the dysfunctional family she has created decade by decade alternating lives and experiences of family members in segmented chapters. There is Florence Fein and her husband Leon Brink, who had been born in New York, abandoned by his father he would become a journalist for a foreign outlet of the Russian news agency TASS. Their son Julian, also known as Yulik born near the Volga River in 1979 would return to America and become an engineer who had expertise in “ice breakers.”  He would travel to Russia for his company as oil is discovered in the Russian Artic. While in Russia he sought to convince his own son Lenny who had been working for nine years at a Russian equity firm before he was let go to return to the United States. Numerous other characters appear as Krasikov takes the reader through the 1930s and post war period and what it was like to live under Stalin. She shifts to the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union and focuses on Putin’s plutocracy and the difficulties it posed for the lives of ordinary Russians. Throughout the novel the issue of moral clarity continuously emerges.  Decisions that characters must make are up against conforming to Soviet principles or doing what is ethically correct no matter what the psychological and physical price that must be paid.

Among the other characters Krasikov develops is Grigory Gregorevitch Timofeyev, Florence’s boss at the Soviet State Bank who taught her how to achieve proletariat respectability. Comrade Subotin, the typical NKVD functionary will entrap Florence to observe her colleagues at the Institute of Philosophy, History, and Literature and betray her friend by giving false testimony to be used in Stalin’s Show Trials. Ivan (Vanya) Kablukov head of corporate security at L-Pet will try and blackmail Julian to support his companies shipping bid as a means to procure millions in kickbacks under the Putinist system. Alyosha “Alcoholic” a friend of Lenny who reflects the decadence of Putin’s Russia. Seldon Parker, Leon’s friend who along with Florence worked at the Jewish anti-Fascist Committee, and later would become a target of the secret police.  Essie Frank, Florence’s close friend who she met on the ship carrying them across the Atlantic on their voyage to Russia, later she would betray her to the NKVD. Captain Henry Robbins, an American Air Force pilot shot down over Korea and imprisoned in the Gulag would become Florence’s savior. There are many other important characters on display who allow the author to delve into the intricacies of the two time periods of Russian history she explores.

Lubyanka is headquarters of the FSB (KGB) and affiliated prison on Lubyanka Square in Meshchansky District of Moscow, Russia. It is a large Neo-Baroque building with a facade of yellow brick.
(Lubyanka Prison, home of the NKVD, KGB, and now FSB)

Krasikov’s mastery of history is on full display no matter what events she  chronicles. For example, the murder of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad Party Secretary on December 1, 1934. His popularity was seen by Stalin as a threat to his leadership and after a Cheka investigation it was found that Kirov “camouflaged enemies in the employ of foreign intelligence.”  All the historical evidence points to a NKVD hit ordered by Stalin which touched off the Show Trials of the late 1930s as Stalin needed a scapegoat for the millions who succumbed to starvation during collectivization. The dialogue reflects Soviet revolutionary verbiage throughout as does the descriptions of employment, the distribution of living space, and access to commodities.

Another historical example is the visit of the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Golda Meyerson (Meir) to Moscow in 1949 and its implications for Florence, Leon, and a number of other characters. In many cases Krasikov’s language emits sarcasm and humor, but in most cases, it is dark reflecting the plight of her characters. These traits are on full display as Florence has difficulties understanding all the people “unmasked” as enemies of the state that appeared daily in newspapers. Russia supposedly suffered “from a collective muteness that permeated the nation” as “wreckers and saboteurs” were responsible for industrial accidents and not meeting the quotas set by state five-year plans.

The Mystery of the Kirov Assassination

(Sergei Kirov)

 

Krasikov’s historical analysis embedded within the novel is clear and accurate. Her description of Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies reflects the tools of a historian as she develops his views and relationship to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her commentary on pre-war and post-war events and their impact on the Soviet Union and the United States is top notch. Insights into the behavior of historical figures be it Stalin’s or Putin’s lackeys is eve opening. The amount of historical research that Krasikov engaged in creates a sound infrastructure for the entire fictional account that rings of truth.

The novel engages in a number of storylines that seem interchangeable. The key one that brings everything full circle revolves around Julian’s frustration and attempts to understand why his mother acted the way she did and clung to her idealistic beliefs when the evidence  that should have shattered them did not move her. Further, he could not comprehend why his parents hid the fact that they were trying to leave the Soviet Union right before they were arrested. In addition, he could not fathom why his mother survived and his father did not. Part of the reason Julian travels to the Soviet Union on business in 2008 is to get a hold of the KGB dossier on his parents to try and learn the truth in Putin’s Russia where everyone seems out to extort you.

