Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Witness Tree

The Witness Tree / Brendan Howley and John Loftus
Toronto : Random House, c2007.

This novel lies outside my regular reading interests, as I don't read many political novels anymore, but it was an interesting one to preview. It has just been released here in Canada.
The story is based on the real lives of the Dulles family of Washington D.C. It tackles the lives of three siblings, John Foster (who became Eisenhower's Secretary of State), Allan (later director of the newly formed CIA) and Eleanor. It used much of coauthor Loftus' access to classified information to build an elaborate and densely historical plot. At first glance, it sounds like a political thriller; certainly has a thriller's subjects - international intrigue, war and German aggression, the CIA - and yet it is more of a family saga than anything else. It details the family's comings and goings over a number of years, and delves primarily into Eleanor's life, to give us a glimpse of how she becomes the "conscience of her family", as the book jacket puts it. She marries a Jewish man and has a daughter, but after his death changes her name back to the very Anglo 'Dulles', partly on her brother's suggestion that her daughter shouldn't be made to suffer from a Jewish name. Her brothers, especially John Foster, are very much German sympathizers. John Foster is a banker and provides financial assistance to German companies and to American ones who are heavily invested in Germany pre-1939. He is also implicated in the transfer of funds which enabled many Nazis to escape to South America after the war. Allan, meanwhile, bases himself in Europe and becomes a spymaster. I enjoyed reading about Allan, even though he comes across as quite an amoral opportunist. I would have liked to hear a lot more about him and his motives, as well as his feelings about his lesser place in the family.

Eleanor's life is a cipher; she enlists and becomes an officer in the US Army like her two brothers, but she also marries someone Jewish, and later has an affair with a charming double agent, Misha Resnikoff, who works for both Russia and what will become Israel. She also has a lesbian affair in her youth. She sees the world a bit less conservatively than the rest of her family, and has friends she tries to help escape from Germany early on. Her connections to and sympathies for her Jewish friends and lovers lead her to influence the UN vote on the state of Israel in 1947.

The story is told is through vignettes in chronological progression. It begins in 1911 and ends in 1947. Each time we meet the siblings again, they have solidified a little more into the stiff, pompous creatures of history. It feels as if we're being given glimpses of them at specific moments and have to trust the accretions of detail to lead us in the right direction. The story delves into the personal lives and motivations of this family, trying to define why they acted in a manner that some called treason after the war.
The book has a very journalistic flair, which makes sense considering that one of the authors is a novelist/investigative journalist and the other an attorney and intelligence specialist. It's a bit of an odd combination, neither sweeping family saga nor straight-ahead thriller. This family has more than enough drama going on to support a story, and when the narrative focuses on Eleanor it is most absorbing. And if you're interested in this era or even just this family, it is a fascinating look at the appeal of German fascism to so many wealthy Americans. I think it's a timely and well-written novel with much topical interest. Just remember, it is a novel, so if you're more interested in the facts without any novelistic license try one of the many Dulles biographies instead.

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