Godless: University College London, 19th century.

(Oxford University, circa, 19th century)

Novels that first appear as esoteric can be deceiving.  Such is the case with R.F. Kuang’s new novel, BABEL: AN ACANE HISTORY.  Kuang is a Marshall Scholar with an MPhil from Cambridge and an MSc in Chinese Studies at Oxford, in addition to being a PhD candidate in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale and  is the perfect individual to construct an engaging novel that encompasses the sacred of Oxford’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation known as Babel, and a treatise on the inequities of British society in the 1830s and the evils of colonialism as practiced by London and its empire.  Though there is an element of fantasy and science fiction, not my favorite genres, in the novel there is enough sound historical information and character development to obviate any preconceived notions I may have had.

Set in Oxford and its environs, Kuang creates a series of characters who have been recruited by Oxford scholars in order to manipulate the use of foreign languages as a diplomatic tool to enhance Britain’s control of its empire and maximize its accumulation of wealth.  Oxford scholars recruit native speakers with excellent language skills, bring them to Oxford to hone their linguistic talent in the service of Her Majesty’s government.

The most important character is Robin Lovell, a randomly chosen name by a young Chinese boy who is recruited by Babel professor Richard Lovell to leave his home in Canton and study at Oxford and further explore Mandarin, his Chinese dialect.  Robin will be enlisted by what turns out to be his half-brother, Griffin by way of Professor Lovell who after three years at Oxford leaves and joins the secret Hermes society, an organization presented as a sort of “Robin Hood” type that steals silver bars, manuscripts, and other valuables from the university and redistributes them world-wide as a means of degrading British imperialism.  At first, Robin is unsure of his choice as he has become part of a cohort of other young scholars, Ramiz Rafi Mirza from Calcutta; Victoria Desgraves, a Kreyol woman of Haitian descent; and Letitia Price, a white woman from Brighton, England.  They have developed a wonderful relationship since they are mostly the epitome of non-Caucasian British society.

Canton Harbour, China, 19th century

(Canton, China harbour, 19th century)

As Kuang develops her novel racism is a dominant theme that seems to permeate each section of the book as British racism dictates the manipulation of these scholars to further the empire.  Kuang has written a derisive critique of British imperialism and colonialism in general as she examines marginalized indigenous people and the inequality that colonialism fosters be it encompassing race or gender.

Kuang delves into a number of aspects of Oxford topography and society.  For the reader, one gets the feel of what it is like to study at Oxford and navigate its many constituents and structure.  Kuang’s love and respect for Oxford’s institutions and scholarship comes through seemingly on every page.  She describes the labyrinth that is Oxford, and her overall admiration and deference in addition to certain negativity that exists.

Silver bars emerged as the key component of the empire and the basis for all aspects of society from the linings of canals, gutters, clock towers, hansom cabs, military needs, in addition to other aspects of British infrastructure.  According to Griffin the empire could not exist without silver, and the accumulation of silver could not be successful without the role of the translators ensconced at Babel.

Kuang displays a deep love for language and literature and has created an amazing novel highlighted by her command of the history of British imperialism.  If one is interested in the causes and the implications of the Opium War (1839-1842) when Britain went to war against China to protect its opium trade developed through India whose goal was to safeguard its accumulation of silver.  In discussing events surrounding the coming war, the role of parliament, the “silver” industrial revolution,” and certain characters Kuang highlights her facility with British history and her ability to integrate historical events into the flow of the novel.  A case in point are negotiations with Commissioner Lin ZeXu, appointed by the Emperor to end the debilitating opium trade and the dialogue reflects true historical documentation,* in addition to discussions of movements such as the Chartists, and certain politicians like Lord Palmerston.

Portrait of Chinese scholar and official Lin Zexu.

(Commissioner Lin Zexu)

There are a number of themes that surface in the novel.  First the accumulation of silver controls world trade and therefore world power.  In a possible doffing of the cap to 2023 her silver argument can easily be substituted with today’s trade in “computer chips” to control world power.  Another theme centers around the cohort that Robin becomes part of.  The group is made up of four individuals from diverse cultures who develop a warm and caring relationship with each other providing intense emotional support when they faced dangerous situations.  The four were not traditional Babel types of students and were chosen because of their language skills reflecting the racism and misogyny of Oxford’s program.  There are disagreements, but in the end their friendship could not overcome the society each was raised in.

One of the more interesting observations that Kuang makes revolves around Lovell’s hatred for the Chinese people and China itself, and his admiration of Chinese culture leading to the accumulation of Chinese artifacts.  As Victoire points out, “there are people after all and then there are things.”

This is an exceptional novel that has its academic components (notes on many languages and footnotes are in large supply) but it evolves into an important story of friendship caught up in the Industrial Revolution and England trying to enhance its power world-wide by dominating international trade.  Kuang’s affinity for language produces a well written style that absorbs the reader and though there is this fantasy/sci fi element to the novel I enjoyed it greatly.

*For those interested in this historical topic I highly recommend Stephen R. Platt’s IMPERIAL TWILIGHT: THE OPIUM WAR AND THE END OF CHINA’S LAST GOLDEN AGE and an earlier publication by Hsin-pao Chang, COMMISSIONER LIN AND THE OPIUM WAR.

University College and Queen’s College, Oxford, 18th-century engraving © Bridgeman Images

(Oxford University, circa. 19th century)

ACT OF OBLIVION by Robert Harris

Oliver Cromwell

(Oliver Cromwell)

If one is looking for a volume that encompasses history with a touch of fiction to round out the storyline then Robert Harris is an author to be considered.  Of the many novels that Harris has written including a trilogy about the struggle for power in ancient Rome; FATHERLAND which raises the possibility of a deal between Adolf Hitler and President Joseph P. Kennedy in 1964; ARCHANGEL, which focuses on the northern Russian port that hides Joseph Stalin’s secrets; AN OFFICER AND A SPY, centers around the Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France; V2, spotlights the Nazi missile program during World War II; MUNICH which delves into the September, 1939 conference which took place at the height of Anglo-French appeasement before World War II; and my favorite, CONCLAVE concentrating on the Vatican machinations in electing a new Pope. 

Harris’ fifteenth and latest novel is his first foray set predominantly in America, ACT OF OBLIVION which begins in 1660 England where Colonel Edward Whalley and his son-in-law Colonel William Goffe flee England accused of being part of the plot that resulted in the execution of Charles I that marked the culmination of the English Civil War and the restoration of Charles II to the English throne.  As in all of his novels, Harris has the unique ability to blend historical figures with his own creations, developing absorbing plots that are counter factual at times, but also toes the historical line.  If you enjoy John Le Carrie, Alan Furst, Martin Cruz Smith, David Liss, Ken Follet or Len Deighton, Harris’ work will prove most satisfying as he possesses an uncanny knowledge of the historical period he chooses to develop for his stories based on sound research and character development. 

