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The Great War: Walk in Hell by Harry Turtledove

Published by Del Ray Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

The Great War: Walk in Hell is the continuation of the story begun in The Great War:American Front. In an alternate world where the South won the Civil War, World War I is being fought on American soil as well as in Europe. The Union is allied with Germany, while the Confederacy has sided with France and England. Thus the Union is fighting a two-front war, against the Confederacy and Canada, and offering covert aid to the rebellious Irish in order to draw British attention away from the war effort to keep them from reinforcing Canida.

Turtledove keeps the focus firmly on the individuals fighting the war and shows the larger political issues only as it affects them. This is a very large cast, ranging from Canadian farmers (both the Anglo-Canadian McGregors who grow steadily more determined in their resistance and the Quebecois Galtiers who befriend an American and as a result begin to see the Americans as potential allies for Quebec) to a Boston fisherman's wife fearing for her husband's safety now that he is in the Navy to the Black Reds (former slaves who have become acquainted with Marxism and try to establish a Marxist state within the Confederacy), as well as soldiers and sailors on all sides. Unlike many war novels, in which the major characters keep coming through incredible danger and only spear-carriers ever die, none of the characters in this novel is guaranteed to survive. Turtledove pulls no punches in showing that war is hell, and kills off several major characters.

For instance, Socialist activist Flora Hamburger's brother-in-law, a promising young yeshiva student and future rabbi by the name of Yossel Reisen, has been killed in battle against the confederates, leaving a widow and an infant son born posthumously and thus named for him (in Jewish tradition children are not named for living relatives, but generally given the name of recently deceased one). As Flora sees the pain of his death firsthand, she becomes all the more determined that somehow the madness of this war has to be brought to an end. And she knows the pain of bigotry from two directions -- both political, of Democrats against Socialist, and religious. For instance, there is the incident of the Soldiers' Circle goon who dutifully turns in a canfull of grease to the local kosher butcher, grease which is obviously lard -- an act that he could easily claim to have been completely innocent, because the government is exhorting everyone to turn in their grease to be made into munitions, and how was he supposed to know it was a kosher butcher and he was making the place ritually impure?

Fed up with the continual petty harassment of her people, Flora takes the news that their Congressman has died in a fall down a flight of stairs as a sign it's time for the Jewish residents of the Fourteenth Ward of Manhattan's Lower East Side to have a Representative who actually represents them. And thus begins one of the most extraordinary threads of the entire novel, when she discovers that the local Socialist Party head thinks that she would make a wonderful candidate. Never mind that women have yet to win the vote for themselves, she decides to run, hoping that enough of her male coreligionists will vote for her that she can carry the Congressional district against her Democratic opponent, a Gentile.

As a historian, I found it interesting how Turtledove has handled the technological advancements of his alternate World War I. Some of them, such as the introduction of poison gas, have followed almost exactly the practices that we saw on the Western Front in the European-based war of our own world. Others show odd shifts in terminology or the precise details of implementation.

And then there are the little inside jokes that seem to be planted for the amusement of long-time science fiction fans, but which will pass invisibly by a reader who is not familiar with the person being referred to. For instance, there is a bit character by the name of Paul Andersen who almost certainly has to be a reference to the science fiction author Poul Andersen.

This volume's chief weakness is the simple fact that it does not stand alone. Rather, it is the middle of a novel so large that it had to be split into parts of a reasonable size for binding. Like its predecessor, it does not resolve, but rather ends on a cliffhanger that feels more like a chapter break. And while there is at least some effort to sum up what had gone before, it is clear that we are walking into a story already in progress, with the characters and their relationships to one another firmly established. Along with the relatively slow pace (this novel ends roughly at the halfway point of the war), the problems that are inherent to being a single volume in a roman fleuve may put off many readers who would prefer a briskly paced self-contained volume.

Review posted March 19, 2009

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