Herman Wouk – An Appreciation of Seven of His Major Works

Bronx-born Herman Wouk became one of the world’s most popular literary entertainers. Wouk, who celebrated his 100th birthday in 2015, is the author of blockbuster novels such as The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, as well as The Caine Mutiny, which became the 1954 film starring Humphrey Bogart in an Oscar-nominated role as the paranoid and tyrannical Lt. Commander Philip Queeg. Even into his old age, Wouk has continued to write, publishing his two Israel-set novels The Hope and The Glory in 1993 and 1994, respectively. His most recent novel, The Lawgiver, appeared in 2012.

But Wouk is not only a novelist. He has employed his remarkable gifts for description and for creating sweeping historical narratives in non-fiction works such as This Is My God, an exploration of his Jewish faith.

The Jewish tradition puts a strong emphasis on learning, reading, and writing, and Wouk’s family was no exception. His parents, immigrants from Belarus, ensured that their son gained a thorough education in the Talmud from his grandfather, a rabbi. Although as a young man he rebelled against the time he had to invest in these pursuits, Wouk grew to develop an abiding pride in his heritage.

Here are summaries of seven of Wouk’s major works, all of them still in print:

The Caine Mutiny – Wouk served in World War II in the United States Navy, where he learned to appreciate military life, the multicultural make-up of the US, and the emerging technologies that would assist the country in winning the war. Navy life contributed the backdrop for his third book, The Caine Mutiny, which was published in 1951 and won the Pulitzer Prize. As a Broadway play, it starred Henry Fonda as Jewish defense attorney Barney Greenwald, before being filmed by Edward Dmytryk with Bogart as the villainous Queeg. The Caine Mutiny explores moral questions and situations that remain relevant today: the emotional toll of combat, the dimensions of obedience and loyalty, the nature of madness, the meaning of courage, and the importance of a higher level of justice.

This Is My God – Wouk’s book-length essay explaining the tenets of Orthodox Judaism continues to inspire new generations. Updated editions contain Wouk’s additional chapter on the state of Israel at its 40th birthday in 1988.

Wouk presents a condensed picture of the warmth and richness of traditional Jewish life for both observant and non-observant Jews, as well as for people of other faiths. He seamlessly weaves his personal experiences and vignettes from his family life with a broad and colorful historical pageant and with outlines of the major ideas that define Jewish culture and values.

Wouk covers the history and practices associated with the Jewish holidays, the basic precepts of Jewish law, and the challenges that go hand-in-hand with maintaining an Orthodox Jewish life amid the demands of a modern, secular society.

The Winds of War – Wouk spent more than a dozen years in research in order to write The Winds of War and its sequel, War and Remembrance, which remain among the most moving and widely read fictional treatments of World War II and the Holocaust. Both books paint intimate family dramas against the backdrop of catastrophic global events, and both have produced indelible images of their vividly drawn characters in the minds of generations of readers.

The Winds of War, published in 1971, begins in Nazi Germany in 1939 and concludes with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It introduces us to the Henry and Jastrow families: the first a non-Jewish Navy family, the second a European Jewish family headed by scholar Aaron Jastrow. The two lines become united at the marriage of Jastrow’s niece to naval commander “Pug” Henry’s son. The characters interact with major historical figures, including Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin. The 1983 TV miniseries version of The Winds of War became one of the most watched programs in television history at that time.

War and Remembrance – In its TV version, this continuation of The Winds of War garnered critical acclaim as one of the most emotionally gripping, dramatic portrayals of the terrors of the Holocaust. Wouk here demonstrates his tremendous ability to have his characters step into pivotal points in history. War and Remembrance, which was published in 1978, begins with Pearl Harbor and concludes with the defeat of fascism in 1945. It focuses on Natalie Jastrow Henry and her young son’s harrowing experience in Auschwitz, and her uncle Aaron’s transformation from a secular writer disconnected from his heritage to a committed Jew. Aaron Jastrow defies the Nazis by participating in age-old rituals of his faith, even as he sees his own annihilation approaching.

The Hope – Another heavily researched novel, The Hope deals with Israel’s struggle for independence in 1948, the Suez crisis of the 1950s, and the Six-Day War of 1967, in which the nation fought for its life. Wouk again mixes close-up personal narratives of his characters’ lives with the facts of history, as Yossi Blumenthal, an immigrant from Poland, and his commander, Zev Barak, engage with figures such as David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.

The Glory – This novel picks up where The Hope left off, vividly detailing historical events such as the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1976 Israeli raid to free the Entebbe hostages, and the Camp David peace negotiations. It traces the lives of several representative Israeli families whose members variously work in the country’s military, diplomatic, and secret service agencies.

The Lawgiver – Wouk’s novel about a contemporary female filmmaker working on a movie about the life of Moses includes the author himself as a character when he is brought in as a consultant. Even as Margo Solovei works in the Hollywood fast lane, she tries to resolve conflicts with her Orthodox family and with her boyfriend. Told in the form of emails and texts among the characters, The Lawgiver employs Wouk’s classic formula of having his protagonist reconcile with the Jewish heritage that she previously abandoned for the secular world.

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