Monday, June 3, 2013

Book Review - Fall of Giants

Powell's Books
Barnes & Noble

Ken Follett - © 2010

The story begins in the year 1911. Unbeknownst to the civilized world, it is on the cusp of the first World War. A Bosnian Serb student, Gavrilio Princip, assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne; thereby knocking over the first domino that ticked through diplomatic efforts so pathetic as to be tantamount to a farce, drawing in Germany to support Austria. Then the regrettably located, France.  Dominoes ticked through trade routes pulling in the resource and leadership poor Russia.  Then pompous England waved their flag, while then the dominoes clattered through the minor powers, finally drawing in a reluctant United States. The tumbled dominoes are then erected as tombstones for the nearly ten million fallen soldiers. An atrocity that precipitates the fall of the remaining major aristocracies. The Fall of Giants. Indeed.

Had I not read two of Ken Follett’s other historical novels, I never would have even set my finger on the binding to pull it from the shelf. I have long believed that war doesn't decide who is right; only who is left. The gore of the battlefield is too real in my overactive imagination, war strategy too far beyond my intellect and our world leaders are too oft obstinate old men who happily trade their country's brave young soldiers for mangled corpses, all to play some great game.

Despite my preconceptions, I loved this book.

The characters compelling and real. As I watched events spiral through their eyes, I found myself hopeful that events already written in the tomes of world history wouldn't happen. I despaired with them as it all happened anyway. I felt the percussion of mortar blasts as I curled up in my dugout. I heard the whiz of bullets as I leapt from mortar hole to mortar hole. I felt the hunger that compelled soldiers to sit and eat captured food stores as corpses cooled on the ground.

I felt exalted as the Russian people rose up against the Tsar and their ridiculously corrupt government. I held Lenin in equal parts awe and distaste, and was saddened when the revolution went sour. I felt proud of my fellow American, Gus, when he stopped a Russian policeman from brutalizing a peasant girl, then treated her with kindness. “No Russian would address a peasant so courteously.”

I cheered for Billy Twice when he spoke against the English aristocracy with the wisdom to effect change while avoiding outright revolution. I cheered for Ethel and Maud as they fought for women’s suffrage and equal rights for women workers. I was relieved when Germany signed the armistice and was disappointed when the allies used it as an opportunity to revile Germany and impose impossible reparations, making World War II an all but foregone conclusion.

 I learned more about this time period than ever before because I wasn't subjected to some dry, third person, Americans-are-so-great version of events, I lived it through these remarkable, albeit fictitious, characters.


This story begins in a fictional small mining town called Aberowen, England, where we meet our first two main characters, newly initiated miner, Billy and his sister, Ethel. Then we follow Ethel to Earl Fitzherbert's country estate where she works as the head housemaid. At Fitz’s estate we meet his Russian princess wife, Bea, his feminist sister, Maud, his boyhood companion,Walter, who is also a German diplomat, and an American diplomat, Gus. Later, we follow Gus to Russia where we meet Grigori and Lev, two young men that work for Putilov Machine Works building wheels for locomotives. Each of these strategically placed characters revealed a view of everyday life and politics from a new angle giving a fairly balanced view of the war.

Billy (Welsh)
From Billy we see life as a coal miner living in a community of prefabricated homes working on a mine owned by an English earl. Mining coal in the early 20th century is incredibly hard labor and ridiculously dangerous. The mine operators are far more willing to sacrifice miners than they are willing to part with the funds to provide even the most basic safety equipment. Laborers are a commodity of inexhaustible supply.

Billy doesn't particularly favor being a commodity. He is bright, brave and a natural leader. Once drafted, these qualities keep him and most of his Aberowen Pals alive during their service in the war. He exposes the ineptitude of the aristocracy that commanded them in battle and fights to end their power.

Ethel (Welsh - Sister to Billy)
Ethel’s quick wit and passionate visage captivates Earl Fitzherbert. After a short romance she becomes pregnant. Fitz attempts to pay Ethel off in attempt to discard her and the scandal that grows in her womb. She spend the rest of the story fighting for women’s suffrage and equal rights with Fitz’s sister, Maud, while also raising her son.

Earl Fitzherbert (English Earl owner of the land containing Aberowen)
Fitz is a generally likable enough guy. He is courageous and believes what he does is the right thing, even when it isn't. You almost can’t blame him because he comes from a long line of aristocrats and to a large degree was born (or made) that way. He suffers from an inferiority complex in which his constant desire to prove he’s worthy of his title drives him to make bad decisions.

Princess Bea (Russian born wife of Fitz)
Through Princess Bea we see how the Russian royalty holds the peasantry in utter disdain. They don’t believe themselves simply separated by class so much as separated by species. Through her, we also feel the pain of the loss of her heritage and the brutal death of her brother during the Russian revolution.

