Book review: Michael Carin shows a world that was and a world that might have been

Have you ever put off finishing a book for fear of saying goodbye to the world and the characters the author has created?

Churchill At Munich, Michael Carin’s novel, depicting both history and an alternate history, is just such a book. This is an engrossing read, portraying in immensely moving and breathtaking detail the Nazi hold on power in the 1930s and the inability of world leaders, in particular Britain’s leaders, to recognize and respond to the menacing evil that was Nazi Germany. The form of the novel is both simple and ingenious: it consists of letters from a happily married British ex-boyfriend to his ex-girlfriend, who has married an American and now lives in Boston, far from the fear of war. Joff is still smitten with Heidi and perhaps because his letters reflect this, he asks Heidi to burn them. As we learn, she can’t do it and leaves them to her heirs to publish after her death.

Through these letters we are privy not only to Joff’s thoughts and feelings as he works as a German translator for the Foreign Office, but the inner workings of the British powers that were and their woeful inability to respond to the Nazi threat.

It also becomes painfully clear the extent to which the cries of the Jews of Germany and Austria, along with homosexuals and other “undesirables”, went unheard as they were tortured and butchered long before the concentration camps.

In effect, by altering history at the halfway point in his novel, Carin has given us a chilling reminder of the horrors that led up to the Holocaust that went unseen and unheeded by the rest of the world. At the helm of this merry band of blind men is Neville Chamberlain, described in the novel as he was, weak and totally unequipped to deal with Hitler and his designs on Austria and other free nations of Europe that stood defenseless against Hitler. Then, by a strange turn of events, Churchill is the one to meet Hitler in Munich to try to outwit and prevent him from fulfilling his demonic goals.

Carin’s portrait of Churchill is nothing short of brilliant — painted in complex impressionist strokes so genuine and daring that we are at once in awe of him and want to be enveloped by his passion and wisdom.

The character of Joff jumps off the page as we are privy to his inner thoughts and reactions as he becomes Churchill’s interpreter.

Enter the mysterious, quirky, famous English artist Damon Chadwick, who travels to Berlin seemingly lured by the Nazi interest in his realistic portraits. Joff doesn’t know what to make of Damon, his best friend since school days. Why is Damon so enamoured with Nazi Germany that he makes constant trips there even though it is becoming increasingly clear to Joff and his wife Mary that these trips are both dangerous and pander to the Nazi elite?

Joff himself is slow to realize what is happening in Nazi Germany until he is asked to interview Jewish refugees and write a book about them and what they have endured at the hands of the Nazi monsters. Are you ready to know what would have happened if Churchill had risen to power earlier than he did and actually met Hitler in Munich?

Michael Carlin has written a classic — a sweeping 500 pager that invites us to enter the rooms in which history could have been made and draws us into the most pivotal decisions of the 20th century, decisions that changed the face of our world for all time. I believe you will be as thrilled by the climax and awed by the denouement as I was, and at the same time, deeply saddened for what could have been. In my interview with Michael Carin on how his novel reflects our turbulent times, he was unequivocal about the absence of a statesman the likes of Churchill today: “Given the spectacle of appeasement we recently witnessed in Helsinki, it’s fair to argue that Churchill’s diametric opposite, namely the deluded and deceived Chamberlain, has been reborn and today occupies the Oval Office in Washington.”

We have not learned our lessons from Munich, Carin says. “Russia’s takeover of Crimea is a perfect reminder of Nazi Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland. The democracies commit the same mistake over and over again — they fail to make pariahs of aggressors.” This is a great book in every sense of the word. It is a novel to be cherished and passed on to children and grandchildren.

Published by The Metropolitan Press, Churchill At Munich is available to readers of The Senior Times for $9.95, half the retail cost. Call 514-484-5033 if you are interested in stopping by to pick up a copy at 5890 Monkland Ave. Suite 202.

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