With a holiday, family in town, a heat wave to endure and a summer class to prepare for, the moments I have to myself these days are pretty few and far-between. But I’m still forging ahead with my “live-blog” of the 1971 Herman Wouk novel The Winds of War, part of my “Literary Summer” experience involving pleasure reading and wine. Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog has been feeding me terrific wine suggestions, both for previous Winds articles (here, here and here), as well as the Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast series. She’s outdone herself yet again with another simple, inexpensive and surprisingly delectable suggestion to pair with this new segment…but before we get there, let’s get back to the book!
In the last segment, I had read up to the part where young hero Byron Henry has just made it back to Warsaw with the woman he’s fallen in love with, Natalie Jastrow, after a dangerous trip across the Polish countryside under fire from the Germans. This section adds a new menace, and a new enemy: the Soviets, whose troops overran half of Poland on September 17, 1939 to claim territory under a secret agreement in the August 23 non-aggression pact with Hitler. Byron learns this from the Mayor of Warsaw while holed up in the American Embassy with Natalie and Leslie Slote, her almost-fiancé. Although they’re both Americans, Byron and Natalie are both participating in the war effort: Byron helping to secure clean water and supplies for the other Americans caught at the embassy, and Natalie volunteering as a nurse at a local hospital. I guess every historical romantic novel set in wartime with a female hero needs a scene where the woman is a war nurse.
American diplomatic personnel caught in the Warsaw siege dug a bomb shelter in the backyard of the consulate. Here’s a picture of the real thing.
Slote’s diplomatic connections finally come in handy. He spearheads an effort, brokered by the Swedish ambassador, to evacuate the Americans from Warsaw before it falls. The trick: they have to pass through the German lines. There’ll be a brief cease-fire, but it’s still dangerous. Byron and Natalie go with him to scout the path they have to take. Wouk has stressed, inexplicably up until now, the fact that Slote is a total coward. Now this detail comes into play. As they pass near some positions being shelled, Slote totally turns to jelly and orders the Swedish ambassador to stop the car. Byron proves he has the bigger, er, resolve by completing the scouting mission on his own, and then, as the American crew is taken into temporary custody by the Germans, by helping one of the men in their party conceal his Jewish identity. Nice character mechanics, though it seems a little contrived.
The Germans bring the neutrals into a strange railroad station where it looks for a moment like they might be massacred. It turns out to be a banquet hall where the Germans intend to impress the Americans with good food, beer and fair treatment. After this, however, the Germans get nasty, interrogating Slote and Natalie and demanding that the Jews in the American party get separated out. Slote redeems himself a bit by standing up to the German commander. Ultimately they pass without incident. Natalie and Byron part ways–Natalie to the States via Stockholm, and Byron to Berlin to see his father, Pug Henry.
The action finally shifts back to Berlin. Pug is interested in the military intelligence aspects of Byron’s account, and Byron downplays his thing with Natalie. There’s also an interesting recurrence of the theme I talked about in the second segment, which is Wouk’s preoccupation with figuring out whether the Nazis’ penchant for brutality is a fluke or somehow deeply rooted in the German character. Byron winds up discussing this with Slote, who’s also in Berlin, and Slote gives him a long list of German philosophers he says are antecedents of Hitler: Luther, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, etc. This keeps coming up in The Winds of War, and personally I’m not sure whether I know enough to have an informed opinion. Maybe nobody does.
Two Polish boys read Mickey Mouse cartoons (in Polish) amidst the ruins of a bombed-out building. Warsaw, September 1939.
What follows is one of my favorite scenes in the book, and oddly related to the question of German character. Pug, Rhoda and their friends, accompanied by Byron, go out for lunch at an outdoor restaurant in a Berlin park. Their lunch is interrupted by an intercom announcement that Warsaw has surrendered. The jubilant Germans sing the Nazi national anthem, but Pug and the Americans, as neutrals, don’t join in. A waiter suddenly begins treating the Americans rudely, being deliberately clumsy and spilling wine on the ladies. Pug, who Wouk tells us can be a very direct man, orders the waiter to call his boss. He tells off the boss:
“We’re a party of Americans, military attachés. We didn’t rise for your anthem. We’re neutrals. This waiter chose to take offense. He’s been deliberately clumsy and dirty. He’s talked rudely. He’s jostled the ladies. His conduct has been swinish. Tell him to behave himself and be good enough to let us have a clean cloth for our dessert.”
The boss chews out the waiter, and amazingly, the waiter complies willingly. He goes about finishing the meal service totally professionally and without a hint of resentment. I think Wouk intends this as a metaphor about the German character: after Germany goes astray in the Nazi period and is brutally slapped down during the war, the country instantly resumes its former place as a home of cheerful, professional people who harbor no resentment against the victors. This is a brilliantly done piece of fiction.
For this segment I asked Michelle to find me a wine that was, if not German, firmly done in the German style–perhaps similar to something one might drink at an outdoor park café in Berlin in late summer, as the characters do here. I found her suggestion totally delightful, and hailing from close to home–a white wine from Washington State.
Chateau Ste Michelle 2012 Columbia Valley Riesling: This soft golden wine emitted aromas of stone fruit and pears. On the palate the slightly creamy texture pleased with flavors of apricot jam, and fresh peaches and pears; along with a touch of honey suckle and fresh cut herbs. This wine sat right in the middle of the Riesling scale of sweet and dry offering just a hint of sweetness but not overwhelming the palate. The touch of sweetness was balanced with a light acidity and a hint of effervescence that brought forth its soft and pleasing qualities. It was light in body and contained 12.5% alcohol.
I certainly tasted the pears! Overall this was a great wine, and I’m not a huge fan of Rieslings. This wasn’t too-sweet at all, and had subtlety that you don’t often see in an inexpensive German-style white. I thought it was terrific and I look forward to tasting it again.
There’s more to come as I work through The Winds of War. Stay tuned!