We are huge fans of Stephen Hunter. Steve is of course the novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning former film critic of the Washington Post. Of Steve, Glenn Reynolds concisely holds: “Love him, and his books.”
Today is the official publication date of Steve’s incredibly timely Bob Lee Swagger thriller, Sniper’s Honor. Steve has graciously accepted our invitation to bring his new book to the attention of our readers from the perspective of the author himself. He writes:
I wish I could claim that shrewd analysis and a strategic worldview prompted me to place my new book, Sniper’s Honor, begun a year and a half ago, in Ukraine, on the fault line between Ukrainian aspirations toward nationhood and Russian aspirations toward domination. Alas, I must confess: it was dumb luck.
When I began the book, off a half-assed, rather childish outline all those months ago, no one knew that in May of 2014, Ukraine was going to be a sort of ground zero, not merely between Russia and Ukraine but also between Russia and the West. I only knew I wanted to tell a story of a brave Soviet woman sniper who was lost to history when “disappeared” after a failed mission in the fall of 1944, as the German army was retreating from its Russian catastrophe. Her fate is examined by Bob Lee Swagger, who learns early on that the past is not dead and buried in that part of the world. As he progresses in his investigation, people keep trying to kill him.
The book is set in two realities: today’s, where corruption, gangsterism, ruthless intelligence agencies (their and ours) and politics still lead to deadly clashes, and 1944’s, which I researched to great depth and which I try to bring alive to the tiniest detail. The true story of the war in the east is too vast for any one writer, or any ten writers, but in bringing it to a western audience, I aspire to be part of the process of remembering that which must be remembered.
But I didn’t know that then. In fact, I didn’t know a thing then. Examining the map and a variety of histories and timelines, I realized that the choices for the book I had outlined but not written were Ukraine, where the Germans clung to a fraction of the country while waiting for the 1st Ukraine Guards Army to wake from slumber and crush them, and Belarus, to the north, where the same strategic situation obtained. The war had really been over since the Russian tanks stopped the German tanks at Kursk, in 1943, in the biggest armored battle of all time. After that, it was long, it was bloody, it was tragic, but it was really only mopping up.
So I put it to my good friend Kathy Lally, the Moscow correspondent of the Washington Post, and asked her which of the two areas would be more fun to treat in a book. I am eternally grateful that she said Ukraine. Belarus, home to Minsk and 700 million fir trees, is flatter than Kansas and greener than Oz, and you can’t go three feet without bumping into a tree. Ukraine, the breadbasket of Russia, has the Carpathians, a storied and beautiful band of mountains tracing a curlicue from Romania, across the toe of Ukraine, ending up 500 miles later in what used to be Czchechoslovakia. Its most famous habitant was Dracula and even today, when the moon is full and the wolves in full howl, a sane man will seek solace in a vodka bottle.
I wrote the book, becoming enmeshed in an epic all but unknown in the west today, that is, the endgame as the Panzers and Tigers retreated in their thousands while the T-34s advanced in their ten thousands. Hundreds of thousands soldiers and citizens perished in huge fights never featured in western histories of the conflict, battles without names, towns with so many vowels vodka was again called for. In certain zones, I became convinced, I could hear the moans of the dead–unbelievable numbers–in the creaking of the trees, and hoped that with my modest talent I could do them justice.
Of course I had to go. So last August I met Kathy in Lviv and we traveled by Orient Express down to Ivano-Frankovisk, known until the ’60s as Stanislav, and along the way we picked up the two Vlads, Vlad the translator and Vlad the historian, who negotiated the trip for us. These were two wonderful guys, and made the trip less ordeal and more adventure, taking us high and low and to all spots in between. I found the Carpathian segments of Ukraine to be a kind of Wisconsin Dells in the ’50s (which I actually remember), a rustic empire struggling to upgrade as it attempts to build an appeal for western tourism. The Ukraines, one learns, desperately want to be of the West, not of the East, and anyone who tells you different hasn’t been there.
I have to see places to write about them, so I believe my immersion into the actual landscapes where the great armies clashed provoked my imagination in ways more powerful than mere reading can ever do. When you see that 70 years later, the Ukrainians still put fresh flowers on the graves and the monuments, you realize that the war visited this part of the world with unrelenting violence and tragedy, and inflicted a wound that even decades later is still as raw as if it had happened two weeks ago.
I hope I got that in Sniper’s Honor; that was my intention at any rate. I wanted to give voice to all those under that rich soil and in those towering mountains. I only hope that V. Putin gets the message.