The story of 5 families through a dark period in the 20th century

By Walt Braun

“Winter of the World” opens in Germany in the early 1930s and takes the reader on a journey through some of the most pivotal years of the 20th century, ending in 1949. The novel glides almost effortlessly through the lives of members of five families — American, German, Russian, English and Welsh, whose paths cross in peace and in war.

Each family’s story is intriguing: the von Ulriches in Berlin; the Peshkovs of Moscow and Buffalo, the Dewars of Washington and the Fitzherberts and Lloyd Williams of the United Kingdom. Few writers can tell their stories and weave them into monumental historical events as well as Ken Follett.

“Winter of the World” is the second installment of “The Century Trilogy,” and it is a fitting sequel to the first story, “The Fall of Giants.” The “giants” in the first book were the empires lost during and after what was called the Great War. In that story, Follett introduced the individuals who, with their descendants, bring life to “Winter of the World.”

Readers who missed the first book aren’t penalized, but those who read “The Fall of Giants” quickly get reacquainted with those families, starting with the Maud and Walter von Ulrich, who wed secretly just before World War I and who now, with their children, are trying to makes sense of the turmoil that accompanied the rise of Hitler in the early 1930s.

The von Ulriches and their friends respond in ways that set them on paths from which there is no retreat. In Moscow, Volodya Peshkov, the son of an early supporter of Lenin, is part of military intelligence charged with learning Germany’s plans are with regard to Russia. The spy ring he operates in Germany helps the Soviet Union limit the terrible losses from Germany’s invasion in 1941.

In the United States, Sen. Gus Dewar is one of Roosevelt allies. Dewar’s two sons, Chuck and Woody, are coming of age as talk of war in Europe escalates. One is a civilian in love with a woman, and the other joins the Navy and falls in love with a man. In London, the story focuses on Lloyd Williams.

His mother is the daughter of Welsh miners and his biological father is Lord Fitzherbert, whose estate she cleaned. Williams, a survivor of World War I’s horrors, prepares for yet another war. Some characters are haughty, others human. All are multidimensional; the heroes are flawed, sometimes ruthlessly so, and even some of the villains find ways to demonstrate their humanity.

Follett takes the reader to the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule, to domestic conflicts in London, to the Spanish Civil War, to the front lines of Germany’s Blitzkrieg and to the Battle of Britain, during which an American socialite finds herself driving an ambulance during Luftwaffe air raids. Follett also takes the reader to Pearl Harbor and Bougainville, to Parliament, through the Marshall Plan and Berlin Airlift, to the New Mexican desert where the United States tests the atomic bomb, and to the Soviet Union several years later when the Soviets, afraid they will be the target of America’s postwar atomic strike, succeed in developing a nuclear answer. With that, Follett sets the stage for the final book in his trilogy.

If the third volume is even close to as captivating as the first two books, it won’t come out soon enough.Follett’s many other novels include “Eye of the Needle,” “The Key to Rebecca” and “The Pillars of the Earth.”

Walt Braun is the Mercury’s editorial page editor.

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