In his current effort Harris begins by introducing the reader to the general outline of the English Civil War in the 17th century that resulted in the beheading of Charles I on January 30, 1649, bringing to power Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector.  The trial of Charles I and his ultimate death brought about a written death warrant, the Act of Oblivion that was signed by 59 men, including members of Parliament, Cromwell’s New Modern Army, and important politicians of the period.  Two of the signees were Colonel Edward (Ned) Whalley and his son-in-law, Colonel William Goffe.  As the novel evolves 57 of the 59 were either captured and executed, died of natural causes, or committed suicide.  Whalley and Goffe are the two that remained alive after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660.  Enter Richard Naylor, one of the few made up characters in the story whose role throughout the novel is to hunt down any remaining regicides.

King Charles I, by Unknown artist - NPG 4516

King Charles I

The backdrop to the novel is religion and politics.  All the characters seem deeply religious, particularly Whalley and Goffe and those who would hide them from Naylor and the Privy Council.  Religion permeates the dialogue, politics, and emotions of the day as prayer, meeting houses, and conflict between Catholics and Puritans appear regularly as the story unfolds.  Whalley and Goffe escape England and leave their families in 1660 as they are about to be arrested.  This begins an odyssey that takes them across the Atlantic to Boston and into the Connecticut Valley hiding in Guilford, Hartford, and New Haven, Connecticut, and later Hadley, Massachusetts. 

Along the way Harris does a superb job developing characters such as John Davenport who led the New Haven colony and saw it as “God’s millennial kingdom;” Captain Thomas Breedon, a royalist, rich merchant; Sir George Downing, a chaplain in Cromwell’s army who turned out to be an English spy; John Ditwell, a member of parliament and judge at Charles I’s trial; Dan Gookin, lived near Harvard College and escorted Whalley and Goffe to America, and the Reverend John Russell, the leading political and religious figure in Hadley, Massachusetts.  There are many more characters, the most important being Naylor who takes on a role similar to Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, as his intrepid nature and personal tragedy leads him to follow Whalley and Goffe from England to the New England colonies, Dutch New Amsterdam, Holland, at first by himself and a few others, later to return with four men o’war.

Harris’ character portrayals allow the reader to feel they know these individuals and their thoughts.  Harris spares no detail in telling his story and he is able to fill in the historical gaps by employing Colonel Whalley as he writes his memoir that includes his family, but most importantly fighting for Cromwell in the English Civil War and the reign that followed.  Harris’ portrait seems based on the biography of Cromwell written by historian Antonia Fraser and is balanced and accurate.  As Harris develops these characters he displays the lack of scruples revealed by many self-appointed Puritan ministers, those who fought for Cromwell and switched to support the restoration of Charles II, Royalist and Roundhead spies and a host of others.

Over time as Naylor fails to bring the two remaining regicides to England, the Lord Chancellor, Sir Edward Hyde orders him to end his search and become his private secretary as the English people have moved on from capturing Whalley and Goffe.  From that point on Harris focuses on Whalley and Goffe’s lives and actions as they still must remain in hiding.

Harris has excellent command of historical events and movements.  He is able to weave the British seizure of New Amsterdam and the resulting Anglo-Dutch naval war, the return to plague to England in 1665, the Great London Fire of 1666, and King Philip’s War of 1774 into his story that enhances the legitimacy of Harris’ work.  Other aspects that opened this reader’s eyes was the detailed description of how the regicides were executed.  English barbarism is on full display as bodies were dismembered and some body parts were returned to families as a warning.  The battles of the English Civil War are carefully described highlighting Cromwell’s strategy and the roles of Whalley and Goffe.  Also important, is how Harris paints the difficulties faced by colonists who left England for America.  Harris follows them into the western interior and analyzes why they settled where they did, how they dealt with Native-Americans, their survival of brutal winters, and their ability to grow food and ultimately build settlements.

The Execution of Charles I of England

(The Execution of Charles I of England / Artist unknown, Wikimedia // Public Domain)

Harris has written a fast paced wonderfully detailed story of a modern manhunt that weaves between Restoration era London and pre-revolutionary New England.  Harris brings the past to life through the writing and dialogue of his characters and personal details such as scratchy wigs, rough leather boots, and the sparseness in which people lived.  To his credit Harris does not allow himself to become entrapped by Christian doctrine in his storytelling and concentrates on the simplicity of faith and the anti-monarchical feelings of characters who will find a natural home among the dissenters and Puritans in New England.  ACT OF OBLIVION is a wonderful novel about a divided nation whose people suffer from physical and emotional wounds caused by war.  As Alex Preston writes in his The Guardian review of August 30, 2022, Harris has authored an important novel in that it shows the power of forgiveness and the intolerable burden of long-held grudges.

Oliver Cromwell

(Oliver Cromwell)


Emperor Franz Joseph I, 1898 (b/w photo)

(Autro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)

At the turn of the 20th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire resembled a major power.  It had gone under major industrial changes in the previous decades, had a large standing army, and had reached a political compromise in 1867 that fostered the creation of the Dual Monarchy.  However, beneath the surface there were key issues that would contribute to its decline.  First, the empire consisted of eleven major ethno-language groups scattered across the empire: Germans, Hungarians, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovak, Slovene, Croatians, Serbs, Italians and Romanians, some loyal, but most with their own agendas particularly those of Slavic descent.  The military, though large, was partially a caste system with Austrian officers and soldiers from a diverse population.  The empire was split between an industrialized west and a rural east that produced a great deal of conflict. 

Leading this “house of cards” was Franz Joseph who came to the Austrian throne in 1848 and was a weak leader who deferred to others in decision-making.  After 1905 the empire was tied to Germany which nine years later would lead them into World War I and its final demise.  For some the history of the empire may seem boring, but through the use of historical fiction one can get an accurate portrait of Austro-Hungarian society, political upheavals, and an overall lack of unity.  Perhaps the best novel written that conveys the true nature of the empire was authored by Joseph Roth who has often been overlooked as a writer by Anglo-Saxon critics.  I came across the book, THE RADETZKY MARCH while visiting a Viennese bookstore a few years ago and learned it was considered a classic by many literary scholars with a story that follows the Slovenian Trotta dynasty through three generations emblematic of the fate of the empire itself.  The novel is about identity and belonging encompassing as Roth writes “those days before the Great War.”

(Author, Joseph Roth)

The genius of Roth’s work is his ability to capture the “bars, houses, railways, and dusty roads of Austria-Hungary through highly distinct individuals.”  Roth himself was a strong believer in the empire and made his living as a novelist and newspaper writer.  He produced sixteen novels, his best being THE RADETZKY MARCH.  When reading the book one major question struck me; how can the mundane existence of an officer in the pre-World War I Austro-Hungarian Empire be part of one of the greatest European novels of the 20th century?  After reading Roth’s work I know why.

