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The Steel Wave: A Novel of World War II Hardcover – May 13, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. This keystone of the bestselling WWII trilogy dramatizes D-Day and ups the bar for military historicals, demonstrating that Shaara (The Rising Tide) has hit full stride. The epic-scale novel opens on January 25, 1944, with British commandos gathering soil samples on Omaha Beach to assess landing sites. Shaara gives the Americans, called the great waves of steel by the Germans, their due portion in the grisly, brutal Allied invasion, and the experiences of the grunt soldiers—most notably the indefatigable U.S. Army Sgt. Jesse Adams—offers a field-level view of D-Day and afterward, generating more suspenseful reading than the matter-of-fact accounts of the big-brass dealings of Eisenhower and Churchill. The Allied leaders' personalities emerge with agile clarity, while German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel embodies the good soldier laboring under a delusional Hitler and German High Command ensconced in cozy Berlin. Rommel's ambivalent complicity in the assassination plot on Hitler is convincingly rendered and paves the way for the final act. The muscular prose, deft sense of military drama and relentless pacing are well suited for this crackerjack saga. (May)
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This is the second volume of Shaara’s planned trilogy of novels dealing with America’s role in World War II in Europe. Here Shaara’s topic is D-Day, the Allied effort to begin the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe by amphibious landings on the coast of Normandy. With decades of hindsight, the success of the Normandy invasion may seem inevitable and a tribute to Allied forces. As Shaara’s fine novel illustrates, however, success was far from assured, and the planning fell short in numerous ways. Paratroopers missed their drop sites by miles; air cover for the debarking troops was sporadic; and units became quickly separated on the beaches. On the German side, similar confusion reigned. Although this is technically a work of fiction, Shaara again relies on actual historical figures to tell his story, including Generals Eisenhower, Bradley, Rommel, and von Rundstedt. Although the dialogue is invented, Shaara knows the men and the material so their thoughts and conversations are credible. In the end, it appears, Allied success was due to the actions of hundreds of ordinary soldiers, who combined courage with the ability to improvise when the best laid plans broke down, as they so often do in war. --Jay Freeman
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This is a satisfying read for those who like a book to last a while. If I wanted to pay $5-10 for Kindle books I could read in a day, I'd be either a millionaire or completely insane, since I tend to read quickly. Steel Wave is a dense, chewy nugget of a book that will keep well in your mental refrigerator. Shaara gives the reader his/her money's worth.
The format is fairly simple. Chapters that take place in the minds of fictional characters alternate with those from the POV of Eisenhower, Rommel, Patton, and Bradley, among others. Sgt. Jesse Adams, the leading non-real person, is well-drawn, a thoughtful, clear-thinking individual whose surface toughness conceals an ... inner toughness. This isn't Steven Spielberg's D-Day. Picture the word "wuss" encircled with a slash across it, and you'll have some idea of the perspective here. Adams is a consistent presence across the book, and I was always glad to get back to him.
Glad, because as characters in a narrative the historical figures are less skillfully presented. Shaara does not render Winston Churchill well at all. I realize he is writing for a mass audience with scantier vocabularies and less delight in wordplay than the great man himself, but honestly, this is a very thin gruel. Churchill probably never referred to anything as "a crock" -- that's contemporary usage. Shaara has him make exclamations like, "Dammit! Tell me again it's going to work! Tell me!" and "Scares hell out of me, Ike. What's that damned Nazi cooked up?" I can imagine John Wayne saying those things, but Sir Winston? Uh, no. He was a Prime Minister who said and did many outrageous things, but employing strings of terse pedestrian monosyllables was not one of them.
Additionally, Churchill was never quite the boozer that Shaara (and many others) have tried to show him to be.
The author does better with Eisenhower, whose bland personality lends itself better to the tenor of this book. Ike's inner turmoil is believable as portrayed here. His irritation with Montgomery, who is as close to a villain as anyone gets on the Allied side of the novel, is consistent with Stephen Ambrose's authoritative version. Shaara's best portrait, though, is that of George S. Patton, with dialogue like, "I like people to shut the hell up when I walk into a room. I like raising the blood pressure of stodgy old farts." Yeah, that sounds like Patton, all right.
Shaara's Rommel deserves special mention. The picture we see is Erwin Rommel the "good" German, the reluctant warrior who placed his men over his own career, who cared nothing for Hitler and his frothing, drug-fueled madness, who was devoted to his wife and son and who chomped down on a poison capsule rather than expose them to ignominy and disgrace. There are some to say that Rommel refused to execute Jewish POWs despite Hitler's demands, and that he was never a Holocaust-booster. I don't know if this is true -- there are schools of thought on the subject -- but it is true that Rommel embraced Nazism early and loudly, and that he was not a participant in the failed assassination of 1944, although he was actively recruited by the plotters (for an outstanding literary novel on that subject, read Paul West's The Very Rich Hours of the Count Von Stauffenberg). Rommel's complexity as a human being is without question; the Rommel we see here embodies the "in another world, we could have been friends" philosophy that has been kicked around since the man's death. Some will buy it, some will not, and others, like me, will remain hopeful but skeptical.
Perhaps the book's greatest weakness, and this is completely subjective, is the author's penchant -- although he may see it as a necessity -- for pages and pages of exposition laboriously explaining which division went where, what rivers were crossed, and other details large and small about D-Day and the weeks that follow, all of which are available to the reader from any number of sources. Younger people, which is to say anyone who graduated from high school after the PC police took over the history textbooks, may not have this information, and will need it to follow the story. On the other hand, you can see World at War on Youtube, along with gazillion other documentaries, and thus obviate the need for Shaara's rehash. Frankly, I skipped much of this turgid retelling.
There is also a strange prudishness operating here. Damn, hell, bitch and bastard pop up frequently; any stronger language is either only hinted at ("f------" this or that) or omitted altogether. Don't look for sex, or even romance; all the women, and there are pitifully few of them, are offstage. This is a tough-guy war book your Aunt Agatha might read without a blush (were she so inclined). There's little or no cultural context, i.e. references to music, movies, cars, clothes, all the non-war things that make this period so fascinating. One could argue that those have no place in a battlefield book -- but could you write about Vietnam without sex, drugs, and rock and roll? The Greatest Generation (and I dislike that phrase) cared just as much for pop ephemera as any other humans. Some of these guys must have been thinking about jitterbugging even as they lobbed grenades.
What works in this book are the battle scenes, the tension before and the shock that follows. What satisfies is the growth of some fictional characters, in particular Unger, the scrawny, underaged kid from Iowa who Jesse Adams sees as most likely to cave under pressure and who (wholly predictable, but so what) turns into a coolheaded killer. Fiction, even genre fiction, can illuminate a historical event in ways documentaries and nonfiction cannot, with some notable exceptions. If you are interested in D-Day but, like me, yearn for some quotation marks mixed up with the history, you will warm to Steel Wave.
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I like Shaara’s writing style having read his Civil war books previously.Read more