Sretenka Street in Moscow, 1930

Sretenka Street in Moscow, 1930 Stock Photo

Nathaniel Rich writes in his review entitled “The Patriots’ Charts a Family’s Reverse Journey From Brooklyn to the Gulag,” New York Times, January 24, 2017 that THE PATRIOTS is a historical romance in the old style: multigenerational, multinarrative, intercontinental, laden with back stories and historical research, moving between scrupulous detail and sweeping panoramas, the first person voice and a kaleidoscopic third, melodrama and satire, Cleveland in 1933 and Moscow in 2008.  It contains a wartime romance, a gulag redemption story, a kleptocratic comedy of manners, a family saga.”  Who could ask for anything more? This is a superb novel that stays with you long after you put it down. Explore and enjoy as this is a work of literature that warns us about authoritarian tendencies actions, and its ultimate danger – its insidiousness that traps the lives of its citizens under the weight of its boot.

(It would be an understatement to describe the gulags as hellacious. Inmates would toil on large-scale construction, industrial, and mining projects for at least 14 hours per day in the harsh subzero winter conditions of Eastern Europe. Without any safety equipment, prisoners were expected to chop down trees, dig up dirt, and pick through the frozen ground with rudimentary and ineffective tools and their bare hands.)

 

A DARK SONG OF BLOOD by Ben Pastor

(June, 1944, the liberation of Rome)

One of the best ways to study and learn about the events and personalities of World War II is through historical fiction.  The genre has produced a myriad of authors of which the late Philip Kerr whose main character Bernie Gunther a sarcastic and wise cracking Gestapo officer from the 1930s onward is special.  Gunther despised the Nazi regime and was able to navigate the politics and horror in his own pursuit of justice.  With the passing of Kerr another author has attracted my attention, Ben Pastor who has created the character of Martin-Heinz von Bora , a Major in the Wehrmacht who finds SS and Gestapo policies to be abhorrent, but believes in Germany and is willing to fight for his country as he did on the eastern front.  Bora is tasked to investigate a series of murders in Pastor’s series and he too must navigate the minefield that is Nazi vendettas and murders.  In Pastor’s third iteration of her Bora novels, A DARK SONG OF BLOOD, Bora finds himself in Italy in early 1944 as the allies are making their way toward Rome and he is assigned to investigate three murders; first a secretary at the German Embassy, Magda Reiner; his former tutor and mentor Cardinal Hohmann; and Baroness Marina Fonseca, a close friend of the Cardinal.

BHC 000406 General Mark Clark and Geoffrey Keyes in Rome 1944

(General Mark Clark, Commander US Fifth Army, accompanied by MajGen Geoffrey keyes, Commander US II Corps, proudly stand at the gates of Rome, the prize that Clark had striven so hard to make his own.)

Bora must work with Sandro Guidi an inspector in the Italian Police Department.  The two men have a tenuous relationship that played out in Pastor’s previous novel LIAR MOON, and their attitude toward each other has carried over to Pastor’s new novel.   Bora is a tortured individual as he related to Guidi in imparting his feelings about his brother, a pilot who was killed on the Russian front.  Bora maintains a great deal of guilt as he believes he was responsible for his brother’s death after convincing him to enlist.  Further, he was forced to identify the body after his brother crashed.  Bora is also haunted by his experiences that took place at Stalingrad as Germany sieged the city for over 900 days.  Later in the war Bora would suffer a catastrophic injury losing a hand to a terror explosion in Lagos, Italy which also resulted in a nasty limp.  Bora’s marriage is under a great deal of strain as his wife Dikta resents his service in the army and the fact she has seen him for only three months out of five years of marriage.

(General Albert Kesselring)

At the outset Pastor’s story is a bit uneven.  We know the death of Magda Reiner resulted from a fall from a fourth-floor window at the German Embassy which has reacquainted Bora and Guidi to investigate.  Pastor also introduces an inordinate number of characters very quickly which requires the reader to pay careful attention.  It takes about a hundred pages for the reader to feel comfortable and once the information is digested the novel is easier to navigate as events build upon each other, particularly the relationship between Bora and Guidi.

Bora is a decent man who finds himself in an untenable situation.  He suffers from nightmares and guilt related to the death of his brother and his activities rooting out partisans on the Russian front.  To further unsettle Bora his wife Dikta will visit only to inform him that she has had their marriage annulled.  He is a sensitive person for the most part and all he desires is for the war to end so he can remarry and raise a family.  Guidi, Pastor’s secondary protagonist lives in a rooming house with a series of interesting characters one of which is Francesca, a pregnant young woman who he finds he is falling in love with.  The problem is the identity of the father, possibly Antonio Rau who may be a member of the Italian resistance.  His relationship with Pietro Caruso, the Police Chief of Rome is flawed to say the least and eventually Caruso will fire Guidi and try and have him executed.  Bora will step in to save Guidi, but their relationship remains “iffy” as they try and solve three murders as various Nazi and Italian officials create numerous roadblocks inhibiting their progress.

Stock photo of WWII Execution Of Rome Police Chief, Rome, Italy

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(WWII Execution Of Rome Police Chief, Pietro Caruso)

One of the strengths of good historical fiction is the blending of a story with factual information with real events.  Further, the integration of historical figures and fictional characters is a seamless way to enhance any plot.  Pastor possesses these strengths in abundance witnessed by Bora’s interactions with his superior General Siegfried Westphal who had been an operations officer under General Edwin Rommel and was now Chief of Staff for General Albert Kesselring.  Other historical figures who are intertwined in the story include, Rome’s Nazi SS Chief Colonel Herbert Kappler, Pietro Caruso the Police Chief of Rome, General Maelzer, the Nazi Commandant of Rome, and SS General Karl Wolfe among others.