Maud (Sister to Earl Fitzherbert)
Maud’s is a woman for the people, but certainly not a woman of the people. She has an enviable intellect, poise and bottomless pocketbook thanks to her indulgent brother, Fitz. I had to excuse her hypocrisy in favor of what she was trying to accomplish. She befriends Ethel to further her causes but never sees her as an equal, though both women are formidable. She and Walter fall in love prior to the war and spend most of the book in anguish as they remain loyal to their countries, while doing all they can for peace.

Walter (German diplomat and friend to Fitz)
I had the most empathy for his character. Walter is an intelligent man with a good heart, whose ideas and maneuvering for peace are ignored again and again to the ruin of his beloved homeland, Germany. He spends the war separated from Maud and in a constant state of deprivation as he serves as an intelligence agent in the front lines of the war.

Grigori (Russian metal worker and soldier)
Easily the toughest and most earnest character, Grigori raised his younger brother Lev, after his father was hanged for the crime of grazing his cattle land belonging to Princess Bea, and his mother was shot during a protest march in front of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. Soon after the war begins, he is drafted in to the military and we see first hand the brutality of the officers, rampant corruption as the military supplies are sold on the black market, and terrible strategic moves as they waste the lives of their soldiers. We see the growing dissent of the soldiers which culminates into mutiny and revolution, of which Grigori's point of view provides a front row seat.

Lev (Russian, Grigori’s brother)
Lev is all charisma and no scruples. He takes Grigori’s seat on the boat to America to escape the Russian police. The boat lands in Cardiff, England and he realizes he (well, his brother) has been conned. He eventually makes his way to America and we see life for a Russian immigrant working for a Russian mob boss.

Gus (American diplomat)
Gus is easy to like. Tall, gangly, idealistic, and wicked smart he keeps the reader abreast of what is happening in the U.S. Government during this time. Through him we meet Woodrow Wilson, whom I admired and disliked all at once. He was a brilliant leader with the utmost of integrity, but growing up in the South left him bigoted. He conceived of the idea for a League of Nations that would later become the U.N., for the purpose of resolving conflicts between great nations.

Once the United States joins the war effort, Gus enlists as an officer. Gus arrives in France as an officer in the Expeditionary Force and through him we witness the famous battle, Chateau-Thierry.

Prior to reading this book the only three things I knew about World War I is that it took place in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, soldiers fought in trenches and we won. Pretty lame. Through Ken’s characters we get a remarkably balanced view of politics, the war and daily life. The Germans aren't vilified, the Americans and Brits aren't gallant heroes, and the Russians... well the Russians are hungry and cold. The heroes in this particular story are the peasants, mine workers, factory workers and soldiers who fought their respective imperial rulers to form a new government that would allow their children to grow up served by their government rather than exploited by it; where leaders are chosen by virtue of their abilities and ethics rather than their breeding.

Imperfect as democracy is, I’ll take it, and I extend my deep gratitude for all of the lives lost fighting during our own revolution and civil war to make our country free, and to those who defend it to this day.

Now for two minor gripes:
Ken Follett, writes a scene where Lev is nearly molested by a priest. I know this sort of thing happens, clearly, from his other books, but it seemed gratuitous. It makes me wonder if he has a personal bias as it was otherwise irrelevant to the story. He gets another dig in when Grigori is talking to a girl about the incident and she says something to the effect of, well—duh.

I thought it a bit odd how many women were lost their virginity in this book. The scenes were fairly graphic too. Almost as if "Phil" from the marketing group said, “Ken our demographic for this book is xyz, so you need to write in more sex scenes and make ‘em virgins. …and go.” Then he punches him in the arm and winks at him. Ken, next time tell that guy to go get bent.

Regarding Formal Education:
Reflecting on how much detail I learned... willingly... on a subject I normally avoid, I wonder how this could translate into formal education. In my history classes in high school, we took turns reading aloud from the text book. My mind was in Fantasia when the other students read, and when it was my turn to read I was so nervous about embarrassing myself by flubbing a word that I absorbed nothing. At home, I would dutifully do the assigned reading and still not be able to answer the questions at the end without skimming back through the material. 

I was not engaged. And couldn't force myself to become so. 

What if history was taught in a more interactive, first person manner? I'm imagining a large map, a calendar or timeline of sorts, some cutouts of people from each country. One for a leader, one for a soldier. Maybe there's a script and kids reenact movements of their respective military. Perhaps famous speeches or meetings could be memorized and reenacted with the room set up as a conference room where other people argued or cheered appropriately. Major battles could get blown-up maps, cutouts of artillery and/or pictures of trenches could be posted. Our little paper guys burrow down in their dugouts waiting out an artillery blast, put on their masks as the mustard gas arrives then he emerges to storm the enemy front line. After the battle plays out the winning side posts a flag next to the battle name and date.

Maybe it's my naivety as a teacher (which I'm not) but anything would beat reading aloud from the text book. Anything.