Armageddon Reveals the Price of Building Peace

dust jacket of ArmageddonArmageddon is a sprawling novel set as World War II ends and the Soviets move to turn Europe into Communist satellites.

The themes Leon Uris raises are as familiar as today’s news, but easier to examine with a degree of objectivity in a 75-year-old setting.

War-weary Americans want to pull out of Germany and let the Germans fend for themselves. General A. J. Hansen begs  American politicians to plan for a post-war political settlement.  He sees withdrawal would give rise to a more serious threat than Hitler’s Reich.

Hansen assembles a team of experts lead in everything from electrical generation to municipal government to design a plan for governing Germany after the war. Hansen sends them to a Nazi stronghold where they deploy and refine their plan.

Then Hansen redirects them to Berlin to begin guiding the city into rebuilding on democratic principles before the Russians can build Berlin into a Communist satellite.

When the Russians block all land routes into the city, leaving Berliners to face starvation in the frigid winter, Hansen fights against Congressional and military leaders to win presidential approval to attempt to supply the city by air.

Although Hansen is behind most of the novel’s action, he’s rarely seen in the novel. Uris reserves the role of the hero for the team of men who put their individual expertise at the service of America. Uris lists yards of facts about the Berlin airlift, emphasizing the monumental achievement and personal self-effacement of the men who made it happen.­

It takes a rare kind of man to serve his country without the benefit of pyrotechnics or reward and a different kind of courage to keep your mouth shut and go on working and believing when you are positive those around you are wrong. We don’t have enough men of this kind of dedication.

by Leon Uris
Doubleday 1964
632 pages
1964 bestseller #4
My grade: B+

© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Houses in Between explores failed peace promises

For years, Howard Spring was intrigued by the idea of writing a novel about why the peaceful world promised by the Crystal Palace in 1851 was never realized. Spring takes his answer from a line in a music hall song “You could see the Crystal Palace if it wasn’t for the houses in between.”

Sarah Rainborough Undridge, born in 1848, was three when her parents took her to the opening of the Crystal Palace. Before long, Sarah’s parents were divorced, her mother remarried to Baron Burnage, whose first wife has gone off with another man.

Sarah spends most of her childhood and youth in the company of a governess, Maggie Whales, who becomes a successful novelist (published by Charles Dickens) but remains a sensible and loving friend to Sarah for decades.

Sarah is not beautiful, brilliant, or talented. Through Maggie’s influence she becomes perceptive, thoughtful and reflective. As she grows older, Sarah begins writing the story of her life. The Houses In Between, including its title, is presented as her fictional memoir, finished shortly before her death on New Year’s Day 1948.

Spring is a fine writer. He conveys personalities and atmosphere so vividly they appear in the mind’s eye in streaming video. Yet the book, for all its richness of character and history, feels flat, which is Spring’s point: Virtue is lovely and fragile; reality is ugly and durable.

The Houses in Between
Howard Spring
Harper, 1951
550 pages
1952 Bestseller #10
My grade: A-
© 2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Saracen Blade is dull and dumb

Frank Yerby’s speciality is novels about men and women who rise from poverty to wealth, fame, and marital bliss through their brilliance, loyalty, and sexual prowess.

Yerby sets The Saracen Blade in the 13th century. Pietro di Donati, a blacksmith’s son, is born on the same day and in same town as the baby who will become Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire.

In that era, the aristocracy ruled by violence, usually having become aristocrats by violence. Though slightly built, inclined to intellectual rather than physical pursuits, Pietro becomes part of the violent world in which kingdoms clash, religions compete, and the poor suffer the consequences.

Pietro seeks his fortune in the only way boys of his era know: attaching himself to powerful knight and hoping to rise with him. For 30 years, he trudges around Europe, North Africa, and Asia as squire, knight, Crusader and trader. He pauses occasionally to admire the women and to retch when someone other than himself inflicts mayhem.

When Pietro finally gets back home, his childhood sweetheart is waiting. By that time, I was ready to retch.

I recommend reading the appendix. Yerby’s notes are better than his novel.

The Saracen Blade
Frank Yerby
Dial Press (book club edition), 1952
1952 Bestseller #9
295 pages + notes
My grade: C
©2012 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Gold and Gasps Within The Puppet Crown

After a slow opening,  Harold MacGrath’s The Puppet Crown turns a  geeky  sovereign bond situation into a complex tale of political intrigue.

King Leopold of Osia, cousin of the late king, came to throne because a confederation disposed the king’s brother, Josef, and “placed him on [a] puppet throne, surrounded by enemies, menaced by his adopted people, rudderless and ignorant of statecraft. ”

The Diet authorizes Leopold to borrow for public projects; a departing British diplomat purchases the bonds.

When the loan is due 10 years later, in order to effectively foreclose on government of Osia shadowy political power brokers attempt to prevent the loan from being paid or extended.

The main character is Maurice Carewe, an American journalist turned diplomat. He arrives as Osia is preparing for the wedding of Princess Alexia to the crown prince of Carnavia. The prince will pay off the bonds as the bride’s dowry if the bond holder, Baronet Fitzgerald, does not extend the loan period. The prince, however, has disappeared. Maurice unwittingly identifies Fitzgerald, who is using an assumed name.  Thus begin cloak-and-dagger, dark-of night adventures  with skilled swordsmen and uncloaked, dark-of-night adventures with deceitful damsels.

The Puppet Crown ends in a shockingly unexpected manner:  realistically, not novelistically.

The valiant hero does not get the princess.

The cruel, scheming duchess does not get her comeuppance.

And there’s no happily-ever-after with the Austrian Empire on the rise.

Project Gutenberg

The Puppet Crown
by Harold MacGrath
1901 bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg e-book #3239
© 2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Leopard Makes a History Lesson Painless

The Leopard, Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s only novel, traces the deline of traditional Sicilian culture as the Italian state rises.

Don Fabrizio, the head of the family whose crest is the leopard, is an old-world aristocrat. He owns thousands of acres and is no stranger to audiences with the Bourbon King Ferdinand. Politics, however, has little interest for him. He has his wife and family, his estates, his mistresses, and his astronomy.

Don Fabrizio’s nephew Tancredi has the political acuity to foresee the consequences of Garibaldi’s invasion of Sicily. Seeing the uncouth Mayor of Salina,  Don Sedara, buying property from financially pinched aristrocrats, Tancredi hitches his wagon to the Sedara star by marrying Sedara’s gorgeous daughter.

By the time of Fabrizio’s death, there’s nothing left of the family fortunes but the name.

Di Lampedusa develops his novel as a series of snapshots of the Fabrizio family between 1860 and 1910.  Readers don’t get close to any characters, but they do get a sense of the causes of the sweeping social changes in Europe the last half of the 19th century.

Though The Leopard is not a particularly entertaining novel, it beats a history book as an introduction to the rise of the modern European state.

The Leopard
By Guiseppe di Lampedusa
Trans by Archibald Colquhoun
Pantheon Books,  1960
320 pages
My grade: B
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni.