Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Children's War

The Children's War : A Novel

J.N. Stroyar

Date: 22 May, 2001   —   Book

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One of the most hoary old clichés for alternate history scenarios is the question, "What if Hitler won World War II?" It's generally considered to be a sign of lack of imagination on the part of the writer, as most efforts are pretty trite.

Stroyar does a really good job with it, though. In her novel, the focus is not on the fact that Hitler won, but on the lives of the people in the Third Reich, and how a country built on hatred affects its populace over time. It is a novel of multi-generational oppression, and how the people fighting it have grown up knowing no other reality. They are the children of the title, though most of them are adults.

Two parallel stories are going on here: that of the Polish Home Army, a resistance group that is almost all that remains of the original Polish population, and that of a man known as Peter, who was born English but through a series of events has ended up as a slave, an Untermench, in Germany. Stroyar makes it obvious that sooner or later their paths are going to cross, and though the crossing occurs quite soon, the true meeting does not happen until a goodly chunk of time and abuse have passed Peter by. I was a little annoyed at the clear telegraphing of intention but it all worked out okay.

Most of the rest of the book deals with the fight for freedom, both that of the Home Army and of Peter in his own mind. It is hard to break free from a legacy of torture and Peter has to do just that; moreover, it takes him quite some time to realize it. Thankfully, the book does not end with full success on the part of the resistance, because the institutions of the Reich are too ingrained and a total win would seem like a cop-out. Instead, the book ends mid-struggle, but with a note of hope on many points.

It is not a small novel. At over 1000 pages hardbound, it should not be attempted unless you have a thing for bricks as books. Moreover, there are a number of graphic descriptions of torture within the book. I'm not sure yet if I'm up to reading it again as it is a bit brutal. The afternote was a bt disappointing to me, mostly being a number of assertions that certain early events of the Reich and styles of torture were indeed true; one would hope that anyone with any sense at all would know enough to seek out such information.

Incidentally, Stroyar never does get into why Hitler won, though it is specifically mentioned that he didn't invade Russia, and there is a hint that Churchill never came to power and that American isolationism won out. Who knows. She very wisely decided it was unimportant to the thrust of his novel, which is the story of life under oppression, not just life under a victorious Third Reich.

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