The title itself is interesting.  The concept of the Radetzky March stems from Johann Strauss’ 1848 composition that celebrated the victory of Field Marshal Radetzky at the Battle of Custoza.  Along with the Blue Danube waltz, the piece became an unofficial Austrian national anthem.  In the novel it symbolizes the glory days of the decaying multinational empire.

The novel begins in 1859 at the Battle of Solferino, the last engagement of the second War of Italian Independence.  During the fighting the founder of the Trotta family, an infantry Lieutenant emerges as a hero for saving the life of the young Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph.  As a result of this display of bravery the wounded officer was elevated to the Order of Maria Theresa, and ennobled.  From that point on he was known as Captain Joseph Trotta of Sipolje, a Slovenian village.  Despite this honor Trotta found it difficult to adapt to his new station in life as he was now cut off from a lengthy line of his peasant ancestry.  From Roth’s description he became a competent officer, a good and loyal husband, and rejected all forms of ambition and pretense.  These attributes would dominate the Trotta dynasty in the future.

Roth applies humor, sarcasm, and insightful details into the psyche of each character.  A case in point is Joseph Trotta’s anger over his role in saving the Emperor as being inaccurate in its portrayal in children’s books.  He felt he was not the hero he was made out to be, and when he complained to the War Ministry, including the Emperor he was told to accept his portrayal whether accurate or not.  He would resign from the army, miss the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and accept a generous sum of money and a barony from the Emperor and return to working the soil, his chosen path in life.  He would go as far as discouraging his son Franz from a military career and study for a law degree instead.

Franz would go on to become a District Commissioner and his relationship with his son, Carl Joseph, would form a window into the decline of the Empire itself.  Carl Joseph’s relationship with his father is a convoluted one.  At first it appears to be founded on traditional Victorian values relating to father and son.  At times little communication or contact, but deep respect for each other persists.  As it evolves Carl Joseph becomes more autonomous and his father moves on from his duties as a parent, especially when his son contemplates leaving the army.  However, by the novels’ end they came to rely on each other for emotional support.

The Graben in the 1860s

(Vienna circa 1860-1866)

The conservative empire is exemplified by the relationship between Franz and Carl Joseph.  Strict observance, conformity, and lack of emotion would dominate their interactions throughout the novel until Carl Joseph’s crisis of conscience toward the end of the story.  In discussing this relationship Roth develops the most mundane details which in reality are signals that point to Austro-Hungarian society ranging from extra-marital affairs, the lack of letters between father and son, the portrait of Joseph Trotta that  dominates the District Commissioner’s home, to the ingredients of soup served each week at Sunday dinner. 

Roth develops a theme that subtly compares the differences in the different Trotta generations as it evolved from a conservative approach to society with all its proprieties and its ills to one of individualism and nationalism which would contribute to the weakening of the empire.  When Franz Joseph was a young Emperor and the District Commissioner’s father saved the monarch, a certain correctness was accepted by all.  In the most painful episode in the book highlighting accepted behavior, two young men are bound by the military code of honor to fight a duel to the death over an insulting remark as honor is everything in that hierarchal, monarchical world, resulting in the death of the two men.  Another stunning example of the importance of tradition occurs as officers learn of a rumor that Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated in Bosnia.  The news encroaches upon a gathering of officers and aristocrats who elect to continue their celebration rather than consider the implications of the news.  This provoked a split among the Austrian and Hungarian officers highlighted by comments by Lieutenant Charles Joseph that they should be ashamed of their actions in such circumstances.    As time progressed and the Great War was on the horizon, the younger generation exemplified by Carl Joseph sought greater freedoms and autonomy that the older generation had difficulty coming to grips with.   Carl Joseph, against his own wishes, is part of that world, but not a good fit for it.  The conformers who believe in the system and its perpetuation require stifling human feeling and the result is the rejection of any social change which Roth presents as the brush workers problem who want revolution if conditions of employment are not improved.  In fact, by the end of the novel Carl Joseph rejected tradition by engaging in affairs with the wives of compatriots, found himself in debt from gambling at a casino at his frontier post, and resigning from the army.

(Vienna, circa, 1900)

No matter the scene or situation Roth presents characters that always seem to relate to the Trotta dynasty and how they rose from their peasant background to a barony.  The characters that Roth develops are interesting and their fundamental place in the novel is how they affect Franz and Carl Joseph.  These individuals include, Dr. Max Demant, a Jew who hated the military who was a close friend of Carl Joseph who was unaware of the affair his wife had with the youngest Trotta.  Count Wojoiech Chojnicki, a Trotta family friend who believed the Austro-Hungarian monarchy had already fallen apart.  Frau Valerie von Taussig, a former beauty who ages gracefully and was romantically involved with the younger Carl Joseph.  “Old Jacque,” Franz’s manservant who served for decades as a slave and confidant.  Dr. Skovonnek, Franz’ everyday chess partner. Professor Moser, a poor artist who painted the portrait of Joseph Trotta and the Emperor who were Franz’s closest friends.

Roth’s description of the aging Franz Joseph is marvelous.  It delves deeply into the Emperor’s mindset, particularly in old age as he insists on participating and observing army maneuvers at the Russian border where Carl Joseph is posted.  Roth’s wording is precise as we witness an old man trying to evaluate his life’s work.  Commentary related to church services are indicative of Roth’s thought process and its application to the Emperor; “He had the feelings of having to pull himself together in God’s presence, as before some superior, and he was already so old!  He could have made it a little easier for me!  Thought the Emperor.  But God is even older than I am, and his ways are just as mysterious to me as maybe to all the men in my army.”

Roth loved the empire and its stagnating military.  The condition of the military is brought out by Carl Joseph’s posting to the Russian border and that and the overall plight of the empire becomes a tragedy in Roth’s mind because he believes that something could have been done to avoid the cataclysm that was approaching and in the end would result in the dissolution of the empire at Versailles.

Roth has authored a novel of the life of an officer in the Austro-Hungarian empire that must have been boring.  But it is the virtue of Roth’s style that boredom becomes interesting as a spiritual state.  It is this state that has a nostalgic charm of its own and the novel itself explains much about Europe’s past which would succumb to the battlefields of World War I.

File:Portrait of Emperor Franz Joseph in Ljubljana.JPG

(Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph)

ETERNAL by Lisa Scottoline

Italy remembers the Nazi raid on the Rome Ghetto
(Memorial to former residents of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto)

Lisa Scottoline has written over 30 novels most of which are legal thrillers.  She decided to change her approach and investigate the Italian Holocaust because while in graduate school she had taken a course from Philip Roth on the literature of the Holocaust and was an avid reader of Primo Levi, the Italian Elie Wiesel.  In her latest effort she branches out to historical fiction  where she continues to deal with issues of family, justice, and honor but in a different format.  Her new novel, EITERNAL is set in Italy beginning in 1937 and follows a group of teenagers who are living a simple life until European politics and war engulf them.  Scottoline examines friendship and love and what they mean to her characters who must mature quickly as war overtakes their lives.

Scottoline begins by introducing one of her main characters Elisabetta D’afeo whose youth was encompassed by the regime of Benito Mussolini wondering how after twenty years she is finally going to tell her son who his father really was.  Scottoline immediately turns to May 1937 in Rome and focuses on the friendship triangle embodied in three teenagers; Elisabetta, who aspires to be a writer, works in the Casa Servano restaurant, caring for her alcoholic father and wrestles with the fact her mother has abandoned her.  Next we meet Marco Terrizzi, a young man who joins the local fascist party and disagrees with his father who fought in World War I and his brother, a priest over the course of Italian politics.  Lastly, we meet Sandro Simone, a brilliant Jewish mathematician, whose father becomes obsessed with helping fellow Jews acquire exemptions when the government begins to pass racial laws that destroy the lives of Italian Jews.

Rome marks 1943 bombing of S. Lorenzo
(Allied bombing of San Lorenzo/Rome, October, 1943)

The three are close friends and a love triangle emerges as both Marco and Sandro fall in love with Elisabetta, a tomboyish girl they have known all their lives.  The first half of the novel revolves around this love triangle but once war commences all three find their lives turned upside down.  Religion, personal loyalty, relationships, and the pressure of racial laws and the war dominate the novel.

Scottoline develops the love triangle very carefully until it is undone by Mussolini’s racial laws.  Each family is affected by its contents particularly those who had been loyal fascists and even fought in World War I.  The story evolves in conjunction with the layering of racial laws by the Fascist government which are proclaimed over a few months.  Scottoline is meticulous in her  command of history and scenes are well thought out as she applies events, documents, and the beliefs of her characters which she integrates into her novel.  Examples of historical accuracy abound.  Aside from the development of racial laws, her recounting of the allied bombing of the San Lorenzo section of Rome in July 1943 and its impact that led to the overthrow of Mussolini is carefully presented while at the same time reflect how her characters react to the bombing which sets the stage for the last third of the novel.

Scottoline develops wonderful characters apart from Marco, Sandro, and Elisabetta.  A prime example is Sandro’s father, Massimo.  Once a successful tax lawyer he becomes the conduit for many Jews to obtain exemptions from the increasingly intrusive racial laws promulgated by the Italian government.  Massimo is a member of the Fascist Party and fought in World War I and can not understand why his family is denied an exemption because of his background.  Another is Nonna, a wonderful woman who owns the restaurant that Elisabetta works in.  When the young girl is left alone by her family she moves in with Nonna who becomes her surrogate mother, and she in turn becomes Nonna’s surrogate daughter.  There are numerous other characters which the author lists at the beginning of the book which makes it easier for the reader to keep up with as they are introduced and become major players in the novel.

The story develops slowly on a number of levels.  First, Marco whose job with the Fascist Party separates him from his closest friend because of the racial laws which he finds appalling because of its effect on Sandro’s family.  Second, Elisabetta, after severing her relationship with Marco and is turned away by Sandro, turns to authoring her novel as a means of healing.  Finally, Sandro, devastated by the racial laws accepts his plight and teaches math to children at the synagogue as part of his solace.

The book is a well written and an accomplished historical novel that is steeped in period detail and full of relatable characters and is a welcome addition to the ever expanding list of new historical novels dealing with World War II, and in this case focusing on Italy.  The concept of blind faith is severely tested throughout be it a loving relationship or loyalty to a growing anti-Semitic regime that has led Italy into a disastrous war denying people their livelihoods and for some their total existence. 

(San Lorenzo 75 years after the war)

Scottoline focuses on the personal journeys of her characters.  Two stand out, Marco and his father Beppe.  The two become estranged over a series of issues but they will come back to each other.  What made it difficult was Beppe’s World War I experience and his belief in fascism.  His son Marco, also a committed fascist loved Mussolini and his country which his father warned him about before the war.  Once Italy surrenders and the Nazis seize Rome father and son join each other in the resistance.

Scottoline does a superb job of ramping up suspense as she delivers a slow-build up as she traces the October 1943 Nazi roundup of Rome’s Jewish ghetto and its impact on her characters that culminates in scenes where Jews are being shipped from a transit camp to their deaths in Auschwitz.  Scottoline offers many poignant scenes, many of which culminate in disaster.  Scottoline’s success in achieving such a wonderful novel leads this reader to hope that her foray into historical fiction will continue.

(Rome’s former Jewish Ghetto)

ASHTON HALL by Lauren Belfer

The Parterre Garden at Blickling Estate, Norfolk. Blickling is a turreted red-brick Jacobean mansion, sitting within beautiful gardens and parkland.
(Bickling Hall, York, United Kingdom)

From the outset I must point out that Lauren Belfer is one of my favorite authors.  That opinion is predicated on a series of wonderful historical novels that she has written since 2003.  The first, CITY OF LIGHT, Belfer a New York Times bestselling author delves into turn of the century Buffalo, NY and evidence of a murder tied to the city’s cathedral-like power plant at nearby Niagara Falls.  She then authored the NPR Mystery of the Year, A FIERCE RADIANCE, a story centered around the uncertain days following Pearl Harbor, and the clinical testing of a new medication at the renowned Rockefeller Institute in New York. Belfer  follows with perhaps her finest work, AND AFTER THE FIRE: A NOVEL a story inspired by historical events—about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.  In her latest effort, ASHTON HALL Belfer pursues a different approach as for the first time her novel takes place in the present and does not focus totally on the past.  She still creates a strong evocative story which focuses on Hannah Larson, a frustrated academic who decides to leave New York City as she is dealing with a problematic marriage and takes her nine year old son, Nicky to Cambridge, England for a summer at a historic manor house.  She will soon be exposed to a discovery that will alter her life – her son Nicky finds the skeletal remains of a woman walled into a forgotten part of the manor.

An image posted by the author.
(Lauren Belfer)

Hannah had been working on her Ph. D in Greek art when her son Nicky was born.  She decided to put off her graduate education and take care of her son full time and relied on her husband, Kevin for support.  As Nicky grew he developed certain emotional and behavioral issues that seem to border on autism, but in the novel it is labeled “neurodiversity in children.”  Nicky is prone to violent and angry episodes at times which he cannot control.  Hannah is at a crossroads.  She wants to complete her dissertation, provide a new experience for her son, and after learning that her husband is bi-sexual decide what to do about her marriage – the offer to stay with her uncle Christopher who is dying of cancer at Ashton Hall seems like a fortuitous opportunity to recalibrate and experience the life she thought she should have, not the one she was living.

