An ambitious historical novel set on the eastern front during World War II follows a band of German pilots.
Nazi Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union included a large air contingent. While the Germans initially dominated the Russians, the Soviet Air Force came to mount a fierce resistance over the next two years. Janoda (Saga: A Novel of Medieval Iceland, 2005) makes the unusual choice to depict this historical moment from the perspective of the German military, particularly that of a group of Luftwaffe pilots stationed on the remote, freezing, and brutal Russian front. While the cast of characters features devoted Nazi officers intent on earning medals and honors, it also includes more complex figures, such as a highly skilled but mentally unstable German pilot, a reluctantly accepted Ukrainian volunteer worker, and Lt. Daniel Fraser, a pilot raised in America. Fraser emerges as the closest thing the novel has to a protagonist. While a student in the United States, Fraser considered joining the U.S. Air Force, but after returning to Germany on the eve of the war, he eagerly joined the Luftwaffe instead. When questioned about his loyalties, he doesn’t hesitate to answer, “I am a Luftwaffe officer, sir.” At the same time, Fraser’s outsider status—and the influence of his investigative journalist father—allows him a greater perspective on Nazi politics than those of most of the men he serves with. The story mixes plenty of interpersonal conflicts with scenes of intense combat. The plot, however, could easily have fit into a book of two-thirds the length. Meticulous explorations of German military bureaucracy and equipment fill many pages. Janoda’s novel, which is more thorough than many history books, even provides a healthy set of appendices featuring historical notes, a glossary, a rank table, and two maps. Military history buffs should relish the opportunity to spend so much time in a fully realized World War II environment, but many other readers will find the novel daunting.
A detailed but exhausting epic that examines the Luftwaffe’s doomed mission in Russia.