The Important Human Factor During Important Events

Characters from “The Winds of War” miniseries.

When novelists write about war and other major events, a way to build maximum reader interest is to focus on a limited number of characters. That approach personalizes those major events as they get filtered through the characters’ eyes. Very effective and very relatable.

The limited number of characters can be one person, one family, a few families, a few other people — that sort of thing. And the novels they appear in are of course usually in the historical-fiction genre.

One great example of this approach is The Winds of War, which I’m currently reading. Herman Wouk’s massive/impressive novel periodically offers a wide focus on World War II, including the lead-up to that huge conflagration. But Wouk mainly concentrates on how WWII affects the Henry family: stoic U.S. Navy officer Victor, his oft-dissatisfied wife Rhoda, and their three young-adult children: high-achieving Warren, less-driven Byron, and feisty Madeline. A handful of prominent secondary characters are also featured.

The fictional Victor “Pug” Henry ends up meeting and observing many major real-life WWII players: FDR, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, etc. 

Another WWII novel that takes the small-scale/large-scale approach is Elsa Morante’s Rome-set History, which tells the memorable story of the hapless Ida and her two charismatic sons as they navigate the horrors of war and fascism. Each of the book’s sections starts with a detailed list of a year’s real-life events — some of which are then experienced by the fictional characters. Hence the novel’s title, and a literal way of combining the personal and the universal.

The latter-1930s Spanish Civil War was humanized by Ernest Hemingway in his Spain-set For Whom the Bell Tolls via American dynamiter Robert Jordan and other characters in what is my favorite Hemingway novel. (My wife’s Michigan father was a volunteer fighting the fascists in Spain as a member of what’s often called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s absorbing Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of the late-1960s Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War) from the perspective of a small number of characters such as Olanna, Ugwu, and Richard. They are individuals, but also represent the way different classes, genders, nationalities, etc., experienced the heartbreaking conflict.

Geraldine Brooks’ intense novel March views the U.S. Civil War from an interesting angle — that of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women. He goes through a LOT while trying to aid the Union cause, and his harrowing experiences shed lots of light on war, slavery, and more.

Speaking of war novels, Erich Maria Remarque masterfully did the humanizing thing in a number of books — including All Quiet on the Western Front, Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

The hellishness of American slavery is brought home on a personal level in novels such as Alex Haley’s Roots — subtitled “The Saga of an American Family.” The famous book starts with a focus on the captured-from-Africa Kunta Kinte, and a number of the other major characters are his descendants. Yet there’s also a wider lens on the brutal system of slavery.

Julia Alvarez’s compelling In the Time of the Butterflies looks at the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship through the eyes of four sisters — Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and Dedé — who oppose the murderous regime. A very risky proposition for three of them.

John Steinbeck set The Grapes of Wrath during the days of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and mass migration to California — and has the sympathetic Joad family go through it all. Meanwhile, the riveting book includes a number of Joad-less chapters focusing on the social conditions of that 1930s time.

Your favorite novels that fit this post’s theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about four community organizations that may sadly lose their free office space when their building is sold — is here.

132 thoughts on “The Important Human Factor During Important Events

  1. Pingback: The Important Human Factor During Important Events — Dave Astor on Literature | Global village

  2. In Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities” the history of the French Revolution is told through the story of several major and minor characters, none of the actual historical figures of that period is even mentioned.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The great events happening in the wider world sometimes and sometimes inevitably touch the lives of protagonists in more than few good books I know: The Battle of Waterloo in “The Charterhouse of Parma”, Garibaldi’s rebellion/liberation of Italy in “The Leopard” spring immediately to mind. Even the first scene in Raymond Chandler’s “The Lady in the Lake” is worth noting as an example, when Marlowe walks into a building where the rubber sidewalk blocks in front are being pulled up for the war effort. Elsa Morante in “History: A Novel”, as you mentioned above, Dave, employed one of the most effective devices for paralleling the small doings of the characters in a novel with world events.