The suspects in the three murders appear unrelated, but they are numerous.  In the case of Reiner, Pietro Caruso, SS Captain Egon Sutor a former lover, and Rodolfo Merlo, the Secretary-General of the National Confederation of Fascist Unions are all strong possibilities.  As far as the deaths of Cardinal Hohmann and Baroness Fonseca evidence points to a crime of passion and a dual suicide which Bora refuses to accept.

Pastor is able to bring all of these elements to the fore and slowly unravels a plot that brings the murders, Nazi obstructionism, and allied movements together in creating a strong addition to the historical fiction relating to World War II.  In my mind Martin Bora has replaced Bernie Gunther to satisfy my need for a World War II historical fiction fix and I look forward to reading, TIN SKY, Pastor’s fourth novel in the series which shifts to events in the Ukraine.

How an American spy helped liberate Rome, 75 years ago
Allied troops in liberated Rome. Photo: War Office/Imperial War Museums

THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ by Erik Larson

Standing out of the flames and smoke of surrounding blazing buildings, St Paul's Cathedral during the great fire raid in London.

(The bombing of London during the WWII “Blitz”)

Living at a time when leadership seems to be severely lacking with a president who enacts his personal agenda seemingly on a daily basis when people are dying is eye opening and ultimately a tragedy.  In times like this it is important to examine historical leadership that is grounded in fact and strength of personality.  Leadership during times of crisis is of the utmost importance be it a pandemic, wartime, economic or weather-related catastrophes.  The public needs to rely on someone to step up and provide honest and factual information with direction to mitigate people’s anxiety and provide hope for the future.  Examining the aerial atrocities committed by the Germans during World War II over London, Coventry and other English cities in late 1940 and early 1941 is a case in point.  Winston Churchill the newly appointed Prime Minister would rise to the occasion through his wisdom, wit, and force of personality and provide the British people a degree of solace.  Erik Larson’s latest book, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ successfully captures Churchill’s role and the courage of the British people in that moment and builds upon his series of historical narratives that ranges from hurricanes, murder in Edwardian London, a serial killer in Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the sinking of the Lusitania, to the rise of the Nazis.

In his current work Larson explores “the year in which Churchill became Churchill, the cigar smoking bulldog we all think we know…and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like.”  Larson has produced a workmanlike synthesis of events, policies, and personalities of the time period though he does not add a great deal that is new for historians.  What Larson does accomplish is a synthesis of information and sources focusing on many individuals that seem to fall through the cracks in other historical monographs.

Wikimedia Commons

(Sir Winston Churchill)
Larson’s grasp of the most salient historical points is evident for all to see.  Churchill’s obsession with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s thoughts serves as a background to most of Churchill’s actions.  Churchill is fully aware that England cannot defeat the Nazis without American equipment and financing and finally their entrance into the war.  Larson describes the political and personal machinations of FDR and Churchill in traditional fashion as he labors through the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease as the United States slowly become more and more of a belligerent.  Larson’s description of the visit of Harry Hopkins, perhaps FDR’s closest ally and friend to England for four weeks in January, 1941 is a case in point as Churchill rolled out the red carpet to flatter and convince Hopkins to support American aid to England and encourage the eventual entrance of the United States into the war.
Everyday English citizens are presented through their daily lives and travails as they confronted by the German “Blitz.”  In addition, Larson takes figures like “Jock” Colville, Churchill’s reluctant private secretary and drills down exploring aspects of their lives in detail.  In Colville’s case the unrequited love he pursues in the name of Gay Margesson, a student at Oxford, supplemented by his important role by Churchill’s side.  Others explored include Pamela Churchill who had the unfortunate task of being married to Churchill’s son Randolph, an alcoholic, gambler, and philanderer.  Mary Churchill, the prime Minister’s eighteen-year-old daughter provides an interesting perspective of an upper-class youth through her diary entries.  More importantly Larson pursues the role of Max Aiken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook, a newspaper magnate who performs miraculous work increasing British airplane production at the newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production as well as serving as Churchill’s closest friend and alter ego.  Frederick “Prof” Lindemann , an Oxford Physicist assesses the world with “scientific objectivity” who Churchill brought into government to deal with German technology and efforts to counter the damage it caused.  The marriage of Sir Harold Nicholson, Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Information and his marriage to the writer Vita Sackville-West receives a great deal of attention.  Churchill’s bodyguard Detective Inspector Walter Henry Thompson provides numerous nuggets of information.  Mass-Observation diarist Olivia Cockett chronicles many of the horrors resulting from the German onslaught.   There are of course portraits of the military types like Major-General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, the Military Chief of Staff and political figures such as Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, who is then shuffled off to Washington as ambassador to remove a political threat to the Prime Minister’s leadership.  Characters abound and Larson has the knack of providing just the right amount of detail to make them interesting in of themselves for the reader.

