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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about four community organizations that may sadly lose their free office space when their building is sold — is here.