When I began live-blogging Herman Wouk’s 1000-page-plus World War II epic The Winds of War back in June, I had no idea it was going to be such a long haul to the end! Yet here we are, almost three months later, still at it. I’m determined to finish this book despite the odds, which as of the last article were getting daunting. I had reached barely the middle of the book and I knew my research trip to Boston was going to slow me down after that. Fortunately I made up for lost time. Long plane flights and at least one down-time evening in Boston enabled me to make a lot of progress on the book, though without Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog on hand to choose wines for me, as has been her custom in this series, I felt a little more like I was out on a limb. But I’m going ahead anyway, and we’ve got a lot of ground to cover in this, the eighth installment of literary and wine adventures.
The end of the last installment found U.S. Navy captain Pug Henry pursuing an ill-advised Platonic romance amidst the London Blitz of 1940 with Pamela Tudsbury. In the next section of The Winds of War Wouk makes clear that Pug’s wife Rhoda has been up to no good with atom bomb scientist Palmer Kirby. Palmer gives Rhoda a subtle ultimatum: he wants her to divorce Pug and marry him instead. She dithers. At this point in the book my opinion of Rhoda is pretty low. She’s already cheated on her husband of 25 years, but doesn’t have the guts to end it. Pug is something of a buffoon where it comes to his wife, but at least an honorable one. Of the major characters in the book Rhoda is probably my least favorite.
The S-45, described in The Winds of War as the submarine on which Byron Henry serves, was a real boat, launched in 1923. Here’s a picture of it.
Before that plot is resolved, the action inexplicably shifts to Lisbon, Portugal in January 1941, where Natalie Jastrow arrives for reasons unknown. Her ex-fiancé Leslie Slote is working at the embassy there. (Is there an embassy in Europe where Slote has not turned up in this book yet? He does get around). She surprises him by telling him that Byron is docking in Lisbon on his submarine, the S-45, the next day and he (Byron) wants to get married! At first it seems un-doable. The Lisbon authorities want all sorts of documents before legitimizing a foreigner’s marriage, and to boot word arrives that the S-45 has been rerouted to Gibraltar and won’t come to Lisbon anyway. But then inexplicably Byron shows up–his crewmates faked an emergency repair crisis to get the sub routed to Lisbon–and conveniently he has a sheaf of all the documents he and Natalie need to get married. The wedding, which is more of an administrative affair than anything else, occurs quickly, and Byron and Natalie spend a few nights in a palatial Lisbon hotel suite before he has to ship out. As they leave she promises him she’ll go back to the US within two months, whether her uncle Aaron’s passport red tape is cleared or not. Hmm, do I sense plot complications coming, in advance of a cliffhanger?
The next part of the book is less dramatic story-wise, but it impresses a very interesting lesson about World War II. Pug, who has been reassigned to War Plans, gets caught up in various errands and escapades for President Franklin Roosevelt related to Lend-Lease. Wouk makes the point in various ways that Lend-Lease, though not a battle, was perhaps the real turning point of World War II. By December 1940 Britain was exhausted, running low on war materials and about to run out of cash. Churchill, in a lengthy letter to FDR, asked for help and underscored that Britain might go down without it. Lend-Lease was a political masterstroke that enabled the British to keep fighting until public opinion in the U.S. changed such that America could enter the war directly. The way this is portrayed in the book, Wouk credits it almost entirely to the political skill of Frankin Roosevelt. Essentially we gave billions of dollars of war supplies to England for free, when we weren’t yet at war. This had never happened before and has never happened since. Strategically England was our best line of defense against Hitler. This point isn’t made often enough in histories of the war.
Before the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941, American naval forces–sometimes including planes–often helped convoy Lend-Lease supplies to Britain across the Atlantic.
Story-wise, Pug ends up commanding a secret convoy of American warships that’s ferrying the first crucial load of Lend-Lease supplies to Britain, in the extreme danger of U-boat attacks. FDR is so pleased with Pug’s performance that he invites Pug, Rhoda and Byron (who happens to be in town) to dinner at the White House. It just so happens the invitation comes just as Rhoda is finally gearing up to lower the boom on her husband about Palmer Kirby. The White House invitation changes her mind. Not long after–we’re now in late spring 1941–the Henrys’ first son, Warren, a dive bomber pilot, wires that his and Janice’s son has been born. Now Pug and Rhoda are grandparents. There’s a wonderful scene where Pug and Rhoda are drinking champagne in their new Washington, D.C. house to celebrate the birth. The chapter ends with this succinct line:
Three weeks later the Germans invaded the Soviet Union.
I’m rather pleased with myself that I managed to get through as much of the book as I did. I was reading these latter sections on my last evening in Boston. Since I couldn’t count on getting any particular wine, I decided to take what I could get–but what I could get wasn’t bad! Barely a block from my hotel I found a charming little wine and cheese shop that was offering a free tasting. The shop was tasting a flight of Italian wines. I don’t have much experience with Italian wine, but I tasted one that was really terrific–a Passeggiando In Vigna Langhe Nebbiolo 2012. This was an incredibly tasty but very full red wine with some smoky elements on the finish and not a “sharp” taste at all. It was $30 a bottle, a little spendy for my last night in Boston. But hey, the tasting was free.
What I ended up taking back to my hotel room was a small half bottle of Las Perdices Malbec 2012, an Argentinian wine. While I can’t say this was really remarkable, it was certainly tasty. This wine was also very full, as Malbecs tend to be, but had a very soft finish which I liked a lot. I’m not nearly as good as Michelle as describing the various flavors in wine so I’m going to have to leave it at that. I had some gourmet crackers I’d bought at the wine and cheese shop to eat with this while I plowed through the next few chapters of The Winds of War, but unfortunately just as I opened them I read on the label they were made with almond flour, to which I’m allergic. Thus I went out into the labyrinthian corridors of my hotel to find a vending machine and got a rather nice, full-bodied bag of Cheez-Its. You’d be surprised how well they paired with Malbec!
I do believe I’m closing in on the end of The Winds of War. I’ll probably be done in two more sessions, and Michelle will be back to choose the wine for them. See you then!