By Chet Yarbrough
By: Ken Follett
Narrated by: John Lee
Ken Follett writes “Fall of Giants” with Charles Dickens’ coincidence, Dumas’ flare, and Mantel’ historicism. In listening to John Lee’s skillful narration, one becomes witness to an interpretation of great moments in the history of WWI. “Fall of Giants” is a painless way of learning something about history.
Follett explains in an interview that “Fall of Giants” follows reported history with interludes of real and fictional conversations about historic events. In some cases, historic figures are a part of the story; in others, fictional characters talk about historical events in imagined social or political meetings.
“Fall of Giants” recounts social and political conversation about the build-up, progression, and consequence of World War I–the social milieu of the time, the clash of political beliefs, and the ephemeral and Pyrrhic success of war. The great scale of events is written into human lives; their loves, lusts, hates, mental torments, war injuries, and deaths. Follett captures different views of The Great War through experiences of English/Irish, German, Russian, French, and American families. An overarching theme in “Fall of Giants” is inequality; i.e. the gap between rich and poor and its consequent disenfranchisement.
There is truth, and delusion on every side of the war. The characters in each of Follett’s fictional families have diverse opinions. Maud Fitzherbert, an English aristocrat, is in love and marries a German aristocrat just before war is declared. The German aristocrat serves as a highly competent and effective major in the German army during the war even though he vociferously disagrees with his right-wing’ aristocratic father.
An irony of Russia’s build-up of military force along the Austria-Hungary border, before Germany’s declaration of war, is Czarist Russia’s nearing social collapse. Girgori Peshkov, a Russian laborer, hates the Czar and resents having to fight Germans to defend Russia because he has no dog in the fight; no land to protect, and has no prospect of social improvement; to a slightly lesser degree, the Irish family patriarch, Da (William Williams’ father) regrets having his son go to war because it preserves an English land-holding-coal mining’ aristocracy at the expense of impoverished English laborers.
William Williams, an English coal miner, fights bravely in the war but is court-martialed by a military tribunal led by “Fitz” Fitzherbert (an English lord of inherited coal mining land and wealth) because Williams’ platoon is illegally ordered to foment a counter-revolution in Russia after Lenin’s 1917 ascension. Williams secretly writes his politically active sister in England to expose Fitzherbert’s illegal mission and becomes a left-leaning politician after serving one year of a ten-year sentence in prison. Williams’ sister, after aligning herself with Maud Fitzherbert in an effort to gain women’s suffrage in England, breaks with Maud because of Maud’s drive for ideal feminist equality while Williams’ sister drives for “a foot in the door” of women’s suffrage. The essence of the disagreement is that Fitzherbert lives in wealth (before the war) while William’s sister is just getting by and wants immediate, politically practical improvement in women’s rights.
American ambivalence about WWI is as muddled as England’s and Russia’s but America is a late comer and has less blood in the fight. American families are represented by the Dewers and an immigrant Russian family. Gus Dewer is a wealthy American that works for President Wilson. As a political insider, he offers an image of Wilson that is incomplete but reflective of an idealism that is breached more than practiced by American leadership. Wilson is a President that believes black Americans are inferior. On the other hand, Wilson believes in the ideal of a League of Nations to avoid future wars. Wilson falls ill and is unable to get political approval of the League; further, Wilson fails, with his “Fourteen Points” statement of principles to lead European allies away from a vengeful reparations treaty with Germany, a treaty that is freighted with sown seeds of WWII.
Grigori Peshkov, who has become a principled political activist in post-revolution Russia, has an unprincipled brother, Lev, that escapes to America to work for a Russian mobster in Buffalo, New York. Lev Peshkov is beginning his rise to crime boss as “Fall of Giants” ends and liquor prohibition begins.
Follett completes this first book of a trilogy with the appearance of Hitler when the Nazi party fails to overthrow the German government in the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch . Each of the families has children that extend these five societal families through 20th century history. Follett offers a painless method for learning something about the history of the 20th century. Follett’s trilogy may not be a precise factual report of 20th century history but no history, of any time, has ever been precise.