    But I don’t much care for a raft of famous folk coming into contact with the characters in fiction, as it strains credulity past my allowances for stretched coincidence. I read three novels by Philip Kerr a while back, helpfully published in one big book as “Berlin Noire”, in which the Nazi-era detective Bernard Gunther runs into about half the principals of the Third Reich as part of his investigations as a private detective, itself a job description that would fly in the face of possibility in itself, given the Third Reich. Subtracted from my enjoyment of otherwise readable and well-made fiction. One, maybe. Two, maybe. Three plus? Too much.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY!

      Yes, historical events are definitely part of “The Charterhouse of Parma” and “The Leopard,” even as characters are focused on. (As I’ve said before, I’m grateful that you recommended “The Leopard” a few years ago; it really is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read.)

      I kind of like real people appearing in historical fiction, though I agree that it can be overdone. E.L. Doctorow certainly did it right in “Ragtime.” One of my favorite appearances of an actual notable in a novel is Mark Twain in Darryl Brock’s baseball/time-travel saga “If I Never Get Back.” So entertaining! Ulysses Grant (when President) also has a cameo in that book. And George Washington’s and Benedict Arnold’s cameos later in Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” series of novels were well-handled, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My memory of Tolstoy’s “War And Peace” is a little fuzzy since I basically skimmed through much of this very long novel. However, I vaguely remember that Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812 is seen through the viewpoint of Pierre Bezukhov (I had to look up this character’s name on Wikipedia), one of the several protagonists in this novel.

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  5. Ha! And where do I even begin with this theme, since it’s the one I’m working in myself and has always been a favorite!! 🙂 🙂 You definitely mentioned a couple of my favorite books ever penned including “for Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Grapes of Wrath.” Since I’ve read at least a hundred books in this category, I’ll only mention my most recent favorites to save everyone here some time hahaha 🙂 Kristin Hannah’s “the Nightingale” follows two French sisters through the many dizzying perils of WWII – one who joins the Resistance and the other who tries to keep her head down during Nazi occupation. A sweeping and excellent read, but that’s no surprise when Kristin Hannah is involved. The same goes for her newest novel “the Four Winds,” an epic look at the Great Depression/Dust Bowl through the eyes of one woman Elsa and her family – which I highly recommend. “Yellow Wife,” a book I read earlier this year, which follows enslaved Pheby who was promised her freedom from the Bell plantation on her eighteenth birthday, but the promise falls through and she instead winds up in “Hell’s Half-Acre,” a sadistic Virginia prison where slaves are broken, abused, and then sold. “The Prophets,” a very recent read which follows Isaiah and Sam, two slave boys on a particularly brutal plantation in Mississippi, who also earn the ire of the rest of the slaves when their romantic relationship is exposed. And finally, “Hour of the Witch,” a hard look at the infamous New-World witch trials through the eyes of Mary Deerfield, whose petition to divorce her very cruel husband winds up with her being accused of witchcraft. Again, these are only some recent reads, if you need any other recommendations in this genre, I can provide LOTS more! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! You are indeed an ultra-expert in this area, with many of your riveting blog posts among the examples of that.

      I would definitely like to read “The Nightingale” (which was also recommended a while back by another regular commenter here, Mary Jo Malo). Kristin Hannah sounds like an amazing author.

      And thanks for the various other mentions — all sound compelling!

      Liked by 3 people

  6. Ah, I’ve actually read a couple of these books; Little Women and Roots.
    Although I know another couple through films.
    Now does “Gone With The Wind” count here? It seems to me it does. My mom had me reading that book every other year, with watching the movie in the in between years.
    “Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege” is excellent. It’s a look at slavery, through the eyes of a black child who looks white, and is raised white. Her father was a wealthy plantation owner, her mother a slave. It’s fascinating, as she doesn’t find out she’s part black until her teen years , and she wants to marry. Part of the story goes through the Civil War. After the war, her father dies and leaves everything to her. Easier said than done in that era.
    OH! it’s not pure fiction. It’s based on a true story.
    So, it might not count.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Resa!

      “Gone With the Wind” definitely counts! Margaret Mitchell focused on a certain number of characters amid the sweep and horror of the Civil War. Of course, the novel was problematic when it came to its depiction of African-American characters…

      “Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege” sounds VERY interesting. Well-described by you! Reminds me a bit of the plot line from Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson.”

