I read this book a while ago now, but kept putting it on the back burner until I had time to write about it, since it was not one that had to go back to the library. I also didn’t quite know what to say about it. There is a lot going on in this book, so I could go into it in great detail, but I am going to try to keep it simple.
What I liked best about this book was what I learned from it. So, that is what I will focus on. There is also a long sweeping story full of characters, some of which I grew impatient with as I was reading. Some of the characters seemed too perfect, and some of the storylines a little too coincidental. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a good story, and the section of the book that dealt with the destruction of Guernica was very well done. But, for me, I wanted more history, less love and forgiveness.
So, here is what I got out of this book:
1. Boling talks about the Basques people and their culture with love and compassion. He puts so much into the creation of his characters that it is all the more devastating when they are under attack.
“I know many Basques. Nobody works harder or is more dedicated to his family. We used to say, ‘Straight and tall, there goes the Basque.’ The ones I know could be stubborn and suspicious, but to have a Basques as a friend is something you can count on for a lifetime.”
2. In 1936, the Spanish Civil War began. The Nationalist Rebels, led by Franco, wanted control of the country, and there was widespread hardship and countless atrocities. To make things worse, the Nationalists were getting support from Nazi Germany.
“Franco’s troops are bloodthirsty for Basques, and the Germans are unpredictable. For Franco, there is more to this. Every one of us he can be rid of now will be one fewer to worry about when he’s running Spain.
3. On April 27, 1937, the city of Guernica was bombed for more than three hours straight, destroying the city and hundreds of the people living there.
As they gained distance from Guernica, Xabier could see the red-amber glow of the burning town, and in his priest’s mind, he wondered if the night sky was filling with smoke from the raging fires or from the ascending souls of the needlessly dead.
[Von Richthofen] had never expended more resources toward the destruction of a single target, and the town of Guernica had been leveled without a Condor casualty.
“When you see burned children laying the in the street, charred… melted, you don’t count them. When you see a group of boys fused into a blackened mass, you don’t take inventory. How many died? How many? Death was infinite.”
4. Four thousand orphans were evacuated to England. In his book, Boling elaborates on the life of the orphans once they get to England, and adds yet more characters to continue telling the story of the aftermath of the bombing of Guernica.
5. After the fall of Bilbao, Franco declares that speaking the Basques language is now illegal. He also condemns any Basque priests for having ignored “the voice of the the church”.
6. Jose Antonio Aguirre, the Basque president, flees the country under fire, and will never return.
7. During the German occupation of France in WWII, many Basques risked their lives helping to smuggle goods and soldiers from France into Spain. One of Boling’s storylines involves this activity.
8. Picasso played a small part in this book, and I enjoyed learning more about him. After hearing about what happened in his country of origin, Picasso painted his famous “Guernica“, depicting the scene of the bombing. Picasso was once approached in a café by a German soldier who recognized him as a famous artist. He held out a postcard of the painting Guernica, and asked Picasso:
“You did this this, didn’t you?”
Picasso put his cup delicately onto its saucer, turned to the picture and then to the officer, and responded, “No, you did.”
From Dave Boling, about his book:
The Spanish Civil War was one of the world’s great tragedies, with savageries on all sides and a casualty total that may never be known. I tried not to tax the reader with elaborations on the complex and volatile politics at work at the time… but rather to establish a general context of the poverty, oppression, instability, and disenfranchisement that common citizens would have felt.
There are many faces to any tragedy, and this was told from the perspective of the Basques, who were famously staunch in the defense of their land. Historians have disputed the death toll from the bombing of Guernica, but the act nonetheless remains at the taproot of the assaults against civilian populations that the world still grieves on an all too regular basis.
This is a good book to read if you are interested in learning more about the Spanish Civil War, the Basques people and their part in the war, or about events and politics taking place leading up to, or at the same time as, WWII events. It is also a good book to read if you enjoy family sagas involving many characters and more than one generation. The story alternates between a few of the more central characters, giving different viewpoints of the events that take place.