Astonishing as it may seem, I’m almost finished with Herman Wouk’s immense World War II romance epic The Winds of War, which I began reading (and live-blogging) way back in June. This is going to be the second-to-last installment of the series, as we’re rapidly coming to the sad and explosive climax of this amazing book. This has been one of the most popular article series on my blog this year, thanks in no small part to Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog who has been choosing excellent wines to go along with the action. Tonight’s article is actually a double-header, one wine chosen by Michelle, another by me, and we’re getting to the part of the book where you definitely want to begin drowning your sorrows as the darkest days of World War II are approaching! So let’s get back to the action.
At the end of the last installment, where I was reading the book during my recent research trip to Boston, the broken marriage of Navy captain Victor “Pug” Henry and his wayward wife Rhoda seemed temporarily healed by Pug’s upward career–he’s an errand-runner for President Roosevelt–and a new grandchild. Then Hitler had to ruin the party by invading the Soviet Union. Wouk gives us some historical background, and poses the question often-asked since then: was Hitler’s invasion a colossal mistake, or a natural outgrowth of his ideological madness? Sadly it seems to have been both. There is also some depressing material involving the Einsatzgruppen–the SS’s “Special Action Units” which followed the German army throughout the USSR, massacring Jews. Berel Jastrow, a minor character who appeared in the Poland section, reappears here as a conduit for news of the Holocaust atrocities that are beginning to leak out of Europe.
The horrifying activities of the Einsatzgruppen–such as prisoners being forced to dig their own graves before being massacred–were documented by secret photos smuggled out of Europe, like this one.
But there’s character business to tend to. In Washington, D.C. on a hot summer night Pug happens to bump into Palmer Kirby, the uranium scientist who Rhoda, unbeknownst to pug, has been sleeping with. They have an awkward dinner, lubricated by lots of wine, and Kirby gives some depressing thoughts on the state of the world, remarking “I’m starting to suspect that the human race, as we know it, may not make it through the industrial revolution.” Just as Pug and Kirby are bonding, Rhoda unexpectedly arrives. Pug has to dash off on a sudden Navy errand, leaving her alone with Kirby. They finally hash out their unfinished affair. Rhoda tells him that she’s not proud of her infidelity, but she’s sticking by Pug. What goes unspoken in this wonderfully-written scene is the subtext: that the real issue between Pug and Rhoda is the war. Its stresses and demands have been stretching their marriage far past any normal set of circumstances, and with the world coming down (to steal a Type O Negative album title!) certain former taboos seem almost quaint by comparison. This is one of the best scenes in the entire book, in my opinion.
The next section of the book again involves Pug going on an errand for President Roosevelt. This time he’s been invited to the famous conference at sea between FDR and Winston Churchill, which took place in Placentia Bay in Newfoundland in early August 1941. Pug pals around with FDR and they chat world strategy. Wouk uses this scene to illustrate just how consequential the Atlantic Charter–the document that came out of this conference–really was. Similar to Lend-Lease, the Atlantic Charter linked the United States and Great Britain in a deep alliance with the aim of defeating Adolf Hitler once and for all. I was startled by a part where FDR tells Pug that he (FDR) asked the U.S. Army and Navy to make a list of everything they thought they would need to fight and win a world war. This was in August 1941, before the U.S. officially entered the war; already Roosevelt, foreseeing the inevitable, was getting his ducks in a row for the most painful and epic battle in American history. At the end of the conference Pug laments to Harry Hopkins, FDR’s most important aide during the war, that the conference seems to have been a failure because the US and Britain agree on almost nothing. Hopkins says no, it’s actually a triumph, and adds “This is the changing of the guard”–meaning the transition from the British Empire to a world dominated by new superpowers, specifically the U.S. and the Soviet Union. This would have been a prescient observation in 1941.
The Atlantic Charter, a pivotal policy document of World War II, came out of a conference between FDR and Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales in August 1941.
Then briefly the action shifts inexplicably to Switzerland, where Natalie Henry and her uncle Aaron Jastrow have come temporarily to try to get out of Europe. Natalie is now pregnant with her husband Byron’s baby. After some diplomatic wrangling she manages to get a ticket from Zurich to Lisbon with priority back to the States. The problem: it’s on Lufthansa, the German airline. Spooked by the Lufthansa clerks’ nosy questions, Natalie walks out of the travel office, leaving the ticket on the table…and herself still stranded in Europe with the war about to break wide open.
At the end of this section we definitely see Wouk arranging the pieces on the board for the big finale. Pug is sent, of all places, to Moscow on a Lend-Lease mission, having evidently been disappointed by FDR’s hollow promise to give him command of a battleship. Who happens to be in Moscow? Pamela Tudsbury, of course. Romantic fireworks ahead!
Michelle gave me several different suggestions for these last two installments of The Winds of War. Alas, matching up her suggestions with what I can actually find in my wine shop has been a problem since the beginning, but that’s to your benefit because it means I get to showcase two different wines! Here is one Michelle chose:
Tierra Aranda Ribera del Duero 2011 Tempranillo: This wine poured a deep garnet with violet highlights and opened with inviting aromas of red and black berries, olives, pepper and Asian spice. On the palate this dazzling wine offered flavors of cherries, cranberries and black berries along with round spice, pepper, milk chocolate and toasted hazelnuts. It was smooth and smoky yet balanced with a subtle sweetness (though not at all a sweet wine). It was well structured with round acidity and integrated tannins that filled its medium body and left a lingering, dry finish.
I was dying to try this wine, but unfortunately could not find it! However, while hunting high and low for it, I did manage to find a different wine: a Langhe Nebbiolo, Produttori del Barbaresco 2013. The reason I got this wine is because it’s the same varietal (though not exactly the same wine) as the wonderful Nebbiolo I tasted in Boston in the last installment. This was a terrific wine, with a spicy, herby flavor but a very smooth finish. The tannins are just right and it makes for an altogether refreshing taste, especially when you’re eating something hearty. This is exactly the kind of wine I might feel like drinking with a friend while contemplating the world about to collapse–which is exactly the feeling one gets as The Winds of War spins toward its conclusion.
Well, we’ve got one more installment left: I’m going to try to finish off the book in one more article. Check back here for the conclusion!