      Liked by 3 people

      • Agree, still, I’m happy they are not trashing Gone With The Wind. It was written about 70 years after the war, by a romantic mind. Who knows what tales had been passed around at that point.
        Roots is a good counterpoint view. There must be more.
        Here I thought Canada was so wonderful, giving shelter to those who escaped slavery in the US.
        With the BLM movement, I have come (along with MANY others)to realize that although slavery was not a practice here, it was at one time. Abolished in Ontario in 1793, it wasn’t until 1833 that it was completely abolished by Britain, and pertained to all of Canada.

        I had no idea! As a matter of fact, many names of streets, bridges, etc. that are named for founding fathers, who prolonged slavery, are being changed. It’s a costly endeavour, but we are doing it.

        Then there is the matter of reconciling with our First Nations populations. We have a day now for the insanity:

        Makes me think of the old saying: “History is written by the winners.”

        I feel there should be a new saying: True history is covered in muck and mire. We’ve got a lot of house cleaning to do!

        Liked by 4 people

        • Thank you for the follow-up comment, Resa!

          Yes, “Gone With the Wind” was of its time, and contained a lot to like in addition to its cringe depiction of race.

          VERY interesting about Canada’s history re slavery, race, and more. Certainly a more humane country than the U.S. and many other nations, but far from perfect.

          I’m in favor of changing street names and bridge names — and taking down statues — if the person being honored was someone who did a lot to cause or prolong injustice.

          History is indeed usually written by the winners. Your last paragraph vividly says it all!

          Liked by 4 people

          • “GWTW” was not universally admired or praised in its own time, though obviously, it was a huge success as a novel, and as a movie.

            Same might be said, and for roughly parallel reasons, about “The Birth of A Nation”, though the movie outsold the book.

            Black Americans and their allies active in the civil rights movement of the day saw each of these as unhelpful and even damaging to their cause. And both were a kind of political statement wrapped in a blanket of selective and gilded amnesia.

            White supremacy has been gnawing at the heart of our democracy since before we had one, and is with us, mostly unabashed this sorry season, even now.

            We have yet to adequately address ourselves to a question Samuel Johnson asked in 1775, the year before our revolution: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

            Nostalgia is a helluva drug, especially as applied to systemic cruelty. The big hoop skirts and the fluted columns on the big house are best viewed and appreciated out of historical context– and mostly are.

            I should know. I was given a knife made and carried by a Confederate relative in the Battle of Chancellorsville at the hour of my birth. I grew up with a portrait of Robert E Lee in my bedroom. I received 2 Civil War swords as presents on my fifth birthday. Thankfully, I endured the expectations of family and locale and came to know better than to indulge in the old disease of the Lost Cause by adolescence.

            I am old now–70! I guess I’ve run out of patience with the pace of justice and equality, and with the artful impediments– romantic and entertaining though some might be– that block their way. I count Mitchell’s book among them. “The Birth of a Nation”, thank goodness, has not aged nearly so well.

            Liked by 2 people

            • Terrific, eloquent comment, jhNY. Thank you!

              Yes, when one speaks of something like “Gone With the Wind” or “Birth of a Nation” being “of their time,” it means they were “of their time” for many white people. African-Americans strongly criticized racism in popular entertainment (as well as in politics, etc.) in the 1910s and 1930s, even if that criticism often didn’t get reported or acknowledged in “the mainstream media.” It certainly was in Black newspapers of the day.

              Wonderful that you were able to get past the Confederate “values” that some extended-family members tried to imbue in you during your young years. Not easy to find a different path, and it doesn’t happen often enough.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Beyond my own family, there was school. In first grade, my teacher named Lorena Reade, had us pledge allegiance to both the US and Confederate flags. If a boy were to hold the Confederate flag just a tad higher, he might win her favor. She, incidentally, was named after JEB Stuart’s favorite song.

                And beyond school was a friend of my father’s, and my favorite among his friends,Manly Wade Wellman. He was, besides science fiction and books for boys, a writer of popular histories, whose book “Giant In Gray” is a biography of SC Confederate General Wade Hampton, his relative. He and his wife also authored “The Confederate Songbook”, a collection of songs sung on the Southern side of the war.

