February Reading: A Neglected Black Novelist and a Neglected War Novelist

We’ve had a foot of snow, maybe more.

I’ve read everything.  Everything!   I’m indoors ALL THE TIME.  I’ve read  Rolling Stone’s rankings of the Democratic presidential candidates, and a Huff Post story about two older dogs who got “married” as an animal shelter’s publicity stunt.

And I have read two brilliant, neglected books.

1. Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills, published in 1986, is one of the most powerful, and most neglected, novels of the 20th century. Naylor  lyrically narrates the story of a black neighborhood, Linden Hills, built in the 19th century by Luther Nedeed, a depraved black landowner/mortician who despises his black tenants but hates his white neighbors more.  His descendants, one son for each generation,  are all named Luther Nedeed, and are replicas of him. (Apparently the Nedeeds have a creepy “magic” recipe for conceiving  identical sons.)

One hundred fifty years later, Linden Hills has become an exclusive  black suburb, where  successful upper middle-class residents  lose their identity.  Two impecunious young  poets, Lester Tilson and Willie Mason, agree to do odd jobs in the soulless suburb to make money before Christmas. As they witness the emptiness of wretched businessmen who look down on poor blacks, the misery of a minister of Baptist origins who has become an uptight Episcopalian,  and the  exploitation of Ivy League-educated black women (Lester’s sister has a Wellesley degree but her successful Linden Hills boyfriend takes a white woman to a wedding), Lester and Willie are filled with horror.

Is there hope for the future?  It is grim, but but Naylor doesn’t attempt to foresee the future.  Lester, who grew up in one of the poorer houses in Linden Hills, mouths off to the police because he feels entitled and doesn’t believe he will ever be arrested, while Willie, who is from the wrong side of the tracks, understands what is at stake.  It is Willie who acts when a whole street of rich black people watch a house burning without calling 911.

We hope the two poets escape from hell.  At least they recognize it.

2.  The  Pulitzer Prize winner Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, a compelling novel about World War II, has never quite gotten its dues.  Wouk wrote a sequel, War and Remembrance, and both were adapted as TV miniseries in the 1980s.

Needless to say, my snobbish relatives mocked me for reading The Winds of War. Pop fiction is not respected at my house.  And so I referred them to Jake Helpern’s  NPR essay, “Yellowing, Dog-Eared, and Perfect,” and David Frum’s “The Great War Novelist America Forgot,” at The Atlantic.

The Winds of War is reputed to be the American War and Peace.  Wouk is not Tolstoy, but I simply raced through this gripping novel.  I was intrigued not only by the vivid characters but by the historical details and political analysis.  I had no idea of the extent of American anti-Semitism before the war:  Roosevelt wanted to get involved sooner but the majority of Americans kept saying they didn’t “want to go to war for the Jews.”  He did, however, establish a “lend/lease” program that supplied England with ships and planes.

The novel centers on an American family.  The patriarch, Pug Henry, a high-ranking naval office, is a diplomat reluctantly stationed in Berlin when the war breaks out.  He has conferences with Roosevelt and Churchill, meets Hitler and Stalin, and, at Churchill’s suggestion, rides along on a British plane (made of fabric) on a bombing mission and barely escapes with his life.  And he plays a role in overcoming American denial of the Holocaust.  When a relative of his son’s Jewish wife shows him photos of the slaughter of Jews in Minsk and themass graves, Pug brings them to Roosevelt’s attention.  Other Americans dismissed them as propaganda.

My favorite character is Natalie, a brilliant, lively Jewish woman who  marries Pug’s son,  Byron.  She and Byron meet in Italy, where they assist Natlie’s scholarly uncle with his research for a book on Constantine. They happen to be at a wedding near Krakow when the Germans invade Poland.  Natalie returns to Italy to help Uncle Aaron get away.  The Italians and Nazis question his American citizenship, though he has a passport, and will not let him go.

Wouk’s horrifying account of the attack on Pearl Harbor, where Japanese planes turned out to be superior to the Americans’, brings home the realization that madmen could have conquered the world.

Such a great read.  I do look forward to reading the next one, but I have to take a little break.