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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Fall of Giants - Ken Follett I don't think I ever comprehended the reasons for the start of World War I until I read this fictional account of the era. I have read historical explanations, but the bare facts don't provide a realistic explanation. Starting a world war because of the assassination of an archduke is so illogical that one can't grasp the concept. What kind of reason is that for 16 million deaths and 21 million wounded? The advantage of historical fiction over non-fiction writing is that it can get inside the thinking and emotions of the people involved and describe their total lack of understanding of what was about to happen. In my case it really helped that I had just finished The Proud Tower by Barbara W. Tuchman which provided a good background of the time leading up to the war.

It's my understanding that Fall of Giants is the first of a trilogy that will cover the 20th Century. This first book covers the first twenty years of the century and promises to be a big, sprawling, ambitious story set against a factual background and real-life personages. I think the author did a good job of developing an interesting and varied cast of characters that includes a wide spectrum of social class, nationalities, wealth and personality. This type of novel is historical fiction at its best. As with most historical novels of this type, the paths followed by the main characters just happen to cause them to be present at crucial moments leading to the beginning of and execution of World War I. The book then continues on through a couple of the post war years. In some ways, this novel does for World War I what The Winds of War by Herman Wouk did for World War II.

There's a gripping account of the Battle of the Somme that is then followed by a sad description in a village telegraph delivery boy back in Wales being so overwhelmed with so many death notice telegrams that he's hardly able get them all delivered. (The opening day of the battle on July 1, 1916 saw the British Army suffer the worst one-day combat losses in its history, with nearly 60,000 casualties.)

One of the book's characters is present in St.Peterburg, Russia when the Czar is overthrown. The book goes into quite a bit of detail related to German support for Lenin and the Bolsheviks who were advocating for an end to the war with Germany. This support was instrumental in the Bolsheviks gaining power in Russia. Consequently, Russia pulled out of the war in March 1918 which allowed the Germans to shift troops to the western front. Ironically, the German settlement with the Russia resulted in an eastern land grab that required considerable occupation manpower which limited the number of troops shifted to the west. So being greedy for land in the east may have contributed to the ultimate failure of the German offensive in the west. Also, the additional territory in the east didn't add much, on short notice, to the food supplies to Germany which were badly needed. Indeed, another irony was that Germany's spring offensive in 1918 was slowed down because every time they captured an Allied defensive position the troops would stop and eat the food they found. The German troops were on near starvation rations by 1918. I'm sure it never occurred to the Allies that they were slowing the Germans down by leaving food behind. The Allies were well fed compared to the Germans.

And of course, as anyone who is knowledgeable about America's entering the war would expect, the fictional characters from this novel are very much involved in the deciphering and leaking of news of the Zimmerman Telegram to the U.S. press. Now that I've been exposed to the details in this novel regarding the Zimmerman Telegram, I'm curious how this account compares to the non-fiction account contained in the book, The Zimmermann Telegram, by Barbara Tuchman. I wonder how much effort Ken Follett made to have the fictional characters be similar to the people who were actually involved in the incident.

It's my guess that the average American thinks that World War I started when the United States declared war on Germany in 1917. The reality is that the war had already been going on for three years when the USA joined, and that the war was into its fourth year by the time American troops arrived.

The time span covered by the book continues beyond the end of the war to about the year 1920. Many of the historical issues of the post war era are included in the plot, including the armistice agreement, the secret occupation of Russia after the war, the American prohibition of liquor, and President Wilson's trip across the nation in an attempt to get popular support for the League of Nations. The book ends with a poignant encounter between two of the book's main characters who are from differing social classes. I think this encounter is symbolic of the social changes that have taken place since the beginning of the book, since the “Fall of Giants."

There are some love stories contained within this book that pull on the reader's emotional heart strings. Also, this is a novel written for a popular audience, so it follows that the sexual lives of all the main characters are described. I wasn't sure people had sex back in those days. ;)

I can't help but wonder what time period will be covered by the next two books of the trilogy. At this pace volume 2 will perhaps cover WWII and volume 3 the cold war. It's being referred to as the The Century Trilogy so I presume it will end near the year 2000.