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Harry Hopkins, FDR's can-do adviser. (Courtesy of the U.S. Social Security Administration)

Harry Hopkins, FDR’s can-do adviser. (Courtesy of the U.S. Social Security Administration)

Review: Sleep in Peace Tonight, by James MacManus

St. Martins, 2014. $27

Whenever I think of storytelling that grips me, even when I know the ending, I think of two books in particular. One is famous nonfiction, Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August; the other, an obscure, now out-of-print novel, The War at Troy, by Lindsay Clarke. Despite the obvious differences, both succeed in the same way: through vivid description, scrupulous attention to detail, and, most of all, faithful rendition of larger-than-life characters.

In Tuchman’s narrative, for instance, the Russian foreign minister receives the German ambassador’s declaration of war with, “The curses of the nations will be upon you!” The context she’s re-created feels so clear and true that the present-day reader has no urge to laugh, only to shudder in sympathy, rage, or sadness. Similarly, in Clarke’s novel of the Trojan War, Paris first sees Helen by looking into Aphrodites’s eyes, and you begin to understand how a man, sitting knee-to-knee with the goddess of love, could contemplate an act of murderous folly. This, to me, is authentic storytelling.

Unfortunately, I find little authenticity in Sleep in Peace Tonight, which feels more like a rant than a novel, fiction about history rather than historical fiction. The action takes place in early 1941, the darkest days of World War II for Britain, when the Luftwaffe unleashes terror bombing, day after day. This background is the only part that feels real, as you see fighter planes assembled in pieces in makeshift sheds, chosen because they don’t look target-worthy from the air. Or that’s the gamble.

The novel purports to be about Harry Hopkins, whom FDR sends to London as his eyes and ears, while Congress debates Lend-Lease (the act that legalized military aid to Britain and effectively ended U.S. neutrality). I’ve always admired Hopkins, a New Deal wizard who ran the WPA, so I was looking forward to seeing him in action. However, it’s an empty story. Even Churchill, the real protagonist, boozing and raging and summoning Hopkins at all hours, seems more like an unfinished sketch than a real person, while the supporting cast are cardboard cutouts or position papers. They seldom speak for themselves, the author preferring to summarize their thoughts and feelings like a conference agenda. Indeed, most of Sleep in Peace Tonight feels like a series of meetings that repeat themselves. Even the love affair between Hopkins and his beautiful English chauffeur, Leonora Finch, reveals little about either of them, though it does allow Leonora to state the theme over and over: Stop talking about how to win the war and get to the front lines.

Consequently, the novel never shows what these people are like when they’re not strutting on the world stage. Hopkins, for instance, has a fiancée in Washington, and his beloved, second wife died of cancer. He has four children. Does he ever think of them? Not really. They’re mentioned, of course, but they’re like figurines on a mantelpiece, dusted off occasionally.

Meanwhile, the history feels doctored, resectioned to suggest a tension that the narrative fails to deliver. To make characters (and the reader) wait while a legislature makes up its mind is pretty dull stuff, especially if that legislature never appears directly and is three thousand miles from the real action. Lend-Lease, in fact, got through an isolationist Congress in about two months–not bad, considering–but in these pages, it’s a miracle, because of American selfishness and FDR’s inability to lead. He comes across as a craven, feckless Nero who plays with his stamp collection while London burns, and “whose physical paralysis had become a metaphor for his lack of political will.” As for the First Lady, she’s so concerned about social programs at home to care what happens to the world–and her number-one program is to see her friend Hopkins married.

Given these portrayals–and that the other American characters are either philanderers, lushes, or both–I wonder whether the real theme of Sleep in Peace Tonight is the war’s humiliation of England, directed against the American rescuers. Treated authentically, that could make excellent fiction.