Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Dragon Harvest by Upton Sinclair
Lanny Budd and the dawn of World War II
Upton Sinclair’s novel Dragon Harvest, first published in 1945, is the sixth book in the Lanny Budd series. The title echoes that of the third book, Dragon’s Teeth, making reference to the old saying about sowing dragon’s teeth, meaning to do something that inadvertently leads to trouble. In this case, the leniency with which European nations have reacted to Nazi aggression has allowed the German military to become extremely powerful. Here Hitler reaps the harvest of those appeasement policies by invading Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. The great thing about this series is that Sinclair really explains in detail how and why World War II happened. It is easy for us to look back in hindsight and see Hitler and the Nazis as blatantly evil, but Sinclair shows you how they were viewed at the time and how they were allowed to get away with what they did. Not only was fear of war a factor in the Nazis’ rise to power, but many saw them as saviors from the spread of Russian Bolshevism. The story covers the years 1938 to 1940. Among the events depicted is the Dunkirk evacuation, subject of the recent film by Christopher Nolan which has received so much critical acclaim.
Though this is essentially a spy novel, one thing that keeps this book from being a first-rate political thriller is the fact that there’s no overarching mission that unites the book as a whole. In Dragon’s Teeth, you have Lanny rescuing Jewish friends from the Nazis; in Presidential Agent, you have the mystery of Lanny’s missing wife. Here, however, it’s just Lanny bouncing like a pinball between Berlin, Paris, London, and New York, exchanging information with world leaders, in some cases visiting the same person four or five times over the course of the book. Here the espionage narrative, however, isn’t really the main attraction. What makes these books worth reading is Sinclair’s perspective on history and the educational insight he provides into world events.
As usual, in between all the scenes of political intrigue we get frequent updates on Lanny’s love life. No less than three love interests materialize in this volume. The relationship subplots are a forgivable diversion in these novels, but I didn’t really like the direction in which Sinclair took them in this story. At one point Lanny enlists one of his lady friends into a dangerous missions, while keeping her mostly in the dark about the risks she’s running. Sinclair needs the device in order to move the plot forward, but it doesn’t seem true to the character of Lanny, who usually proves himself ever the selfless gentleman.
Through the first half of the book I was getting ready to call this the best Lanny Budd book ever. The history was fascinating, the drama was engaging, and there was not an instance of paranormal activity whatsoever. Then, at about the halfway point, Sinclair returns to his pet interest in spirit communication and lays it on extremely thick, as if to make up for his self-control earlier in the book. In order to influence Hitler’s decision-making, Lanny comes up with a cockamamie plot involving séances and mediums. Even if you believe someone can talk to the dead, the idea of him actually pulling off the stunt he comes up with here stretches the bounds of believability.
These books always end on a bit of a cliffhanger, leaving the fictional narrative feeling unfinished in order to set up the next book. Historically, however, the ending of Dragon Harvest feels more resolved than most, as it ends with the surrender of Paris to the Nazis. The series promises lots more intrigue as the war progresses. Despite all my complaints, reservations, and disappointments, I do enjoy reading these books, and I’m in it for the long haul.
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