Books I Love: Two Herman Wouk Novels That Resonate Today

By Nadine Epstein

In the wake of President Trump’s inauguration and the resurgence of white supremacist anti-Semitism, my son, then 24, mentioned that he had happened upon a wonderful book: “You should read it, Mom.” I asked what it was. He said, “Have you heard of Herman Wouk? The book is called The Winds of War.”

I laughed. I told him I had devoured that book one summer in my youth. “Well, then you know that it’s a great book,” he said.

I agreed but although remembering that I loved The Winds of War I had read it at a time when I read books at a pace so fast I didn’t deeply digest them. So when my son finished the book, I started rereading it.

The novel is a chronicle of the Henry family during the lead up to World War II and it’s a fabulous read—a perfect book for the moment. Again and again as I read it, I found myself sighing at the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the rise of the Nazis. Trump is no Hitler, but like Hitler he came to power by reinvigorating and empowering white supremacists. In 19th century Europe, the resulting chaos fed the forces that brought about the gradual rejection of rational thought and civilized behavior.

The story is about the lives of U.S. Navy officer “Pug” and his wife Rhoda, their children Warren, Byron, and Madeleine, and how each of their complicated lives plays against the backdrop of the descent into war. It is masterfully woven and not overwritten at 885 pages. I wanted Winds of War to go on and of course it does, in Wouk’s “Part Two,” the 1,042-page War and Remembrance. Thanks to a few long plane trips, I read that too.

The tale of the Henry family encompasses two of Wouk’s most transformational life experiences: his time in the Navy and his embrace of Orthodox Judaism. (Perhaps three if you include the death of a son.) I enjoyed Wouk’s World War II sea battle primer but it is his documentation of the Jewish journey–in West and East Europe, Russia, America, and Palestine—that is most riveting.

Natalie Jastrow, who Byron marries, and her uncle Aaron, both secular 20th century intellectual Jews, propel both volumes. Their deepening connection to Judaism, forced upon them by the Nazis, encapsulates much of the Jewish story of last century and all of it still resonates today.

Nadine Epstein is editor of Moment, an independent magazine which covers the conundrums of Jewish politics, culture and religion.


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