TIME Magazine Cover: Lord Beaverbrook -- Nov. 28, 1938

If Churchill was obsessed with FDR, Adolf Hitler was obsessed with Churchill.  In Larson’s accurate rendition of the Hitler-Churchill enmity, the Fuhrer did not want to go to war with England at first.  He wanted to negotiate a deal that would be somewhat satisfactory to Churchill to end England’s adversarial role toward Germany so he could concentrate on lebensraum, living space is the east against Russia.  When Churchill refused to comply, Hitler unleashed the German Luftwaffe led by Hermann Goring against England to knock them out of the war.  At times a cartoonish, despicable, and insidious figure, Goring did all he could to raze English cities like Coventry to create the terror that would force the English people to remove Churchill and replace him with a more pliable figure.  Hitler and Goring could never quite comprehend why Churchill refused to give up based on the physical and psychological damage they inflicted on the English people.  Larson provides a fascinating aside to Goring’s terror bombing of civilians in his ravenous pursuit of cultural artifacts anywhere he could steal them.  With Churchill’s obstinacy remaining constant, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuhrer hatches a plan to achieve peace with England. Larson does his best to break down the myths of Hess’ attempted flight to Scotland to try and negotiate England’s exit from the war delving into the latest material available.

Larson is successful in explaining Churchill’s historical significance as he describes his speeches and physical appearance throughout London and other areas refusing to kowtow to Nazi bullying and bombing.  He demonstrated “a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and above all, more courageous.…he gave forth a confidence and invincible will that called out everything that was brave and strong,”  as his voice became a reassuring wellspring of hope and resolve.  Churchill was an expert at mass psychology, and he knew just how to hearten his downtrodden people and lead them to ultimate victory, even as so many people lived in shelters that were crumbling or pursuing an existence in the London Underground.

Goering Lounging In Chair

(Hermann Goring, Head of the Luftwaffe)

Larson is successful in reaching his stated goal of “hunting for stories that often get left out of the massive biographies of Churchill, either because there’s no time to tell them or because they seem too frivolous.”  Larson writes with verve and the character formation of a novelist.  He seems to leave no rock unturned in seeking out the intimate lives of his characters so they can provide a feel for what England is experiencing between May 1940 and 1941.  He find’s vignettes that are a treasure.  For example, Churchill constantly critiques the writing of his Cabinet and military figures correcting grammar and demanding brevity.  Deeply personal aspects garner Larson’s attention exemplified by his comments on Churchill and Clementine’s life in the bedroom, which was separate and as far as intimate relations, it took place only upon an invitation from Clementine!

As with any historical monograph there are always suggestions for improvement.  According to Gerard DeGroot in his February 28, 2020 review in the Washington Post in Larson’s case it may be fair to argue that Churchill is given too much credit for saving England when English factories and workers produced the Spitfires and Hurricanes that consistently outperformed their German counterparts.  Further British workers, male and female were much better mobilized than in Germany.  In addition, the idea that England acted alone is an overstatement when the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish contributed greatly as did members of the vast empire including Canadians, Australians, Indians and South Africans who all did their part.  One also cannot forget the 145 Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, in addition to the 88 Czech, and 30 pilots  from Belgium.  One must also not forget that other parts of the United Kingdom were also bombed – cities like Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast were also severely damaged.   Churchill needs to share the limelight a bit more than Larson offers.

Though Larson has not written the definitive account of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister he has written an evocative description of what life was like for the English people during the period.  One cannot go wrong hunkering down with Larson’s narrative particularly at a time of extreme crisis and discomfort.  I was scheduled to hear Larson at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the end of March, however due to the pandemic it was cancelled.  I fervently hope it can be rescheduled.

In the aftermath of a bombing raid, a bus lies in a crater in Balham, South London.
(London during the WWII “Blitz”)

THE RED LOTUS by Chris Bohjalian

Sunset at Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island in Vietnam

(Northern Vietnam)

Alexis Remnick met Austin Harper in her Emergency Room in a Manhattan hospital after he had been brought in with a gunshot wound in his bicep.  She cleaned the wound, stitched him up as a result their relationship began.  Alexis had been an ER doctor for three years in a NYC hospital but had never met Austin who was a development officer at the same hospital.  It was an environment in which she thrived as the adrenaline rush of the ER allowed her to overcome her own anxiety and depression that plagued her since she was a teenager when she engaged in “cutting.”  In the ER, her public person was transformed, and she became an expert doctor, while Austin was a bicycle junkie who had a past that Alexis, despite dating him for seven months, was unaware of.

This is how Chris Bohjalian, the author of 21 books, many of them New York Times bestsellers, and a number of which have been made into films, begins his latest novel, THE RED LOTUS which may be one of his best efforts to date.  At a time when the United States is being hit with a massive pandemic where predictions of death are currently between 100-240,000 people Bohjalian’s novel is scary to say the least.  Once he introduces the backstory Bohjalian immediately shifts the focus of his novel to Vietnam where Alexis is lying on the beach at a resort in Hoi An where she and Austin had traveled so Austin could pay homage to his father who was wounded and his uncle who had died in the Vietnam War.  Austin had left the bike touring group to travel a seventy-mile route to pay his respects and disappears.  Alexis’ texts and calls go unanswered as Austin has been kidnapped during his ride but left behind a lemon-yellow Psych energy gel and two chocolate flavored packets on the trail which Alexis and the group leaders came across as they searched for him to no avail.

