Books: Fall of Giants

Ken Follett’s books are all great stories, but especially his big historical novels. Pillars of the Earth is one of the best works of historical fiction I have read, and the only reason I haven’t yet read the sequel, World without End, is that it would take a considerable commitment of time. I spend a lot of time reading, but mostly novels of just a few hundred pages, where I can finish in less than a week without taking too much time away from other things that need to be done. Then I can get caught up on other stuff.

There are books that I read for a while, set aside to either do other things or read other books, and then get back to. But those are usually books I don’t much enjoy reading, and when I do get back to them I have to go back and reread some to reacquaint myself with the characters and what happened previously. With a book of over a thousand pages, that could be a lot of rereading. Or else leaving a lot of laundry unwashed, checkbooks unbalanced, and all the other things that require my time.

Books on CD are a great way to listen to books that I don’t have time to read – especially as the reason I have less time to read than I once had is because I spend over an hour and a half a day in the car driving to and from work. Even so, the fact that the audiobook version of World without End is so long that it requires two separate cases to hold all the CD’s made me wonder if I could finish it during the time period provided by the library.

Which is where Fall of Giants came in. It was not quite as long – at 24 CD’s, they all fit in one case, albeit a very large case. I do not generally have as much interest in reading early twentieth century history – or historical fiction based in that period – as in the medieval period. But it was by Ken Follett, which meant it would be an absorbing story. And I’d see how long it took me to listen to 24 CD’s.

The answer is four and a half weeks. Since I get three weeks plus another three weeks on renewal (unless the book is requested by someone else), I managed it with eleven days to spare. I feel confident now that I can finish World without End within six weeks, as long as I don’t have any upcoming speeches in Toastmasters to prepare for – which I do, so I need to plan to spend a good deal of time in the car practicing.

But I wouldn’t be planning to check out World without End yet anyway. I hadn’t even realized until looking Fall of Giants up on amazon.com this evening that it is the first book of a trilogy. Having been immersed for a month in the lives of a handful of fascinating characters living through WWI, and seeing history come to life through their eyes, I am eager to read more. Or listen to more, in this case. I was happy to see that Winter of the World is available through interlibrary loan, so I expect to be starting on it soon.

I remember learning a little about World War I in history class in school, but we didn’t go into much detail. I remember being told that the assassination of the archduke was not the real reason for the war, only an excuse used by countries that wanted to go to war anyway. That didn’t make sense to me, and I guess not to our teacher either, because he didn’t give any further explanation.

I remember a little about Wilson’s League of Nations, as well as about how the Treaty of Versailles led to a state of affairs in Germany that made it easy for Hitler to appear as a savior to the German people, and thus led indirectly to WWII. I don’t remember learning much at all about the revolution in Russia that brought the Bolsheviks to power and eventually to the Soviet Union. I suspect this is because the history curriculum spend so much time on 18th and 19th centuries that there was never enough time to spend on the 20th century. Or if it just was not considered as important.

In any case, I had thought I had little interest in the early 20th century, but as I listened to Fall of Giants I found the period coming alive, and finally beginning to make sense. Not that it really can be said to “make sense” to start a war like that, but the various characters give insight into the perspective of people who felt the war was necessary as well as those who hoped to prevent it.

Based on the story as Follett tells it, it was WWI that brought about, or at least facilitated, much of the social change that makes it hard for us today to imagine how people thought about society prior to that. There was already much discontent among the lower classes, and much concern among the upper classes about the dangers posed by unions and socialists.

But people who struggle to make ends meet tend to put their efforts into doing just that, rather than risking what little they have by pushing for major changes. Yet the war, pushed by the old guard as necessary to preserve their way of life, ended up as a force for change – both for good and bad.

Follett, of course, brings all this across far better than I can, and he does it not primarily by telling about social issues and politics from an abstract perspective, as history textbooks tend to do, but by telling the stories of people. A teenage boy working in a coal mine, his older sister who works as a servant in an earl’s house, the earl himself, the earl’s sister, a young German man with whom the sister has a romantic relationship, an American they meet at the earl’s house, and two Russian brothers whose lives eventually intertwine with the others.

Coming from vastly different backgrounds, they see life in very different ways. But they all fall in love, with all the complications that brings, and they all are personally affected by the war, most of them directly as soldiers. They find themselves in conflict not only with those of other nationalities with whom they are at war, but with people of their own country with starkly different views on the war.

The novel also helps me understand more about the Bolsheviks’ rise to power, as well as seeing how conditions in Germany after the war led to the attitudes that enabled Hitler’s rise to power. So I am looking forward to the next book, to continue this fascinating story.

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