Happy Birthday, Herman Wouk
On May 27 one of America's greatest authors, Herman Wouk, turned 102 years old. Wouk, who won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1951 for his best seller, The Caine Mutiny, penned the extraordinary World War II saga about the fictional Henry family, The Winds of War (1971) and War and Remembrance (1978). Wouk brought his personal knowledge of naval heroism to the story of Victor “Pug” Henry, who longed to captain his own ship during the war, as Wouk had served as an officer aboard two destroyer mine sweepers in the Pacific. Wouk won a number of battle stars during World War II, participating in eight invasions.
I did not read The Winds of War and War and Remembrance until the novels were produced for television on ABC in 1983. Captured by the performances of Robert Mitchum, Ali MacGraw, Polly Bergen, Jan-Michael Vincent, and John Houseman, I dove into the novels themselves. While the books cover the lives of a naval family, the Henrys, they also follow the story of the Jastrow family, a non-religious Jewish family sucked into the maelstrom of the Holocaust through a combination of naivete and arrogance on the part of Professor Aaron Jastrow and his beautiful, but stubborn, niece Natalie.
The novels, which begin in the late 1930s when Pug is sent as the U.S. Naval attache to Berlin, cover a remarkably global scale of the events leading up to and covering the war. Through Pug's eyes Hitler's unbridled aggression is spelled out when Nazi Germany plans to invade Poland, and Pug predicts the Nazi-Soviet aggression pact before it even takes place. Pug and his wife, the frivolous and simple Rhoda, hobnob uncomfortably with Hitler and his cohorts before President Roosevelt realizes that Pug can play an important role for him as the president's pipeline to European events.
As such Pug travels through Europe he has the opportunity to meet the other key players in the European theater of operations, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin. However, throughout his loyal service to the President, Pub longs to be given a ship of his own, an elusive goal which plagues him through the course of these two great novels.
The Winds of War ends with the attack on Pearl Harbor, just when Pug is finally given command of a cruiser, the USS Northampton. However, fate once again twists and as War and Remembrance opens, Pug is sent back to the Soviet Union to observe the effects of Lend Lease, reporting once again to his esteemed Commander in Chief.
The dramatic tension that is built into these two novels is so powerful that when I finished the last page of War and Remembrance, I sobbed for half an hour. No book has ever hit me so emotionally as War and Remembrance. The depth of detail included so masterfully in Wouk's presentation of World War II is immeasurable against all other fiction that has been written on the subject. My father-in-law, Thomas Moroney, proudly served with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during the war, while my own father, Jay H. Dakelman served as a medic with the 89th Division of the Army Corps of Engineers. My husband's and my father sacrificed years of their youth to protect our country and reading Wouk's volumes pays tribute to them, as well as to all of the other brave men and women who dedicated their lives to guarding freedom.
While The Winds of War and War and Remembrance grace the top of my list for favorite books of all time, I would be remiss in not mentioning Marjorie Morningstar, published in 1955. Immortalized on-screen by Natalie Wood, Marjorie Morgenstern is a pretty, young Jewish girl, who dreams of becoming an actress. As such, Marjorie adopts the stage name of Morningstar and pursues her chosen career.
Along the way, Marjorie gets a job at a summer camp, working as a dramatic counselor, and there she meets Noel Airman, who has had some success in the theater. Enamored of the older, successful Noel, Marjorie pursues him relentlessly through the next few years of her life, compromising her ideals and dreams for what she believes is mad passion. Noel treats her in a calculated and cool way, frequently diminishing her values and dreams.
I first read Marjorie Morningstar when I was a teenager; it was one of the first adult novels that I ever read. I revisited the novel a few years ago, and it has remained one of the most memorable books because of the depth and scope of Wouk's wonderful attention to character. As a voracious reader, I frequently close a book and have trouble even remembering the names of the characters when I sit down to write a review because contemporary writers fail to embark on creating rich characters about whom the reader can explore and discuss with others. It seems to me that most of the best-sellers today are written to be just that, best-sellers, but the art and scope of a Herman Wouk is, sadly, very much a thing of the past.
Reclusive, and obviously now ancient, Wouk released what he claims will be his final book in 2016, an auto-biographical memoir entitled Sailor and Fiddler Reflections of a 100 Year Old Author. Wouk says that it is his final book. I don't think so. And I hope not.
I wanted this column to pay tribute to an American treasure; I don't feel that I have even scratched the depth of Herman Wouk. Therefore, I will leave it at this for you; if you have never read a Herman Wouk, and you love literature, character development, scope and sage, this summer indulge in reading the works of this Pulitzer Prize winning master.