Once she arrives and gets settled at the mansion Nicky makes the skeletal discovery and the focus of the novel shifts.  Belfer has constructed a story that runs on parallel tracks.  First, we have Hannah’s personal quest to change her life’s path.  In conversations between characters, we learn a great deal about Hannah.  She comes from a family that survived the Holocaust with a self-willed and independent mother with no father to speak of.  Nicky becomes the core of her existence, but she is trying to ameliorate her situation by turning to her past to rekindle a new avocation.  Second, Belfer uses the discovery of the skeletal remains to pursue another story line and a historical character that Hannah can relate to and to whom she will develop a deep attachment.  Third, she begins to develop a relationship with Professor Matthew Varet, a Cambridge University archeologist who is assisting in trying to identify who the skeleton was and in what time period.

The model for Ashton Hall was Bickling Hall in York, England, a national trust historical mansion.  Legend holds that Anne Boleyn was born at the site and each year she haunts the estate on the anniversary of her execution.  Years ago, Belfer had visited the mansion and stayed at a nearby cottage and after years of deliberation decided to use it as a model for her current work.

Ashton Hall

Belfer carefully unravels the research process that will identify the skeleton as Isabella Cresham who lived in the latter part of the 16th century.  Hannah identifies with Isabella in a number of ways, and it seems the two women are linked across the centuries.  By going through the books Cresham has read in the mansion’s library Hannah learns of their mutual interest in art and from genetic testing she learns that the woman is between 35-45 years old, is physically healthy, is of a high social class, has reddish hair and never gave birth to a child.  Hannah is clearly haunted by the discovery of Cresham, and she sees parallels between their lives with a nagging question: did Cresham choose this life, or was she locked away?   The undercurrent for the Cresham discovery was the reappearance of plague, and the religious conflict between Protestantism and Catholicism in England during her lifetime, a theme that continues to reappear throughout the novel, and evidence that points to Cresham’s devotion to Catholicism.  Intolerance, murder, death, and violence, characteristic of Elizabethan England has similarities for Hannah because of her families’ experiences during World War II.

The physical structure of Ashton Hall is on full display with moats and priest holes along with the architecture  of the castle.  Different personages from the period, i.e., Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VII, and VIII among a number of historical personalities appear.  Belfer employs account registers, library records and key 16th century documents to provide Professor Varet and his academic partner, Dr. Martha Tingley’s tools research in reconstructing Cresham’s life.  Belfer writes with a light touch and digs up fascinating details of the period.  For example, the role of mothers in 16th century England included that of a medical practitioner applying various herbal remedies.  For instance, during his reign Henry VIII suffered from gout and used the homeopathic remedy, colchicum, a remedy that is still used today by homeopathic practitioners and some MDs.

ASHTON HALL is a well crafted novel and draws the reader into the story in a slow careful manner.  Though Belfer’s approach may be different from previous novels, in the end it is a success as one is drawn into the two parallel lives.  The story abounds with comparisons of what it is to be British, and what it is to be American.  The differences and similarities are interesting and point to Belfer’s astute observations. In the end, if you fancy Tudor England, historical fiction, the history pertaining to libraries, and a story that is a struggle for self-identity and discovery you should enjoy the story.

Blickling Hall in Norfolk


William Ryan burst on the literary scene in 2010 with debut novel, THE HOLY THIEF, the first of his Captain Alexi Korolev trilogy that takes place during the 1930s Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union.  His second and third volumes in the trifecta, THE BLOODY MEADOW and THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT set Ryan apart from other historical crime writers as he continued to navigate the justice system under Stalin.  THE CONSTANT SOLDIER is a departure for Ryan as it is a standalone novel that begins with his protagonist, Paul Brandt, a Wehrmacht soldier, wounded on the eastern front experiencing flashbacks on a hospital train bound for Hamburg.  Brandt slips into unconsciousness taking him back to his relationship with his mother, and a young woman named Judith who has disappeared, for which he blames himself.

Ryan easily catches the attention of the reader with an absorbing story of a man who suffered severe injuries and wondered what he could do with the rest of his life.  The time period is late 1944 and early 1945 in the Upper Silesia part of Poland that had been under Nazi occupation since 1939.  However, as the novel unfolds Russian troops and tanks are making their way west endangering any Germans in their path.  Brandt returns home to the family farm and notices an emaciated young woman who is being held prisoner at an SS “Rest Hut” near the farm.  He is convinced that the woman is Judith, whose real name is Agneta Gruber who Brandt last saw her before the war broke out when they were arrested for anti-Nazi activity in Vienna.  Given the choice of death in prison or the army, Brandt enlisted in the Wehrmacht, but retained a guilt that he had abandoned Agneta years before.

(Russian T-34 Tank during WWII)

The physically debilitated Brandt, against the wishes of his family decides to accept a job at the Rest Hut as it’s steward as a means of trying to rescue Agneta and four other woman as the SS had begun murdering their prisoners.  Ryan creates the backstory of the relationship between Brandt and Agneta and Brandt’s obsession with saving her and assuaging his guilt.  The remorse Brandt feels goes beyond his relationship with a woman he still loves to righting the many wrongs he committed on the eastern front as a soldier.

Once Ryan introduces the suicide of an SS officer named Schmidt the novel begins to branch out from the single track of Brandt’s hopes for saving the woman to the Holocaust.  It seems his commander Obersturmfuhrer Friedrich Neumann orders Brandt to destroy Schmidt’s diary and other possessions which delineates what the SS has done on the eastern front murdering Jews.  Ryan manages the Holocaust with subtlety as he does not become involved in descriptions of mass murder, but he provides a number of hints concerning the horrors that have occurred.  For example, Neumann’s comment that he did not want to remain in Kiev and sought his transfer to Upper Silesia.  He like everyone knew what was occurring as he stated, “he hadn’t planned to become a murderer, he didn’t think.  It just turned out that way.”

Ryan does an excellent job juxtaposing a comparison of Brandt’s and Neumann’s beliefs and attitude toward the war, what they witnessed, and been involved in.  Both men develop doubts and disgust at themselves as they pondered their future.  They realize the Russians are not far away when Ryan introduces a third track to the novel through the character of Polya Kolanka, a female T-34 tank driver, one of the few in the Russian military.  We follow her quest to reach Germany and her experiences as the Soviet Union is about to overrun the Germans. 

Homeless refugee women and children, Russia, 1941.
(Refugees fleeing Russians at the end of World War II)

As Ryan’s plot evolves Brandt must navigate between a number of interesting characters.  There is Mayor Weber, a drunk with power who distrusts Brandt and has no compunction about killing.  Second in importance is the sadistic Scharfuhrer Peichl who reveled in beating prisoners.  Hubert, a partisan fighter in the forest who is in love with Brandt’s sister Monika.  Lastly, the four woman who are imprisoned with Agneta.

