Remember that World War II kick I told y’all I was on? Well, the kick has extended back to World War I, mostly so I can gain a better understanding of World War II. This Ken Follett series is giving me that and more, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment from reading it (even though I’ve only finished the first book so far).
Book 1: Fall of Giants
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: These nonfiction things are MUCH more interesting and easier to understand when some fiction is happening simultaneously. All the main characters/stories in this 1,000-page novel are fictional, but they exist in conjunction with what really happened back then. (I am absolutely AMAZED at how much research must go into something like this.)
So we’ve got Billy Williams, a teenage boy in a Welsh coal mining community; Ethel Williams, his sister and a new servant at the regal Ty Gwyn estate; Earl Fitzherbert, owner of said estate and a true British aristocrat; Maud Fitzherbert, the Earl’s modern, connected and outspoken sister; Walter von Ulrich, a German nobleman who becomes quite friendly with the Fizherberts before and after the war; and Grigori and Lev Peshkov, Russian brothers and factory workers who are complete opposites in every way. Everyone’s story is told separately at first, then little by little they each start to weave together in the most incredible ways.
Billy’s story is a coming-of-age thing that takes him from getting hazed while mining to realizing how screwed up the world is while serving his country. Ethel’s story is that of a lower-class girl falling for the charm of an upper-class man (Fitzherbert) and suffering the very sexist consequences while her lover clings desperately to the old ways of the British nobility. Maud and Walter fall into one truly forbidden love — a Brit and a German being together in the middle of The Great War was quite the scandal — and the Russian brothers go their completely separate ways after responsible Grigori begrudgingly gives wildcard Lev his hard-earned ticket to America. Grigori’s path takes him through the war and eventually to becoming a senior Bolshevik leader, while Lev’s path takes him to the same coal mining town that Billy and Ethel Williams are from to a Russian crime family in Buffalo to, ultimately, like everyone else, the war.
It’s hard to summarize and comment on everything that happens in this lengthy book, but I will say that reading it was much more effective than any history (or “Social Studies”) class I’ve ever taken. The fictional characters helped me understand what was actually happening during this war, on the battlefield and off, that changed the very world we live in today. (Well, except for Russia. Still don’t really understand what happened there.)