I read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate seeking background information for my upcoming novel, The Amber War, but in addition to improving my understanding of a time and place, it turned my writing world upside down.
Life and Fate is a beautifully written saga of WWII centered about the battle of Stalingrad and the citizens who were trapped there during the fighting. His varied characters range from a self-absorbed physicist (Victor Shtrum) to an ancient Bolshevik (Mikhail Mostovskoy) in a concentration camp. Grossman takes us into the gas chambers as well as the Soviet labor camps. He discusses communism, fascism, and the ideological similarities between Hitler and Stalin. He shows us the darkness of the war in vivid detail.
Grossman spent one thousand days, almost four years, on the Nazi-Soviet front lines as a reporter, and understandably his realism is sometimes hard to take. Further, his mother died in a concentration camp. Through this firsthand experience, Grossman leaves an unforgettable impression about this devastating war and its ongoing political implications.
Life and Fate made me wonder whether any contemporary author can add to the complex tapestry of WWII. I thought of the books I had read: the trials of a physically disabled person trapped in Germany during the fighting (Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See), a sailor’s experience in a POW camp in Japan (Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken), a young woman who strives for a lifetime to make up for a horrible act she did as a child (Ian McEwan’s Atonement), and many more.
Perhaps our value is to look back at that time through the eyes of mature people solidly ensconced in the 21st century and continue to wonder: What does patriotism mean to people in an occupied country? What was it like living among soldiers you both fear and hate? How can you teach your children that talking can lead to another person’s death?
Unlike Grossman, who largely wrote about himself in Life and Fate, we can ask new questions, weave the answers into our stories, and strive to get it right. Perhaps that’s enough.
A retired engineer, Ursula Wong writes about strong women. Her award-winning debut novel, Purple Trees, and her second novel, Amber Wolf, portray strong women struggling against impossible odds to claim a better life.
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