Sunday, December 21, 2008
Book Review: The Steel Wave, by Jeff Shaara
This book, the second in Shaara's World War II trilogy, is the excellent sequel to The Rising Tide, which I reviewed earlier this year (see here). I thought that one was good. This one was better. Way better.
Picking up where the last book left off, Shaara tells the epic story of D-Day in this book, starting from the early part of 1944, during the planning stages of Overlord, all the way to the Normandy campaign and into the end of the year.
The first scene opens with three British soldiers being taken to the shores of Normandy via submarine in order to gather geological samples. This may sound boring, but the scene was actually very, very good. Shaara goes on to skilfully capture the reader again and again, in scene after scene. Not far into the novel things get very interesting when we see Rommel struggling inside with the issue of the plot(s) to assassinate the Fuhrer. Some of his close friends from the Great War are involved, and Rommel has no great love for Hitler anymore either, so this provides some downright meaty fodder for the thinking reader. Whether the Field Marshal was involved or not is debated to this day, but the book takes the view that he was entirely removed.
Although clearly the enemy, I found Rommel the most interesting character of this series. I love Patton more, but, as occurred when I read Gods and Generals, I find Rommel a bit more interesting, at least in the book anyway. (In G&G I disliked the portrayal of Jackson and instead was attracted to Winfield Scott Hancock.) His personal struggles with this issue, his increasing anger and frustration with Hitler and his minions, and even his refusal to become involved due to his own oath of allegiance so long ago, all made him into a fascinating reading experience.
Warning: SPOILERS! At the very end of the book, my emotions were tugged as strongly as the most convincing film as Rommel prepares for his own death. The Gestapo comes to his house and lay their "case" before him; although uninvolved, they implicate him due to his differences with their leader-God, Hitler (it would seem Rommel was too much of realist to ever get along with such a demon of insanity). They make it clear to him: Rommel is to die. He is given ten minutes with his family. He dons his favorite uniform, a desert tan--fitting for the Desert Fox--and spends a few moments with his son, Manfred, and his beloved wife, Lucie. They both cry, but Rommel leaves them determined. He has been promised that they will be unharmed if he does what they ask him to, and after extracting that promise a second time, he does what they ask. He commits suicide. The book ends.
The most page-turning part of the book was the extended D-Day sequence. Shaara successfully infects the reader with anticipation and a form of almost dread-like excitement as the invasion begins. (I noticed the superlative portrayal of combat in the entire book, as well.) We experience the adrenaline of the airborne drop behind German lines; the chaos, the fear, the carnage. We feel the terror of Germans in a bunker as they see a near-endless fleet coming straight for them. We are shocked as we see a man discover he has lost both of his legs to a hand grenade. All in all, the Normandy assault scene, through and through, was epic.
And then there's the history. As I've said before, I am no expert, but I've never found many issues with Shaara. This book, like the first, would be a good education tool for those normally bored by this topic. I highly recommend The Steel Wave for this reason, if nothing else. It is a long read (493 pages), but it is a good one.
And now the "negatives."
Again as in the first novel, those who have issues with language and violence should steer clear. If you want to know the style of this book, think Saving Private Ryan on paper and you'll have a good idea.
Several scenes are gory and even gut-wrenching. As mentioned before, one man loses his legs. He checks for every part of him (including a certain important endowment) and thinks his legs are there, insisting his boots have been nabbed, only discovering the truth when a medic comments on his lack of lower limbs. A few other parts that may disturb some more mild-minded readers: a man is blown apart, causing his own sergeant to vomit uncontrollably as he dies, fearfully begging for the sarge to shoot him; the same sergeant shoots a dead German body moments after killing him, due to "blind fury, his own terror" as "the animal [is] taking over"; a young soldier fatally shoots a surrendered Nazi (although this possibly is taken from memoirs, but I'm not sure), upsetting his sergeant, who then later wishes he had done the same thing; and etc.
A more concerning issue in any media (at least to me), however, is sexual content. I always watch for any kind of content along these lines, tolerating next to nothing. I was not happy to see a few dirty comments as in the first book, but was pleased to find nothing more. (Caution: I've put these references here so as to alert other readers like me to potentially objectionable content, but if you are uncomfortable with reading this, then skip this part.)
"I heard Marley say he can't wait to get his hands on some French girl. Says they do things...well, things."..."You remember all the things those Sicilian girls did to you?"..."Uh, no, Sarge. Mostly they just waved as we went by." "Right. I'm guessing the French girls are about as mysterious as that."
Mention of the American soldiers being a danger to the "virtue" or the young ladies, and even many of the "mothers succumbed as well."
One soldier uses an army-issued condom to protect his valuables from water. "You meet some mademoiselle, you'll wish you had that d***ed thing in your wallet and not around it. Anybody in this outfit catches the clap, I'll kick his a**."
Soldier has reputation for staying true to his wife in England. What would I tell my wife if I got the clap? Well, I wouldn't tell her, I guess. Better yet, don't catch it in the first place. After this, he pulls out his wife's picture.
German officer is missing due as he "occasionally seeks...warmer company."
Officer gets a letter from his wife, telling of her newborn baby, but the news is actually bad to him. "I've been away for just a tad more than the required nine months."
And that's about it.
All in all, this book was excellent. The story was masterfully told, the reader is captured all the way, and the history is excellent. What more does a reader want?