I have read books set during World War II written from the perspective of Holocaust survivors, perpetrators, and civilians who joined various Resistance movements. Thomas McConnell offers a unique narrator in The Wooden King: a pacifist. Viktor Trn, a history professor, shows us his life in Prague during World War II. In spite of everything that happens—having his country stolen, losing his job, seeing his Jewish neighbors rounded up, slowly starving with his family—he does not fight back. Reading about Trn was simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. I’m still not sure I have a good answer for the question I kept asking while I read: how can someone stand on one side in a fight against one of the greatest evils ever perpetrated?
It’s probably no surprise to learn that Trn is a thoughtful man. Any time he is asked to do anything more than watching his son, buying supplies with his dwindling funds and ration cards, paying visits to friends, etc., Trn thinks and thinks and thinks about what he should do. More than once, he is asked to justify his lack of action against the Nazi invaders. He responds with memories about World War I, philosophical questions about the morality of answering violence with violence, or with a refusal to become a killer. These answers sufficed but did not really satisfy me. That said, I don’t think The Wooden King is meant to be to persuade readers to be pacifists. Instead, I think it’s an opportunity to see what life is like for someone who is hated by the invaders (because he’s a Slav) and by his fellow Czechs (because he won’t fight back).
The Wooden King follows Trn from 1938 to the years immediately after the war. In the early years, life is bearable. He still draws a salary, even though he’s not allowed to teach because the Czech universities have been closed by the Nazi government The rules of his society change around him as Germans are favored over everyone one, people learn to fear knocks on the door, and people (Jewish and Czech) start to go missing. In spite of all this, what seems to bother Trn most is the way that the Nazi version of events appears in new textbooks and history starts to be written. I can sympathize, but I frequently wanted to shout at Trn that he has bigger problems than Nazi fake news. His wife, Alena, yells at Trn a lot for his lack of actions and misplaced priorities. Unfortunately, Alena is written as a shrew and it’s clear that we’re supposed to stay on Trn’s side.
Pacifists and conscientious objectors, when I have seen them portrayed, are often written about with disgust. They’re called cowards or traitors. The Wooden King is a humanizing portrait of a man who wrestles with his personal moral code for more than seven years. Even though I disagree with him at almost every point in this book, I relished the chance to see World War II from a point of view I’ve never encountered before.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 1 May 2018.