Ryan has authored a taut novel that expresses the dilemmas faced by Germans and Russians as the war winds down.  The reader wonders what will become of Brandt and whether he will be able to save the woman he loves, among others.  The novel is well written and follows the facts of World War II to a tee.  The novel is in part based on the experiences of Karl Hocker, an adjutant to the last Commandant of Auschwitz and he incorporates photographic documentation created by Hocker that had disappeared until 2005.  Many of the pictures were taken at a rest hut near a small village called Porabka, about twenty kilometers from Auschwitz.  Ryan uses this factual information to recreate a fictional account of an SS Rest Hut and introduces characters that reflect the hazards and emotions that their situation has fostered.

THE CONSTANT SOLDIER is an excellent read and I look forward to his latest standalone novel, WINTER GUEST which will be released this October.

DECEMBER ’41 by William Martin

Roosevelt and family in front of the Saint Croix Christmas tree in 1941.
(The Roosevelt family, Christmas, 1941)

For those  who are familiar with the works of William Martin you have come to appreciate his Peter Fallon mysteries.  Novels such as HARVARD YARD, THE LINCOLN LETTER, CITY OF DREAMS, THE LOST CONSTITUTION, and BOUND FOR GLORY are structured with two alternating time periods, one dating back a century or two to our contemporary world reaching climaxes when the two came together.  Martin’s focus in other novels rests on the traditional chronological approach of historical fiction that includes; ANNAPOLIS, BACK BAY, CAPE COD, and CITIZEN WASHINGTON.  After a ten year hiatus from his last novel, Martin has authored DECEMBER ’41 a supercharged work that adopts the traditional chronological timeline which develops a plot that was designed to culminate in the assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Christmas Eve, 1941 shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and a surprise visit of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The novel itself has elements of detective mysteries from the 1930s and 40s with dialogue, scenes, and characters from that time period.  Martin blends this approach with commentary about race, ethnicity, misogyny, and the role of the United States in the world.  In a way Martin has taken a page from Philip Roth’s novel, THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA raising the same issues but his effort is about defeating Roosevelt through assassination, while Roth focused on replacing Roosevelt with Charles Lindbergh in the White House.

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt sit in the White House in 1941
(Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt sit in the White House in 1941)

Martin begins the novel as Roosevelt is addressing Congress with his “a date which will live in infamy speech” as the American people hung on every word from coast to coast.  At the same time at a shooting range in a Los Angeles County canyon a group of Nazi sympathizers and spies engaged in target practice, one of which had plans to kill President Roosevelt.

Martin has created a scenario that at the time was not out of the realm of possibility, particularly after Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States on December 11, 1941.  Martin develops three main characters; Kevin Cusack, a script reader at Warner Brother studios, Martin Browning, a virulent supporter of Nazi Germany and an American citizen, and Frank Carter, an FBI agent stationed in Los Angeles.  The three characters evolve slowly and by the end of the novel they will all come together.  Along the way there are a series of other personalities that play important roles.  Vivian Hopewell, a starry eyed Marlene Dietrich look alike; Stella Madden, a hard nosed female detective; Madden’s flamboyant assistant, Bartholomew Bennet; Stanley Smith, a Pullman porter on a cross country train; Emile Gunst, a member of the German Bund who imports German ceramics; Helen and Wilhelm Stauer, Browning’s co-conspirators, and a host of other savory and unsavory characters.

Image 1 - Santa Fe Railroad 1940 Super Chief Vintage Poster Print Retro Style B&W Art

The texture of the time period is front and center.  The reader is provided glimpses into the Hollywood culture of the 1940s with cameos from John Wayne, John Huston, Hal Wallis, Humphrey Bogart, Erol Flynn, constant references to Leslie Howard, and what it took for a female to achieve stardom. 

Martin also delves into topics which are still germane today and compares them to earlier examples in American history.  For example, when discussing the inferior quality of American leadership, he points to Warren G. Harding.  His approach to the world balance of power fosters a debate as to which is the greater threat, Communism or Nazism.  The antisemitism of the period, the America Firsters, the KKK, and the Nazi ideology espoused by certain individuals is a dominant theme.  In discussing the interaction between diverse characters, American racism comes to the fore particularly the role of porters on American railroads and trains with nicknames like “Super Chief.” In summary, the first half of the novel is not up to Martin’s usual standards in developing his plot.  However, once a number of characters board a train from Los Angeles to the east coast the novel begins to gather steam.  The question is has Martin written a storyline that is feasible, the answer is yes, but has he branched out and produced an approach that is new, the answer is no.  In the end the novel is an easy read, but it is not as absorbing as his other efforts.  When I picked up a William Martin novel I had great expectations.  I anticipated something that was in the realm of previous Martin efforts, Ken Follett or Frederick Forsyth.   However, the current work left me somewhat disappointed.   Despite some exciting and heart pounding scenes, overall, it left me hoping for a plot that was more engaging with greater depth.

President Roosevelt family photo. Courtesy the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.

GREY BEES by Andrey Kurkov

Ukrainian frontline in Donbass
(A Ukrainian soldier in the Donbas region)

On May 9, 2022, Vladimir Putin stood in Red Square and celebrated the Russian victory over Nazi Germany.  As he spoke the “Special Military Operation” he unleashed on February 24th grinds on with a death toll estimated at 26,000 for Russia and god knows how many Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, assuredly in the thousands.  The war, a term which is illegal in Russia took a turn last month when Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region as Moscow decided to cut its losses in the west and concentrate its firepower in the east, particularly in the Donbas region made up of Luhansk and Donetsk two areas that have been at war with the Ukrainian government since Moscow annexed the Crimea in 2014.

For the people living in the region who did not leave for Russia or safer parts of Ukraine, war has become an almost accepted part of their daily lives.  Today the fighting has been brutal and mirrors the type of conventional battles that ground up thousands upon thousands of soldiers during World War II.  Success for either side on the battlefield has been slow as Russia launches its missiles and artillery and Ukrainian forces try to stall the Russian advance and in certain areas retake villages from Russian troops.  The people who are caught in this morass between the Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk live in what is referred to as the “grey zone.”  No one knows exactly how many people remain in the area, but for those who have stayed the chief aim is survival.  To ascertain what life is like for the residents of the eastern region, Ukrainian novelist, Andrey Kurkov has authored a haunting book entitled GREY BEES, a story about a disabled pensioner and devoted beekeeper – “one of the people of the Donbas.”