                As the civil rights movement gained strength and steam, I began looking at the not-so-distant past in ways inconvenient to the legend of the Lost Cause, thanks in part to my mother, who supported civil rights since the 1948 Democratic Convention, despite family history and old allegiances. Though in later years she read enough about the man to change her views, it was she who put up the Lee portrait in my room, believing, like most of us there and then, that Robert E Lee was the very model of a Southern gentleman. And she might, to our collective shame, have been right.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Interesting, jhNY! Those are some vivid memories there — with pressure to believe in the positive-Confederacy myth coming from various angles. Glad your mother looked at things differently. Powerful last line to your comment.

                  Of course, plenty of racism outside the American South, too — then and now. 😦


  7. War books! My favourite. I loved The Red Badge of Courage and Henry’s journey of discovery. I also loved A Farewell to Arms. I think A Gentleman in Moscow might squeak in here as Alexander’s incarceration in the hotel was due to the Russian Revolution. To the Last Man by Jeff Shaara focuses on a few war heroes and a few ordinary troops during WW1. I think a lot of dystopian books also fit into this idea of sharing viewpoints and experiences through a few characters including Brave New World, 1984, Anthem, and Fahrenheit 451.

    Liked by 6 people

  8. It may be that the following books have more than a limited number of characters,I think they fit well with the theme.: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie also re: Spanish Civil War. Seven Years in TIbet re: WWII and Chinese military infiltrating Tibet. Any novel by Dostoeyvsky re: Russia’s totalitarianism (not sure I spelled that correctly) Btw, discovered the “offical blog of North American Dostoeyvsky Society, Bloggers Karamazov. Great title or is it? Since I’m commenting about Dostoevky, gotta add a little paranoia.ha. Just as a side note, I think Seven Yeart in Tibet is banned in China.Duh, go figur. Nice post, Dave. Susi

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Susi! You named various books very relevant to this conversation!

      “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is quite a novel — rather subtle in its depiction of evil. Some characters favor the wrong side of things…

      “Bloggers Karamazov” — love it!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Many excellent mentions here – especially ‘Regeneration’ by Pat Barker, that Martina suggested.

    Other books that fit in with this theme….inevitably they are war based, although rather than as historical fiction they are by authors who wrote around the time of the second war. ‘Brideshead Revisited’ by Evelyn Waugh is set in 1943 although the story begin in the early 1920s.

    Patrick Hamilton wrote ‘Hangover Square’ in 1941 but is set in the lead up to WWII. He also wrote ‘Slaves of Solitude’ (1947) which is set against the backdrop of war. Both excellent novels that focus on just a handful of characters during this tumultuous time.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! I agree about the many excellent mentions by various commenters!

      And thanks for seconding Martina’s praise of “Regeneration.” It’s now on my to-read list.

      And I appreciate the other mentions! I’ve read little of Evelyn Waugh; I probably should rectify that at some point. 🙂

      Probably no war inspired more novels than WWII…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, it’s definitely worth reading ‘Regeneration’. So interesting and encouraged me to find out more about Dr Rivers and the work he did at that time. I also read Robert Graves’ excellent autobiography ‘Goodbye to All That’. He was only 34 when it was published, but it draws on his war time experiences and his friendship with Sassoon. Not exactly a companion piece but fascinating reading.

        I’m beginning to discover that Waugh is one of those ‘marmite’ authors (either loved or hated). I absolutely loved ‘Brideshead Revisited’ but I’ve read some less than complimentary reviews. ‘Scoop’ is an excellent read as well, although I read it some years ago. I may have to have another look at it.

        And you’re right, so many novels inspired by this time in history. Which reminds me of another novel that fits this theme – ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada (I understand it has a different title in the US – ‘Every Man Dies Alone). This is an absolutely gripping story based on true events during the war and it was also the first anti-Nazi themed book published after the war.

        Liked by 2 people

          • Thanks for the Robert Graves mention! There have been many war memoirs in addition to many war novels by various authors.

