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Great War: Breakthroughs by Harry Turtledove

Published by Del Rey

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

This is the third volume of Harry Turtledove's alternate World War I series, in which the American continent is split between the United States and the Confederate States, and is thus subject to the direct horrors of war instead of being shielded from them by vast oceans. Worse, America has lost her status as the City on the Hill, the shining torch of democracy showing the way to other nations. Instead the United States have formed an alliance with the German Empire and have absorbed many of the Prussians' bad habits of aggressive militarism and contempt for democracy. At the same time, the clogging of the democratic process altered what would have been the Progressive Era and instead led to the development of a strong Socialist party similar to those of Europe.

This volume picks up in 1917, after three years of the horrors of trench warfare on a front far longer than that which divided France and Germany in our own world. At last it seems that the stalemate will finally be broken, thanks to innovative technologies that the larger industrial base of the North have been able to develop. Teddy Roosevelt, president of a truncated and embittered United States, is determined to fully pay back the Confederate States of America for two humiliations in the past century.

Turtledove continues the multiple threads that follow the experiences of many ordinary people, telling the story of this massive social and political upheaval through their everyday experiences at war and on the home front. There are the contrasting experiences of two Canadian families under American occupation. While the MacGregors become embittered and determined to hate America forever after their son is accused of sabotage and condemned to death in a drumhead trial they regard as a kangaroo court, the Galtiers of Quebec become steadily emmeshed in a set of personal relationships with individual Americans that push them across the delicate line from mere passive obedience to collaboration.

In the US, Socialist activist Flora Hamburger leaves her Jewish neighborhood in New York's lower East Side for the first time in her life to take her seat in Congress. She had thought that by going to Philadelphia she would be able to make a difference for the laborers and garment workers of her district. Instead she faces numerous ethical dilemmas, including the temptation to use her influence improperly to get her beloved brother off the front lines and thus dilute her credibility with all her constituents whose brothers and sons and husbands won't be getting exemptions. She finds this trial harder than dealing with the hostility of the Democrats or even the unconscious sexism and anti-Semitism of her fellow Socialists.

In the Confederacy, noncom Jake Featherstone is scribbling a sort of diary, sort of novel he's calling Over Open Sights. In it he strives to capture his authentic experience of being a foot soldier in a war so huge it defies comprehension, but larger political issues begin to appear in it as he broods over his own humiliation by a general with connections. All the time he and his fellows grow steadily more embittered against the humiliations they perceive themselves to have suffered. Meanwhile the last desperate Black Reds (former slaves who have turned to Marxism) fight a holding pattern in the swamps against whites determined to crush them.

Turtledove develops his story slowly and thoroughly with a rich mosaic of views that bring the story to the personal level. However, this slow development may be frustrating to a reader who prefers a brisk pace and a tight plot. In addition, it is clear that while this volume completes the alternate Great War, it does not truly conclude the story of this alternate world. The vengeful United States has battered the Confederacy and done it severe injury, but has not destroyed it permanently. There is an old saying: "never do your enemy a small injury."

Review posted March 19, 2009

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