Historical fiction, in the hands of Follett and other writers, remains the terrain of circumstance, coincidence, and cameos. The key, as with all novels, is to develop characters who evoke empathy or, at minimum, pique curiosity. Historical fiction, by its nature, ups the ante for the writer to come up with compelling people to match the real-life characters always threatening to overwhelm all else. How does an author’s creation fare in comparison to the horrible but fascinating character of Adolf Hitler?
In Follett’s hands, the answer is, surprisingly well. Lloyd Williams, an idealistic young Brit visiting Germany with his MP mother, becomes an assistant to a Social Democrat. During his brief stay, Lloyd witnesses Brownshirts killing a man because he’s gay and gets an up-close glimpse of Hitler.
The German leader’s voice, he thinks, is “harsh and grating, but powerful, reminding Lloyd of both a machine gun and a barking dog.”
At times, Follett falls into the trap of relying too much on dialogue to convey historical context. During a country club dance in pre-World War II Buffalo, some teenaged boys vie for a young beauty’s attention by debating FDR’s refusal to sign anti-lynching legislation.
“I know why he made that decision: he was afraid that angry Southern congressmen would retaliate by sabotaging the New Deal,” says Woody Dewar, the son of a US Senator. “All the same, I would have liked him to tell them to go to hell.”