Bohjalian writes with an intensity that produces an atmosphere that  seems as if could be cut with a knife.  One of the most disconcerting aspects of the novel is that rats play such a significant role.  Bohjalian is very careful by drawing the reader into what appears to be a love story for about one-third of the plot before he provides hints about where he is taking you.  There are energy gels, cuts on Harper’s fingertips, possible research labs in New York and Vietnam as things begin to come together.  The author has created a complex plot that in many ways deals with our current fears as one of the important characters alludes to the fact that all pandemics begin in some way with rats.  Bohjalian provides more information about rats that most readers would ever want to know.  Interestingly, North Korea becomes part of the larger picture as three people are murdered in a lab in Da Nang, of course involving rat research, while most of us are worried about “Dear Leader” and his quest for nuclear weapons!

The story of course is about human avarice and the mental sickness and greed that drives people.  Douglas Webber, a wealthy freelance travel writer and expert dart aficionado, Sally Gleason, Harper’s boss and Webber’s lover, Dr. Wilbur Sinclair, a viral/bacteria researcher at the hospital where Remnick, Harper, and Gleason are employed, Oscar Bolton, who replaces Harper as Webber’s minion, along with Bao and Giang and other thugs in Vietnam who form the cabal designed to inflict a pandemic and of course make a great deal of money.  One of the most interesting characters is Ken Sarafian, a retired New York City cop in his seventies who is forced to revisit his service in Vietnam and cope with the death of his daughter who recently died of cancer is hired by Remnick to investigate her boyfriend’s death.  His wit and quiet nature belie a though ex-cop who is advised not to take the case but becomes trapped by the decency of its cause.  Remnick can’t seem to let go and her questions and doubts lead her to uncover aspects of Harper’s death that don’t seem to fit which will make her safety very questionable as Webber grows suspicious.

Other important characters include, Capt. Nguyen Quang, a member of the Canh Sat Company Dong (CSCD) of the Da Nang Police Department’s mobile terrorism unit.  By integrating Quang and his cohorts Bohjalian provides insights into how Vietnamese professionals go about solving a criminal case that appears to be a threat to millions.  Toril Bjornstad, an FBI legal attaché stationed in the United States Embassy in Phnom Penn provides support and information to Remnick and Harper’s parents who just cannot accept the fact that their son was a liar and schemer who after a life of getting away with things has gotten himself in too deep.  The key to the novel is Remnick’s use of her ER medical skills that were developed to diagnose patients to uncover how and why Harper died.  As the plot evolves the ending might seem too predictable, until it wasn’t.

The story transverses Vietnam from Da Nang, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City to New York and Washington, D.C.  At each stop important twists and turns occur as people keep dying.  Bohjalian is a master of the thriller with a nice human touch at times.   He doles out information very carefully be it about murder, its investigation, and research into rat behavior and the danger they represent.  He develops his characters with expertise and reflects a great deal of compassion for them.  He knows how to draw the reader along to the point where a seeming love story evolves into something much more dangerous and complex.  If you have enjoyed his previous books, his latest effort may top them all.

Map of Vietnam

Political Map of Vietnam

OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II by Max Hastings

Operation Chastise by Robert Taylor (Lancaster)

During World War II a debate raged among allied strategists as to how much civilians should be targeted to defeat the Nazis.  As the Germans wreaked havoc on civilian populations throughout Europe and the United Kingdom the defeat of Hitler’s henchmen was deemed a necessity no matter the cost.  Max Hastings, a British journalist and historian, the author of numerous volumes ranging from World War I, the Battle of Britain, World War II, Winston Churchill and Vietnam tackles the issue of civilian casualties in his latest effort, OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II.

By May 1943 the British had accomplished little against the Nazis when compared to the effort and suffering of the Soviet Union which was finally making its push from Stalingrad westward.  Further, Winston Churchill was under a great deal of pressure to produce victories to stir the English people.  The allied grand strategy to this point was cautious to allow their slow industrial buildup to take hold before making a stronger presence on the battlefield.  To this point their most significant action concerned the use of heavy bombers.  The British decided in October 1940 that instead of pursuing largely vain efforts to locate power plants, factories, and military installations the Royal Air Force (RAF) would bomb German cities which would continue until 1945 and the end of the war.  The C-in-C Bomber Command Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris believed that air attacks on Germany could render a land invasion of Europe as unnecessary.  Winston Churchill did not care for Harris, but he believed in his sense of purpose and his ability to create positive publicity, i.e., the thousand bomber raids” over Cologne in May-June 1940.  There were a number of skeptics concerning Harris’ approach to winning the war, but Harris’ publicity machine and ability to put out positive bombing figures made him an important component in RAF leadership.  By “by war’s end, Bomber Command was capable of reigning upon Hitler’s people in a single twenty-four-hour period as many bombs as the Luftwaffe dropped during the course of its entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain.”

