Monthly Archives: March 2014

Ken Follett – Fall of Giants and Winter of the World (2010, 2012)


There is no doubt that Ken Follett is a master of the sweeping historical narrative. His previous projects, Pillars of the Earth, and World Without End, follow the lives of families and their descendants through the building of a Cathedral in the 12th century. As this period of history is not one of my favourites, I had a hard time with these books. His new trilogy, however, I find quite interesting and fun to read.

Keeping with his style of following families through history, Follett, in Fall of Giants, follows five families through the events of the First World War. The story moves chronologically jumping around from the five different families he introduces at the start, The Dewar’s from the United States, the Fitzherbert’s who are members of the English aristocracy, the Williams’, a Welsh mining family, the Von Ulrich’s who are German aristocracts, and the Peshkov’s, a pair of Russian brothers. Follett follows these families as their paths cross through the events of the First World War, and continues to tell their stories in Winter of the World, which takes place in the years between 1920-1945. Is third book plans to follows these families through the events of the Cold War.

Through Fall of Giants, Follett captures perfectly the romanticism and tragedy of the First World War. The relationship between the English Earl Fitherbert and the German Walter Von Ulrich, is especially poignant as the two go from friends and schoolmates to fighting on opposing sides of the war. The aristocracy in Europe often had connections to one another, and many of those ties were severed during the First World War when loyalty to one’s country had to take the place of loyalty to one’s class.

Winter of the World, was a bit of a let down for me, and maybe just because Follett tried to do too much. In the second instalment of this trilogy Follett tries to detail the events of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, The Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War. He stretches himself a bit too thin and some of the plot lines seems forced.

I have one more gripe with Follett and that is his portrayal of female characters. While the female characters in these books are strong women, they often seem one-dimensional and lack depth. The characters of Maud and Ethel, while both being fiercely independent, tend to still fall into stereotyped stock characters. Maud is a woman trapped by her class, while Ethel is a servant in the Great House and falls into trouble. It’s a minor fault of his, and I may be the only one to feel this way.

These books both provide an enjoyable trip through history and I am looking forward to the third installment.

Rating: 3/5

Patti Smith – Just Kids (2010)

A tragic fairytale romance that was quite unexpected coming from the Godmother of Punk. I always liked to claim that Patti Smith was one of my heroes. She was the kind of role model that “cool girls” had, and I, striving to be one of the “cool girls” told everyone I met that Patti Smith was a huge influence on my life. I should not have been surprised when my sister bought this book for me for Christmas. I was only half lying, I do admire Patti Smith as a feminist icon, and I do know a bit about the role she played in the birth of Punk, but other than that, I knew very little.

I started reading this book expecting to learn more about Patti Smith’s life, living in New York in the 1970s, hanging out at CBGB’s but that’s not what this book was. Just Kids is a love story outlining the relationship between Patti Smith and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. The bond that these two people formed was indestructible. Despite the fact that both Patti and Robert had different partners and different times they remained so in love with one another, and not even death could stop them. Written with poignancy and impeccable grace Just Kids, gave me a real reason to admire Patti Smith. In these pages Patti is vulnerable and true, she is telling the world a love story, her love story, and the joy and happiness and well as the pain and suffering that was all a part of it, and that, I think is just about the “coolest” thing anyone could do.

Rating: 5/5

Anne Hyde – Empires, Nations, and Families (2011)

In Empires Nations and Families, Anne Hyde undergoes an incredibly ambitious project; providing a history of the American West from 1800-1860. She does so in an ingenious way, using an original interpretive framework to cope with a large volume of material. By looking at individual family units and tracing their connections over different spaces and at different times, Hyde provides an engaging and interesting look at the history of the American West.

Hyde begins her study of the American West with Part I of her book, “Replacing a State: The Continental Web of Family Trade.” In these chapters, Hyde explores the expansion of the fur trade and how it linked different families in different places. In Part II, titled “Americans All: The Mixed World of Indian Country,” Hyde details the Native American responses to the fur trade, war, and removal, and emphasizes how important Native groups were for business and diplomacy. In Part III, “From Nations to Nation: Imposing a State, 1840-1865,” Hyde moves on to discuss the conquest of the West and the ways in which new ideas surrounding race and imperial power changed the North American West. Overall, Hyde emphasizes the importance of family connections as business affairs were often built on personal relationships. Kinship also helped to protect families against change and even adapt to it. In the end however, kinship networks between Anglo and Native Americans proved to be fatal, as mixed race people in the West were the ultimate losers after the new discourse on race and imperial ideology took over following the Mexican War.

Hyde claims that the task of her book is to “impose narrative and analytical order over such disparate stories and geographic space to build a larger story about the trans-Mississippi West between 1804 and 1860,” (15) and she accomplishes just that. By studying these families Hyde shows how the identities and loyalties of these people living in the West lay more with one another and other families that with any nation or exclusive ethnic identity. Looking at families such as the Chouteaus, Bents, Ballejos, and McLoughlins, Hyde uses a staggering amount of sources including family papers, territorial documents, journals, Office of Indian Affairs documents, Hudson’s’ Bay Company papers, and a wide range of secondary sources. Hyde’s use of sources as well as her framework and analysis of families makes Empires, Nations, and Families a well researched and interesting read. One of the only things missing from the narrative is any sort or discussion about slavery. Westward expansion certainly raised questions pertaining to the transfer and movement of slaves, something that Hyde does not look at focusing mostly on family ties and how expansion effected Native Americans. Regardless, Hyde provides a fresh and new way of studying the American West, one that is highly recommended for anyone seeking to gain a greater understanding of the American frontier.

Rating: 3.5/5