PHOTO: donbas region in ukraine

Kurkov’s protagonist is named Sergey Sergeyich who travels to Crimea where he hopes to arrange a holiday for his bees.  Instead, his trip south turns into an ordeal as he witnesses the poor treatment of the Crimean Tatars by Russian authorities.  Sergey tries to maintain neutrality between the two sides, but he develops sympathy for the Muslims and his beliefs create suspicion on the part of the Russian security service – the FSB, which is also a threat to his beloved bees.

The first part of the novel is devoted to Sergey’s life of isolation in the tiny village of Starhorodivka located in the grey zone between Ukrainian and Separatist soldiers.  Sergey’s life is one of repetition, boredom, and survival.  With no electricity and limited access to food his focus is clear – avoid snipers and travel only at night.  The only other person who lives in the village is his “frenemy,” Pashka Khmelenko who seems pro-Separatist/Russia.  Their relationship goes back to childhood and was never strong, but the situation they find themselves in draws them closer.

Sergey was married with a daughter, but after a series of disagreements his wife left taking their child with her.  Sergey had been a mine inspector before the war, but by age forty-two he retired on disability with silicosis.  Sergey’s outlook on life is clear, he must maintain his health as best he can for the sake of the bees.  If he should pass away the bees would perish – he refuses to allow himself to “become the annihilator of hundreds of thousands of bee souls.”  He believed such a sin would burden him through his afterlife.  Sergey is firmly neutral in terms of political affiliation during the war – he only cares about his bees and worries what might occur to his society of beekeepers if Donetsk were to become independent since there was no society of beekeepers in that region.

Map showing areas of Ukraine currently under Russian control

The novel provides a window into the horror of what life is like in eastern Ukraine.  The dominant emotion is how to deal with the silence between bombardments.  Military silence which is not really silence becomes the norm as the shelling can come at any time – it becomes the accepted mode of existence for people in the region.  Kurkov describes a grey area that had been consumed by mining, but Sergey looks forward to spring, whenever it arrives as it brings the beauty of nature that offsets the calamity of destructive warfare.

The second part of the novel evolves as increased shelling begins to disturb the hives, so Sergey loads up his bees in his Lada and travels from town to town finally reaching Crimea.  As the story progresses Sergey finds it difficult to remain neutral as he sees how the Russian soldiers treat his beekeeper comrade, a Crimean Tartar named Akhtem and his family.  Sergey’s commentary is enlightening as he compares the behavior of his bees with behavior during the Soviet period and wonders why his bees are acting like humans.

For the author, “civil society” could learn a great deal from Sergey’s bees.  In addition, Kurkov’s story and dialogue point to the timelessness of war.  For Sergey and others, telling time serves no purpose, only the seasons matter. 

During his journey to Crimea, time is of the essence as Russian authorities will only grant him a ninety day pass.  As he travels on, Sergey meets a number of people that will influence his journey and alter his perceptions of the human condition.  Gayla, a woman who operates a food store, wants him to stay with her.  Aisylu, the widow of his bee colleague, Akhtem provides food and emotional support.  Lastly, a series of Russian officials who seem to enjoy creating obstacles for Sergey.  In all instances the reader will acquire insights into life in Crimea and the Grey Zone and how Putin and his minions inflict tremendous psychological and physical damage on its inhabitants.

(Andrey Kurkov, author)

In a novel that professes neutrality the portrayal of Russian characters comes off according to Jennifer Wilson in her March 29, 2022, New York Times  book review “as eerily cold, almost monstrous – snipers, cops, Putin apologists – as the actions of the Russian government were in some ways reflective of a deeper national character.  It recalls Kurkov’s professed view of Russian and Ukrainian people as fundamentally different, each with a unique ‘mentality.’ As Putin tries to justify his occupation on the grounds of a shared history, there is indeed a strong current within Ukraine’s intelligentsia toward highlighting what makes the cultures and literary traditions distinct. Any suggestion of syncretism or co-influence feels tantamount to treason.”

The Dublin Literary Award states that Grey Bees is as timely as the author’s Ukraine Diaries were in 2014 but treats the unfolding crisis in a more imaginative way, with a pinch of Kurkov’s signature humor. Who better than Ukraine’s most famous novelist to illuminate and present a balanced portrait of this most bewildering of modern conflicts.

PHOTO: A Ukrainian Serviceman monitors the possible movement of the separatist forces at a frontline position held by Ukraine's 503rd Detached Marine Battalion on Feb. 7, 2022, near Verkhnotoretske, Ukraine.
(A Ukrainian soldier in the Donbas region)


(Lyudmila Pavlichenko)

The preparation and presentation of good historical fiction is an art form.  The ability to engage in the necessary research and apply what is uncovered in a fictional format that represents accurate history is a challenge.  Blending the lives of historical figures with fictional ones can create fascinating stories that should absorb the reader’s attention.  One of the most important practitioners of this art is Kate Quinn whose previous historical novels include; THE ALICE NETWORK, THE HUNTRESS,  AND THE ROSE CODE all of which have attracted a wide audience and critical acclaim.  Her latest effort, THE DIAMOND EYE will surely gain the same notoriety and praise as her previous work.

The central character in THE DIAMOND EYE is Lyudmila Pavlichenko (Mila) who during World War II transformed herself from a studious girl who loved history into a deadly sniper whose nickname was “lady death.”  Quinn is able to take her remarkable story and develop it into an amazing novel that reflects heroism and the transformation of her subject from motherhood to becoming a soldier.

The question that overlays Quinn’s novel is how a library researcher, a graduate student, an aspiring historian, and mother becomes a deadly sniper?  Along with providing the answer to this query, Quinn develops Mila’s character and sense of self very slowly.  Her growth and confidence carefully evolve as she masters the intricacies of science, weather, logistics, and math that are a part of each shot a sniper must consider. 

Eleanor Roosevelt
(Eleanor Roosevelt)

An important dynamic in the novel is how Mila finally stands up to her husband Alexei who she married at fifteen, got pregnant, and raises her son Slavka.  Alexei wants no part of his family and abandons them to reappear as a surgeon on the southern front in the great patriotic war against the Nazis.  Mila will fall in love with her commanding officer Alexei (Lyonya) Kitsenko and believes they will have a wonderful life should they survive the war.

Along her journey Mila must overcome a number of fears and obstacles.  First, as the only woman sniper in a company of men she fears being raped.  Second, most officers believe that women should not be soldiers, less so a sniper.  Third, she misses her son Slavka who is being raised by her parents.  Fourth, dealing with an obnoxious, misogynistic husband who will not easily grant her a divorce.  Lastly, overcoming her fear and then acceptance of death, including her own.  As the novel progresses these issues all come to the fore.

