Remember that World War II kick I told y’all I was on? Well, the kick extended back to World War I, mostly so I could gain a better understanding of World War II. This Ken Follett series is giving me that and more; I feel a great sense of accomplishment from reading these books.
Book 1: Fall of Giants
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Nonfiction is 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. I am absolutely AMAZED at how much research must go into writing 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 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 one that takes him from getting hazed on his first day in the coal mine 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 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.
All the main characters survive the war, but their struggles are far from over.
Book 2: Winter of the World
As we all know, World War I made quite a mess of things in Europe. The second book of the Century Trilogy picks up in the late 30s and centers on the children and relatives of many of the characters in the first book, so lots of familiar faces and names. Billy Williams’ nephew Lloyd (Ethel Williams’ son with Earl Fitzherbert) is a smart young lad starting to get into politics; Maud von Ulrich has left her British roots for her German love, Walter, and they are trying to raise their children Carla and Erik in an increasingly Nazi society; Grigori Peshkov is an important Red Army official with a son, Volodya, also rising up in the ranks as a spy; and his brother Lev Peshkov is a known gangster in Buffalo, New York with a legitimate family (mentally removed wife Olga, spoiled daughter Daisy) and an illegitimate one (sassy mistress Marga, easily manipulated son Greg). All are deeply involved in everything that leads up to the second World War, and everything that happens during.
Lloyd starts off by fighting the fascists in Spain (a part of the war I really didn’t know much about), and falling in love with Daisy after she moves away from Buffalo to London but losing her to guess who? Earl Fitzherbert’s son Boy, also known as Lloyd’s half-brother (unbeknownst to them). Boy is just as terrible as, if not worse than, his father; in fact, he is a fascist himself in the early days of the movement (another aspect of the war I had no idea about — Britain had fascists? All the Allied powers weren’t always good and all the Axis powers weren’t always evil?). Erik von Ulrich is also a fascist and completely buys into Nazism, all the way up until he sees his fellow soldiers killing innocent women, children and elderly folks solely because the may have been Communists and/or Jews. His sister Carla is a bit of a hero, though, and does everything in her power to fight the Nazis despite her strong patriotism for Germany. She doesn’t realize it, but her efforts are tied to that of Volodya’s, who organizes a network of spies on behalf of the Red Army. His half-brother Greg gets involved in the Manhattan Project, at which point it comes to light that the two men with the surname of Peshkov may indeed be connected.
It’s really difficult to summarize and comment on everything that happens in these lengthy books, but I will say that reading them has been exponentially more educational than any history lesson I ever had in school. The fictional characters help me understand what actually happened during the wars — not just dates and facts, but what life was like for all countries involved, on the battlefield and off — that changed the very world we live in today. It really is fascinating.