Ellen’s Review: Fall of Giants by Ken Follet

Ellen’s Review: Fall of Giants by Ken FolletFall of Giants by Ken Follett
Published by Dutton on 2010
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Sagas
Pages: 985
View our Ken Follett feature page. Ken Follett's World Without End was a global phenomenon, a work of grand historical sweep, beloved by millions of readers and acclaimed by critics. Fall of Giants is his magnificent new historical epic. The first novel in The Century Trilogy, it follows the fates of five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, and Welsh—as they move through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for women's suffrage. Thirteen-year-old Billy Williams enters a man's world in the Welsh mining pits...Gus Dewar, an American law student rejected in love, finds a surprising new career in Woodrow Wilson's White House...two orphaned Russian brothers, Grigori and Lev Peshkov, embark on radically different paths half a world apart when their plan to emigrate to America falls afoul of war, conscription, and revolution...Billy's sister, Ethel, a housekeeper for the aristocratic Fitzherberts, takes a fateful step above her station, while Lady Maud Fitzherbert herself crosses deep into forbidden territory when she falls in love with Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German embassy in London... These characters and many others find their lives inextricably entangled as, in a saga of unfolding drama and intriguing complexity, Fall of Giants moves seamlessly from Washington to St. Petersburg, from the dirt and danger of a coal mine to the glittering chandeliers of a palace, from the corridors of power to the bedrooms of the mighty. As always with Ken Follett, the historical background is brilliantly researched and rendered, the action fast-moving, the characters rich in nuance and emotion. It is destined to be a new classic. In future volumes of The Century Trilogy, subsequent generations of the same families will travel through the great events of the rest of the twentieth century, changing themselves-and the century itself. With passion and the hand of a master, Follett brings us into a world we thought we knew, but now will never seem the same again. Watch a Video

Sitting in my World War I class last semester, my professor asked each student to state their opinion on whether historical fiction can teach anything about the past. In a graduate level course on the First World War, this may seem like a silly question, as certainly everything we read, debate, and analyze uses primary sources as evidence – unless your thesis examines literature of the time. This particular day, however, our reading discussion centered on All Quiet on the Western Front, one of the most well known war stories.

If you haven’t read the 1929 novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the story follows the life of young German soldier Paul Bäumer and his comrades as they deal with death and survival on the Western Front. The book is an example of anti-war literature and was eventually banned during the reign of the Nazi regime. All Quiet on the Western Front represents not only an example of censorship in the Third Reich, but also represents and portrays that not all Germans were war mongers, how poorly citizens lived at the home front, and the terrors of life in the trenches. The class unanimously decided that historical fiction, when the author does his or her research, can be a good learning tool in history classes.

With this viewpoint in mind, I was excited to start reading another World War I historical fiction Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. Fall of Giants is the first book of his Century Trilogy that covers the lives of five interconnected families in the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia and the United States living through both World Wars and communism. Think Love Actually in novelized form written like the A Song of Ice and Fire books through various points-of-view. This first installment covers the years leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand through the creation of the Weimar Republic.

Since Fall of Giants spans such a large period of time and follows many characters, it is difficult to provide a short summary that does the book justice. Instead, I’ll briefly describe some of Follett’s protagonists as spoiler-free as possible:

  • Billy Williams begins the story as a young Welsh miner, who uses his religious upbringing to help bring clarity and guidance to his life. When the war breaks out he joins the Welsh Rifles to fight on the Western Front and later finds himself across the world in Vladivostok.
  • Ethel Williams, Billy’s older sister, is a housekeeper at Ty Gwyn, the luxurious estate of the local Earl near her hometown. Circumstances cause Ethel to leave her position and set up a new life in London. Outspoken, Ethel becomes a leading suffragette in London.
  • Earl Edward “Fitz” Fitzherbert inherited Ty Gwyn from his father as well as his noble title. Fitz is married to a Russian princess, and they travel between homes in London and Wales. The men in Fitz’s family were respected military leaders. Fitz, longing to gain the same respect of his forefathers, heads the Welsh Rifles during the war.
  • Lady Maud Fitzherbert, Fitz’s younger sister, is a rebellious noble woman who voices her opinion for women’s suffrage. By day she runs a doctor’s office for poor, unmarried women, and by night she attends operas and dinners where figures such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill are in attendance. Maud later heads a newspaper to publish her and other suffragette opinions.
  • Walter von Ulrich is a German diplomat, who works in London before the war breaks out. Another example of anti-war sentiment in German society, Walter spends most of 1914 attempting to prevent a pan-European conflict. When this proves to be impossible, Walter returns to Germany to fight on the Western Front.
  • Gus Dewar is a senator’s son from Buffalo, NY and works as an aide to President Woodrow Wilson. His role led him on diplomatic travels to the United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia. When the United States enters the war in 1917, Gus trains to join other Americans in France.
  • Grigori Peshkov is a Russian peasant, who works in a factory in Saint Petersburg. Grigori is drafted to defend Russian lines on the Eastern Front and later becomes one of the first supporters of the Bolshevik Revolution.
  • Lev Peshkov, Grigori’s younger brother, escapes Saint Petersburg and eventually finds himself working for a gangster in Buffalo, NY. After being forced to enlist in the American Army, Lev returns to Russia on a mission in Vladivostok.

As a history student, I really appreciate Follett’s note on how he writes his historical fiction: if he finds that a scene could not have realistically taken place or if a character would not have realistically said certain things, he leaves them out. He also consulted several notable historians while writing the book.

I very much enjoyed Follett’s writing, the characters, and the overall story. Despite being fiction, Fall of Giants contains a great deal of general history about the First World War. Since I do study history, some parts seemed too obvious or forced to me, for example something along the lines of “oh the Schlieffen Plan…Germany’s plan to quickly defeat the French and then turn focus towards the Eastern Front…” but to a non-history student, this may be fine.

At its core, Fall of Giants is a love story, a war story, and a story on changing political ideologies. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in twentieth century history as well as to anyone who likes an exciting read. You will easily connect to the characters, become a champion of several, and eventually find yourself sympathetic or disgusted with others.

To my other history lovers, what are your opinions on using historical fiction to learn about the past?


What do you think?

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