Quinn has created a dual plotline as she develops her story.  From the outset Quinn strongly hints that her story is more than just recounting the life of a woman sniper with over 300 kills.  As Mila’s reputation proceeds her, against her will, the Soviet propaganda machine sees her story as an opportunity to foster publicity for the war effort particularly as it relates to the disposition of the Russian people and how they are perceived by the United States.  In 1942 Mila will be dispatched from the fighting in Sevastopol to the United States where she will meet  Eleanor Roosevelt, a character Quinn makes excellent use of with her diary commentary about the war and her husband. The trip has its highs and lows, as Mila unexpectedly develops a friendship with Eleanor and tries to influence American policy.   

The Eastern Front exacted a terrible toll on the German Army and Hitler’s refusal to abandon the Crimea needlessly cost Germany countless troops.

While in Washington it seems that a “Marksman” is following Mila who he hopes to scapegoat as an assassin of President Roosevelt.  The “Marksman” will conduct the deed and arrange a scenario for Mila to be blamed thereby ruining the allied alliance and removing a president that isolationists and conservatives abhor.

As in all her novels Quinn’s writing is spot on and is able to humanize Mila by showing how she and Kostia, her sniper partner use humor, along with a healthy amount of vodka to cope with their risk-taking to survive in the hostile environment of warfare.  Her relationship with Kostia is extremely important as are Quinn’s insights into the training, preparation, and implementation of the tasks that are the raison detre of being a sniper.

Quinn integrates a number of characters of which the members of her sniper command stand out, particularly Vartanov, an old ranger from Crimea who could move through trees likea ghost who Mila comes across and will join her group despite his age.  He is an asset because of his knowledge of the terrain, and he is “dead on” shot.  Olena Ivanova Paily also stands out as the nurse who befriends Mila and treats her in a field hospital after she is wounded twice and encourages her to pursue a life apart from killing Nazis.

Kate Quinn is a superb storyteller, and she perfectly captures Mila’s spirit and personality both on and off the battlefield. Quinn provides an important chapter entitled “Author’s Note” at the end of the book that provides a great deal of insight and information regarding Mila and how she structures her novel.  This is an important book especially since the fighting takes place in the Ukraine, Crimea to be exact, and shows like today how civilians with no military experience can make a difference in combat.

lyudmila pavlichenko

(Lyudmila Pavlichenko)


Image 1 - 1946 Studebaker Coupe Auto Car Ad Refrigerator / Tool Box Magnet

After creating two the national bestsellers, RULES OF CIVILITY and A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, Amor Towles has now offered his third novel, THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY which has also received praise from many quarters.  The book approaches a ten day period in June 1954 involving four major characters as their journey culminates in New York City.  The story is told from multiple points of view, which has become a staple in Towles’ novels.  The story begins with Warden Williams returning Emmett Watson to his home Morgen, Nebraska after serving an eighteen month sentence at the Salina, Kansas youth home for manslaughter.  After Watson has been delivered to his house he discovers that two inmates from the farm, Woolly Walcott Martin and Daniel (Duchess) Hewett have hidden in the warden’s trunk as a means of escaping the farm.  These three characters along with Emmett’s brother Billy are the vehicle from which the stories embedded in the novel are told.

After their farm is foreclosed upon following the death of their father, Emmett and Billy decide to head to California to try and locate their mother who had abandoned them a decade ago.  Their plans change when Duchess and Woolly abscond with Emmett’s Studebaker and travel to New York.  The novel builds on this framework developing many interesting situations and characters highlighted by Towles approach to life and the foibles of people. 

The Lincoln Highway map from the book

Towles does a superb job framing scenes and is a master of dialogue be it a discussion of Kazantis the escape artist or the philosophical approach to life of Ulysses Dixon, “a large negro” who will save Billy’s life while traveling on a freight train.  Towles creates delightful characters that will capture the reader’s attention throughout the novel.  For example, Emmett’s search for cereal in the General Mills freight car that he and Billy had stolen a ride on to catch up to Duchess and reclaim the Studebaker.  It is on that freight car that Pastor John appears who informs Billy that he is a real pastor “like my namesake John the Baptist, my church is the open road and my congregation the common man” that things will become interesting.

Of all the characters that Towles creates, Ulysses is the most interesting. Ulysses’ story is a sad one as he volunteered for military service in 1943 against the wishes of his wife who was pregnant and when he returns following the war they are nowhere to be found.  Ulysses punishes himself by living in a homeless community under a bridge in New York City and traveling the country using freight trains as a means of transportation.  Towles use of Homer’s THE ILIAD is a remarkable tool to gain insight into Dixon’s life and what the outcome of his journey might turn out to be.

As Towles tells his story through the lens of the four main characters and a few ancillary ones the reader gains diverse perspectives about the same scenes and events and provides a greater understanding of human nature than focusing on only one perspective.  Towles is a marvelous storyteller with a keen eye concerning human relations and their attitude towards life’s vicissitudes.  Towles integrates a number of unusual analogies, for example, comparing the Salina youth farm with Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO among many others.

Towles provides an accurate view of the 1950s through the landscape of the Lincoln Highway which connects Times Square in New York to San Francisco.  As Towles characters travel across America underlying themes of ant-communism, anti-Semitism, racism, and socio-economic inequality come to the fore.  Towles eye for detail is astonishing as he explores American culture employing diverse examples including; a Coup Deville, a Playtex bra, cans of Chef Boy-Ardie, television programs from Dragnet to the Long Ranger and others too numerous to mention.

The novel revolves around Emmett’s search for Duchess and their coming together in New York. The travail’s they experience, include Woolly and Billy, along with the family baggage they carry around.  The adventures that emerge are entertaining, thoughtful, and easily maintain the reader’s attention.  The commentary offered by Emmett, Duchess, Woolly, and Billy stand out in terms pathos, empathy, humor, and the serious nature of the lives they are living.  Towles use of Professor Abacus Abernathe’s COMPENDIUM OF HEROES, ADVENTURES, AND OTHER INTREPID TRAVELERS, a red book carried by Billy everywhere describing 26 heroes from Achilles to Zorro is an excellent source to present past history and how it affects the present.  Towles scenes where Billy meets the professor is unusual, and extremely important.

Times Square 

One of the many strengths of THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY is Towles knack of introducing new characters then delving into their personal stories.  Through their recounting we learn a great deal about America ranging from life in an orphanage in Nebraska, a youth facility in Kansas, Harlem neighborhoods, Manhattan to the Adirondacks. Towles has produced a sweeping book that is as much about literary history of the road novel as it is about one engaging journey.

Chris Bachelder is dead on in his November 7, 2021, New York Times  book review when he writes; At 600 pages, “The Lincoln Highway” is remarkably brisk, remarkably buoyant. Though dark shadows fall across its final chapters, the book is permeated with light, wit, youth. Many novels this size are telescopes, but this big book is a microscope, focused on a small sample of a vast whole. Towles has snipped off a minuscule strand of existence — 10 wayward days — and when we look through his lens we see that this brief interstice teems with stories, grand as legends.