Barnes Wallis

(Barnes Wallis)

It is at this point that Hastings introduces his main topic the bombing of German dams as a means of destroying Hitler’s Ruhr Valley industrial complex. The Ruhr and its industries accounted for 25% of Germany’s entire consumption, much of it derived from the Mohne reservoir.  Flooding the low-lying Ruhr Valley would render railways, bridges, pumping stations, and chemical plants inoperative.  The key figures that Hastings explores in depth are Barnes Wallis, an engineer who become the hero of Operation Chastise, the mission to destroy the Mohne Dam as well as others, as he was able to design and develop the immense bomb that could “bounce” along the water to breach the Mohne Dam.  Next, Guy Gibson who led the 617 Squadron of the RAF Bomber Command that would bomb the dams of north western Germany employing a revolutionary new weapon that required plans to fly at an extremely low level after conducting over 170 successful bombing missions over Germany.  Ralph Cochrane, Harris’ subordinate was in charge of the mission who was one of the RAF’s ablest senior officers who has been described as a “ruthless martinet.”  Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Portal, the head of the RAF believed in assaulting urban areas and was a prime mover behind Operation Chastise.  Arthur Collins, a scientific officer in Harmondsworth’s “Concrete Section” who proved to Wallis that “a relatively small charge might achieve a wholly disproportionate result if it was detonated sub-aqueously and close to the target, using a timer or a hydrostatic pistol: it could thus harness the power of the water mass to channel the force of the blast.”  Lastly, Sir Arthur Harris, the commander, who when pulled over by the military police at one time and was admonished that he could have killed someone, he responded “I kill thousands of people every night.”

Guy Penrose Gibson, VC.jpg

(Guy Gibson)

Hastings does a marvelous job explaining the scientific experimentation, the training of the pilots, the shifting of resources, the strategic planning of the operation, and the different personalities with their own agendas in detail.  By doing so  Hastings highlights his own expertise and command of the material, but also the ability to explain complex information and make it easily understood for the reader.

Hastings introduces numerous pilots, bomb aimers, navigators, wireless operators, and gunners that made up the core of the mission.  These men formed groups of seven for each Lancaster bomber that was sent into Germany the night of May 16, 1943.  Hastings narrative provides intimate portraits of the men and how they interacted and were organized.  The squadron reflected all social classes, but despite a degree of class consciousness they were able to form into workmanlike groups of young men most of whom were in their late teens and early twenties with a sprinkle of men in their thirties.  Among these individuals included are Richard Trevor-Roper, the Squadron Gunnery Leader and bomb aimer who at 27 was the oldest among the squadron; F/.SGT Len Sumpter, a bomb aimer was a shoe makers son who left school at 14; wireless operator Jack Guterman, a very literary young man faced with the decision to follow his pilot Bill Ottley from another command joined the 617th;  F/LT Joseph McCarthy, the only American pilot involved with Operation Chastise who grew up in the Bronx, NY; F/LT John “Hoppy” Hopgood, Gibson’s closest friend; F/LT David Shannon, an Australian pilot; and aircraft navigator Jock Rumbes a pilot washout who became an excellent navigator.  These and many others new by the nature of the mission flying at night at an altitude of under 100 feet over water that their chances of survival were limited and the result is that 52 of the 133 men involved in Operation Chastise would not return.  As Hastings points out, “the margin for error, both for successful attacks and survival was virtually zero.”

Mohne dam before and after 617 squadron's famous Dambuster raid

(Mohne Dam May 16-17, 1943)

 

Hastings provides a blow by blow account of Operation Chastise from its takeoff on May 16, 1943 describing the difficulty of lifting off the ground with such a heavy payload, flying under 500 feet in the air to avoid German radar and flak, the mindset and experiences of the 133 men during the long flight, the final successful delivery of Wallis’ “bouncing bombs,” and the severe losses in planes, five of which crashed before reaching the target area in addition to three more at the site out of nineteen in total that took off on May 16, and the 52 men that perished.  As Hastings correctly concludes, Operation Chastise was a huge extravagance and essentially a gamble, a piece of military theater, rather than serious strategy.  In the end the Mohne and Eder dams were breached causing flood waters that would kill  between 1400-1500 people, half of which were non-German forced laborers.  In addition, the Nazis suffered an undetermined amount of economic and production losses.