            Speaking of Waugh and love-hate, the books of his I read many years ago were “Decline and Fall” and “A Handful of Dust.” Wasn’t a big fan of either, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like some of his other work. 🙂

            And thanks for the Hans Fallada mention!

            Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sarah, thank you so much for this recommendation. I am doing research on WW1 for my own novel and Regeneration will fit right in. If you have any other recommendations for WW1 based books please let me know. I’ve read All Quiet on the Western Front, A Farewell to Arms, and To the Last Man as per my comment below.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. One I read recently: The Sitter by Robert Fowler. It takes place in Tuscany in 1943 and 1944 and shows how the German army in retreat and Italians who supported the fascists, or not, added extra levels of conflict and horror. It’s presented through a handful of characters with their own issues. Well-written, but a tough read at times.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Audrey!

      That book sounds intensely interesting, and fits this theme exactly. Well described by you!

      The number of compelling World War II novels seems almost endless — for good reason. That conflict was huge, dramatic, horrendous, and many other adjectives.

      Liked by 3 people

  11. I have read the series ‘The Other Side of …’. By Marie Donais Calder. The first book in the series is ‘The Other Side of War’. This series is the fictional/historical story of Marie’s father’s time in Germany during World War II and the young German boy and his family that her father befriended. It is exceptional in how it shows how the war affected typical Germans of the day – and how Canadians were not always the heroes that they are generally portrayed as.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Over the years, I have used non-fiction books to explore difficult, world changing events. Joseph E. Persico’s book, “Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour” explored the final hours and the futility of war. This reminded me of “All Quiet on the Western Front” The Allied general’s knew the fighting would end precisely at 11:00 A.M, yet in the final hours they flung men against an already beaten Germany.

    Turning to fiction, and the French Revolution – A Tale of Two Cities, Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini, and The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy which was set at the start of the French Revolution. These last two books are a great way to introduce a younger audience to difficult events in human history.

    Dave – another wonderful conversation. I will be back to read the discussion. Thank you!!

    Liked by 3 people

  13. (Spoiler alert) I read “All Quiet On the Western Front” in high school and I never reread it because it was too grim so my memory of this novel is a little hazy. It tells the story of World War 1 through the experiences of several German soldiers. It’s probably one of the very few novels where the first person narrator dies at the end.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. I know this one is not a novel, Dave, but it strikes me. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl chronicling his experiences as a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. We read the horrible things during those times but he survived. I love when he said, we have the statue of liberty on the east coast and we should have the statue of responsibility on the west coast.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Miriam!

      Great mention! And, as you know, the horrific experiences of one person in something like a Nazi concentration camp can reflect not only that person’s experiences but the experiences of others. Heartening when some survive, but of course so many didn’t.

      One of the most sobering novels I’ve ever read about the camps was Erich Maria Remarque’s “Spark of Life.” (One of his lesser-known works.) Chilling.

      That’s a terrific quote at the end of your comment!

      Liked by 2 people

  15. As far as war novels are concerned, Dave, I always felt like you that the number of people involved should be limited.
    In the book “Regeneration” by Pat Barker, which really got under my skin, the writer analyses the profound effects the war experiences (first world war) had on the soldiers through conversations with the army psychologist, W.H. R. Rivers, the poet Sassoon and for example Billy Prior. The psychologist also speaks to Billy’s father and we may understand, where certain conflicts come from.

    Liked by 5 people

  16. You’ve described a few books that I may need to check out, Dave! One that fits this topic and is memorable for me is “We Were the Lucky Ones” by Georgia Hunter. Fictionalized but based on the author’s family members, the book tells what happens to the various members when the Nazis take over Poland.

    Liked by 3 people

  17. I’d mention War and Peace but Tolstoy didn’t exactly keep it to a few. A Tale of Two Cities. Les Mis.Kate Furnivall’s the Survivors, start after the war, ina camp that is for refugees and you get the unwinding back story of what the characters have been through in the war in Europe. Great post btw.

    Liked by 3 people

  18. The books fitting the theme that immediately come to mind are Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner, also by William Styron, and Going after Cacciato by Tim O’Brian. Forrest Gump fits the theme, but the book is horrible.

    Liked by 4 people

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