THE WOODEN KING. By Thomas McConnell. Hub City Press. 328 pages. $16.95
In his debut novel “The Wooden King,” Thomas McConnell has crafted a powerful story of one man’s struggle to protect himself and his family in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II.
McConnell, an English professor at the University of South Carolina-Upstate, draws from his experience as a former Fulbright Scholar in the Czech Republic to tell the story of Viktor Trn, a mild-mannered history professor whose life is upended by the 1939 German invasion and subsequent occupation.
Stuck in a loveless marriage to Alena, Viktor loses his job teaching, forcing him to eke out a living as a tutor. He devotes his energy, instead, to his love for his 8-year-old son Aleks.
Throughout the story, Viktor wrestles with mounting pressure to get involved in the war, which he steadfastly refuses to do.
His wife berates him for being a coward while the spouse of one of his best friends, who was arrested and sent to Buchenwald, falsely accuses him of selling out her husband to authorities.
Against the backdrop of these deteriorating relationships, Viktor stoically soldiers on even as the war, distant at first, slowly descends upon him like a dark cloud.
The daily tension and fear of living under occupation gives way to eventual air strikes, which claim the life of a woman with whom he had had an affair, robbing him of one of the few happy relationships in his life.
As the battle moves ever closer, Viktor realizes he cannot afford to sit out the fight any longer and reluctantly joins the resistance. The climax of the story finds Viktor and his family and neighbors caught in a vise between the German and Russian armies. It's a fast-paced and desperate final struggle through a war-torn urban landscape.
Throughout the book, McConnell does an excellent job of capturing the mounting tension over the war, creating a sense that the walls of history are closing in on Viktor, a reluctant figure trapped in a fight he wanted nothing to do with.
McConnell likewise does a great job of grounding the war in the life of one family, making something as massive in scope as World War II an intimate story.
Through it, the reader realizes, that the biggest battles are not necessarily between organized armies but sometimes among the individuals living under the same roof.
McConnell is to be commended for this haunting and ultimately tragic story of one man’s perseverance against so much.