Operation Chastise was largely hidden from the public until 1955 when the film, “Dam Busters” was released.  Hastings follows upon the works of other historians like James Holland to describe the events and personalities surrounding the mission whose idea dated back to 1937 and presents it to an audience after conducting voluminous research and interviews over his long career as a war correspondent, journalist and historian.  With the inclusion of maps, charts, and photos Hastings effort has produces a wonderful addition to monographs that focus upon the lesser known operations conducted during World War II, but were extremely important as in this case it reflected the turning of the tide, a small and symbolic step towards the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

OPERATION CHASTISE

Operation Chastise was an attack on German dams carried out on 16–17 May 1943 by Royal Air Force No. 617 Squ

 

VICTIM 2117 by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Berlin street (Imago/Jürgen Ritter)

(Berlin, Germany)

The most despicable tragedy of the last decade has been Bashar al-Assad’s war on the Syrian people to retain power.  The actions of the Russian and Turkish governments have exacerbated the situation that has produced the death of over 400,000 people and created over 5,000,000 refugees.  In VICTIM 2117, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s latest work, the author introduces the Syrian catastrophe at Ayia Naba, a beach in Cyprus as 37 bodies have washed ashore having drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to escape their home country.  At the same time there is an emotionally stunted young man who recently graduated high school named Alexander who lives in Copenhagen.  Alexander is a virtual gamer who claims 2080 wins and in his demented mind has added the 37 drowning victims he read about in the newspaper to his total, 2117.  This milestone now reached has set in motion Alexander’s plan to kill his parents and wreak havoc on the public.

 

(Jussi Adler-Olsen, author)

If this plot line was not enough, Adler-Olsen focuses on Joan Aiguader, a self-promoter and a struggling free-lance journalist for a newspaper in Barcelona who has hit rock bottom until he becomes interested in the increasing numbers of refugee drownings, particularly 37 in Cyprus.  Twisting his story line further Adler-Olsen zeroes in Assad, a member of Department Q of the Copenhagen Police  Department who has appeared in most of the author’s previous novels.  It seems that Assad has kept his past hidden from Carl Morck his superior in Department Q who believed that the man who had introduced himself ten years ago as “Hafez el-Assad, a Syrian refugee with green rubber gloves and a bucket by his feet.  But inside he was really Zaid al-Asadi: special forces soldier, language officer, Iraqi, and almost fluent Danish speaker.  The man was one hell of a gifted actor.”   Assad’s tortured past involves what transpired 16 years previously at the hands of a Sunni terrorist and former official under Saddam Hussein named Abdul Azim or Ghaalib, a man who had kidnapped Assad’s pregnant wife and two daughters who Assad believed were dead for all of those years.

For those familiar with Adler-Olsen’s previous novels, VICTIM 2117 will not disappoint.  For those who are reading his work for the first time you probably will become hooked as he has deftly created a story with resonance today as he intertwines a series of plotlines.  Apart from Assad and Morck a number of characters from previous novels appear, though VICTIM 2117 can stand alone.  Adler-Olsen takes the reader back to Fallujah in Iraq at a time when United Nations weapons inspectors are looking for Saddam’s Weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  Events that take place are part of Assad’s past but they tie into a great deal of contemporary evidence, particularly newspaper photos of Marwa, Assad’s wife, and daughter appearing alive as well as a photo of the body of Lely Kebaki, an old woman who had taken care of Assad’s family when he was a boy as they had to flee Iraq and Saddam.

Assad’s life before Department Q is quite revealing and he will be supported by Morck and company, Roe and Gordon, including the new Chief of Homicide, Marcus Jacobsen.  Adler-Olsen provides a tense novel with a number of twists and turns linking the past and the present.  Morck’s quick wit and sarcasm is on full display as is the commentary provided by his assistant Rose, a depressive personality who has returned to Department Q after an absence of two years.

Adler-Olsen may have been a juggler in a previous life because he is able to maintain a number of plots floating in the air, all at the same time.  VICTIM 2117 is a complex story that as you read on it is very difficult to put down as Assad tries to locate his arch enemy and rescue his family who he is afraid he will not recognize and conversely will not recognize him.  As the novel is about to come to fruition and you think the terror will subside, Adler-Olsen introduces another twist that will leave you hanging.  If the book is as satisfying as I believe you will probably want to consult Adler-Olsen’s previous seven books dealing with the adventures of Department Q.

APEIROGON: A NOVEL by Colum McCann

(Israeli settlers waving the flag at Palestinian demonstrators by the “separation wall”)

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has transpired for at least a century if one accepts the Balfour Declaration as its origin in 1917 and it developed into an ongoing struggle for its participants in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel.  After numerous wars, intifadas, and a daily application of violence the toll on all people has been horrendous.  With that as a background Colum McCann introduces his latest novel, APEIROGON an attempt to provide insight into suffering and the intangibles that allow this conflict to persist to this day.  According to the dictionary an apeirogon is “a polygon having an infinite number of sides and vertices” which fits the structure of McCann’s work.  The author describes his new book as “a hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact, and imagination” the core of which is the relationship between Rami Elhanan, a sixty-seven year old Israeli whose daughter, Smadar was killed in a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem, and Bassam Aramin, a forty-eight year old Palestinian whose daughter, Abir was killed by an Israeli rubber bullet on the West Bank in 2007.  McCann’s inspiration to write the novel is the real-life friendship between Rami and Bassam, two men united in their grief and their life’s work was to tell the story of what happened to their daughters.  The book is labeled a novel but in reality, it is a combination of fiction and non-fiction whose events are recognizable to those who follow the region, though even what appears to be fiction can be categorized as real.

