Today is September 22, the transition of summer to fall. And on this last day of the summer I’ve finally finished, with no time to spare, the big blogging project I began at the start of the summer–live-blogging Herman Wouk’s epic World War II novel The Winds of War. At long last I reached the end of the book, and here after nine previous installments we reach the final one of the series, which has been a highlight certainly for me and I hope for all of you who have not only been enjoying the book, but also the wonderful wine pairing suggestions by Michelle Williams of the RockinRed Blog. This has truly been a great “Literary Summer” of books, wine and fun, and I’d like to thank Michelle for her help which has made this series one of the richest and most fun projects I’ve ever undertaken on this blog. So now, let’s get down to the final pages of my favorite novel of all time!
At the end of the last installment, it was early October 1941 and U.S. Navy captain Victor “Pug” Henry had just arrived in Moscow as part of a mission to facilitate U.S. Lend-Lease supplies to the Soviet Union. Only the German front isn’t far away and is moving ever closer, with Moscow in danger of falling. After writing a long letter to his wife Rhoda providing a very vivid picture of what life is like in Moscow under siege, Wouk takes us on an elaborate scene involving a huge banquet in the Kremlin at which Stalin is in attendance. I suspect this scene is mainly to check off the scorecard and to bring in as a cameo character every major leader in World War II, excepting Tojo, seen through Pug’s eyes: he’s now met Hitler, FDR, Churchill and Stalin. This scene also underscores the danger in which Moscow found itself in October 1941; the capital really did almost fall to Hitler, though whether it would have really meant the defeat of the USSR is another question entirely. Just as this sequence ends, Pug gets new orders, evidently arranged by FDR: he’s been given command of the battleship California. This is his career ambition.
The battleship USS California was badly damaged at Pearl Harbor, but was rebuilt and lived to fight another day. Here she is later in World War II.
Then, the romance takes over. You see, who should also be in Moscow at the same time but British war correspondent Talky Tudsbury, with whose daughter Pamela–my favorite character–Pug had an evidently Platonic romance while enduring the Blitz in London. Now in Moscow, Pam turns up the heat. After bonding with Victor (again) during a colorful tour of the Russian Front, she tells him she’s only happy with him and that she’ll follow him to Hawaii to have an affair with him, if that’s the only way he will have her. Pug hesitates. Suddenly he realizes he’s in love with Pam too, and he briefly sees her as a second chance at happiness in his life. He says, “If I love you enough to have an affair with you behind my wife’s back, then I love you enough to ask her for a divorce.” He will go to Pearl Harbor to take command of the California (DUN DUN DUN!) while Pamela goes temporarily back to London. Pug says he’ll cable her, COME or DON’T COME, when he knows whether his wife will contest the divorce.
This section of The Winds of War is so beautifully written and compelling that it may be my favorite passage in the whole novel. The central love story of the book really is Pug and Pamela. The Byron-Natalie pairing is more dramatic, but this one resonates more on an emotional level. It’s Wouk at his best.
So we’re coming up on Pearl Harbor, but there is some other business to take care of. Natalie, who’s now had Byron’s baby, is in Rome with her uncle Aaron, trying to leave despite diplomatic red-tape. Warren is on the carrier Enterprise which is dispatched out west of Hawaii, on alert as hostilities threaten with the Japanese. The fake German military memoir, World Empire Lost, gives us another strategy chapter explaining why Pearl Harbor really was the fulcrum of World War II. Then there’s an ominous silence of a Sunday morning…and we, the readers who know what happens, await the inevitable.
This amazing color footage of the aftermath of Pearl Harbor was discovered in the 2010s. It’s the real thing, and very raw.
The battle itself, surprisingly, is seen through the eyes of Janice, Warren’s wife and a minor character. She lives in Honolulu, her baby is sick and she goes out to get medicine just as the planes are attacking. But the attack throws off ripples that totally change the characters’ lives in the last 65 pages of the book. Naturally the California is one of the battleships sunk, so no more lofty command for Pug. A Japanese air raid on Manila, where Byron’s submarine is alongside, provides the impetus for some heroic action by Byron in saving torpedoes for the upcoming combat patrol. Most ominously, the declarations of war by Hitler and Mussolini against the United States on December 11, four days after the attack, screw up Natalie and Aaron’s plans to leave. As they’re in danger of falling into Gestapo hands in Rome, Natalie turns to a Jewish resistance fighter, Avram Rabinowitz, who gets her, Aaron and the baby aboard a crowded steamer bound for Palestine. On this uncertain note her story ends.
Pug is devastated by the loss of the California. He also decides, haunted by memories of his old family house he saw in Manila en route to Pearl Harbor, that he can’t ditch Rhoda for Pamela. He writes her a letter: DON’T COME. But just then a letter arrives from Rhoda confessing her affair with Palmer Kirby. This blow is truly the lowest he can sink. He decides he must try to patch things up with his wife, and win the war. The exquisite web of disastrous blows Wouk weaves in this section is really amazing, story-wise, and it’s the subject of this article I did last year when I was feeling particularly low (and close to the anniversary of Pearl Harbor).
And that’s basically the end. It’s a cliffhanger. Throughout most of this series I’ve assiduously avoided talking about the 1983 TV adaptation of The Winds of War, though I do enjoy it; but the final scene, where Pug (played by a rather miscast Robert Mitchum) watches the Enterprise leave Pearl Harbor and he thinks about the cosmic lunacy and moral tragedy of the war, is really evocative. This is not technically the final scene of the novel but it’s close enough, and the words of Pug’s “prayer” are taken verbatim from the book. I found the scene on YouTube. Here it is.
So in this section we are truly in the shadow of death. I asked Michelle to pick a wine that would absolutely punch you in the mouth, the way the endless blows of tragedy at the end of The Winds of War do. She made several suggestions but, although I searched for more than a week at every wine store in town, I couldn’t actually find any of them myself! It’s a shame, I wanted to taste the Torbreck Barossa Valley 2012 Woodcutter’s Shiraz that she suggested. Here are her tasting notes:
This wine poured a deep maroon into the glass and opened with black and blue fruit, spice and toasted walnut aromas. On the palate this dark Shiraz delivered flavors of black cherries, black plums, blackberries, damp tobacco leaves, smoke, pepper and Asian spices. It was a dark rich wine yet well balanced with round acidity, integrated tannins, medium to full body and a dry, lingering finish that left the mouth begging for another sip.
In my wine shop I did find a wine that I thought would fit the bill: a Lodi Zinfandel called “The Messenger,” by Ministry of the Vinterior, 2012. When I want to get punched in the mouth by a wine I usually turn to a Zinfandel, and this one had a beautiful rendition of a skull on the label–what better way to commemorate the death and life-destroying carnage at the end of The Winds of War?
Alas, despite the epic label, I found this wine kind of a disappointment. It had some spicy, flowery notes and a good finish, but it wasn’t nearly as heavy or powerful as I expected from a Lodi Zinfandel with a fricking skull on the label. It didn’t have the body I expect from a great Zin. Still, it was by no means bad. As a mid-priced, workaday Zinfandel it’s pretty commendable. And worth it just to get a close look at the label!
Well, here we are at the end of The Winds of War, and the beginning of fall. It’s been a great summer, and thank you everyone for reading, liking, sharing and commenting. And I hope you enjoyed the wine!