Days of Smoke
Part of historical fiction’s job is to use the arsenal of imagination in order to elicit sympathy from us readers where we would otherwise never give it; novelists try to humanize monsters—and surely the most thankless version of that task is the whole question of “good Germans” in the Second World War. Mark Ozeroff takes on this task in his novel Days of Smoke, giving us the indelible character of Luftwaffe pilot Hans Udet, who, during World War Two, fights for his country, not for Nazism (“In the days of smoke, we were chosen by Valkyries to serve an angry god in battle”).
The novel shows us his enlistment, training, and wartime adventures, and so winning a creation is young Hans that the reader quickly forgets that, in most historical novels of the period, Hans would be a faceless villain. Here, he’s a stiff-necked young man, the scion of a family of aviators (his uncle flew with the Bloody Red Baron himself), as proud of his war-time accomplishments (read: killing Allied fighters) as any Yank in a conventional novel would be, and as equally prone to guilt over the sufferings the war inflicts on innocent civilians (one of whom, in one of the book’s more interesting plot twists, he comes to love).
Readers are meant to share a young man’s pride, not scold him for complicity—and we do, because Ozeroff’s narrative skill wins the day every time. Highly recommended.