McCann employs birds as a symbolic means of describing the plight of the Palestinian and to a lesser extent the Israeli people.  The migratory birds who travel freely know no boundaries which is in sharp contrast to the limitation of movement for the Palestinian people who must navigate “the Wall” constructed by the Israeli government to separate the West Bank and Israel, the numerous military checkpoints that are employed by the Israeli government, and the Israeli policy of apartheid.

The retelling of Rami and Bassam’s life histories is poignant.  Rami fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War is married with four children living in Jerusalem with a career as a graphic artist.  Bassam was a militant in his youth and at seventeen was imprisoned, beaten and tortured.  He would remain incarcerated for seven years and upon his release his life took a different turn as he pursued poetry, married and became the father of five children.  His family lived in the village of Anata which is located next to the Shu’fat refugee camp.

Israel is a society under constant surveillance either by the Mossad, military patrol, satellites, and blimps.  McCann effectively describes Rami’s dilemma as a person who has seen too much violence and believes that peace can only come through honest negotiations and compromise.  He “often felt that there were nine or ten Israelis inside him, fighting.  The conflicted one. The shamed one.  The enamored one.  The bereaved one.  The one who marveled at the blimp’s invention.  The one who knew the blimp was watching.  The one watching back.  The one who wanted to be watched.  The anarchist.  The protestor.  The one sick and tired of all the seeing.”  Bassam would go on to co-found Combatants for Peace which is used by McCann to delve into Israeli-Palestinian frustrations and hatred for the status quo as he explores the daily indignities that the Palestinian people experience.

Map of West Bank

McCann defines the effect of the Nakba on the Palestinian people, and the effect of the Holocaust on Israelis.  He compares the two and how they have similar meanings to their individual victims.  McCann integrates the history of the Holocaust and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict throughout.  The removal of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war, life in refugee camps along with a very disturbing description of Theresienstadt, and Smadar’s grandfather’s inability to discuss surviving the concentration camps for many decades comes to the fore.  Bassam will travel to England to enroll in Bradford University to earn an advanced degree in Holocaust studies.  He wanted to talk and learn about the use of the past as a means of justifying the present.  “About the helix of history, one moment bound to the next.  About where the past intersected with the future.”  For Bassam he needed clarity for the past, present, and the future.

Rami and Bassam met at a hotel picnic table where eight Israelis and three Palestinians were gathering for the Combatants for Peace.  Rami had founded his own organization Parents Circle and was curious when his son Elik had invited him to attend.  To be a member of the Circle one had to have lost a child, to be one of the bereaved.  This was the beginning of an important personal relationship as Rami and Bassam would learn to lean on each other in crisis’.

Numerous historical figures appear throughout McCann’s rendition of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.  Biblical figures abound, Roman history is recounted, the 19th century explorer-philosopher, Sir Richard Burton, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Mohammad Ali, John Kerry, Yasir Arafat, Pablo Picasso, Philippe Petit, General Matti Peled, Smadar’s grandfather and peace advocate, and George Mitchell, the last person who was tasked to bring peace to the region.  McCann accurately describes the “smashed jigsaw” that Mitchell confronted that included PLO, JDL, LEHI, PFLP, ALA, PIJ, CPT, IWPS, ICAHD, AIC, AATW, EIJ, JTJ, ISM, AEI, NIF, ACRI, RHR, BDS, PACBI, BNC and the difficulty of deciding where to begin.

To compare the raw emotions that Rami and Bassam have dealt with is heart rendering.  But also, the realization by Rami that it is “a disaster to discover the humanity of your enemy, his nobility, because then he is not your enemy anymore, he just can’t be.”  As each has to deal with the Israeli bureaucracy and military as it tries to learn the plight of their daughters on the day they were murdered is heart wrenching.  It is symbolic of the time period in which we live.  Novels dealing with this topic are at times a product of events. In the 1990s with the Oslo Accords, novelists could be more upbeat, but today as each side has retreated into belligerent isolation with Donald Trump making a farce of the peace process it is not surprising what McCann delivers in his novel.  But the lesson that emerges is that “the only revenge is making peace.”

As Julie Orringer writes in her New York Times, February 24, 2020 review, “Apeirogon is an empathy engine, utterly collapsing the gulf between teller and listener.  By replicating the messy nonlinear passage of time, by dealing in unexpected juxtapositions that reveal latent truths, it allows us to inhabit the interiority of human beings who are not ourselves.  It achieves its aim by merging acts of imagination and extrapolation with historical fact.  But it’s indisputably a novel, and to my mind, an exceedingly important one.  It does far more than make an argument for peace; it is, itself, an agent of change.”

“I began to think, Rami tells us in his central chapter, that I had stumbled upon the most important question of them all:  What can you do personally, in order to try and help prevent this unbearable pain for others?

McCann has registered his answer, one so powerful that it impels us to find our own.”

The Separation Wall and the Sh'uafat Refugee Camp are seen following a snow storm, on February 20, 2015. Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org

(Separation wall between Israel and the West Bank)