"You know, if I had my
way, I'd send that genius son of a bitch an engraved
invitation in iambic pentameter. A challenge in
two stanzas to meet me out there alone in the
desert....Rommel in his tank and me in mine. We'd
stop about twenty paces, we'd get out, and we'd
shake hands, and we'd button up, and we'd do battle,
just the two of us. And that battle would decide
the outcome of the war."
you don't believe that the actions of one person
can affect the outcome of a war, may I remind you
of Hector and Achilles? Or David and Goliath? Or
how about the rival snipers Heinz von Krupp Thorvald
and Vasily Zaitsev, who together determined the
outcome of the Second World War's battle of Stalingrad?
Never heard of them? Most people
haven't. Luckily, we now have David
L. Robbins's superb new novel, War
of the Rats, to
fill us in.
Stalingrad siege was a six-month-long excursion
into hell on earth. It claimed the lives of hundreds
of thousands of soldiers and that many again in
civilian causalities. There was a lot at stake,
and each side needed desperately to come out on
top. Germany had already claimed victory against
Russia, and defeat at Stalingrad would be so demoralizing
that it could lead to its ultimate collapse.
Russia, on the other hand, just
needed to survive. No outside invader—not
even Napoleon—had ever penetrated this deeply
into the country. If the Russians couldn't hold
at Stalingrad, Hitler had a route to Moscow.
It's no wonder the ensuing battle
was called "the hinge of fate."
Unfortunately for the Germans,
it didn't go according to plan. While they favored
a blitzkrieg style of engagement that used
lightning-quick maneuvers to overwhelm their opponents,
the bombed-out buildings and rubble-strewn streets
slowed them down enormously. Soon, the two armies
were reduced to crawling through the streets like
rats (in fact, the German foot soldiers called it
Rattenkrieg—the War of the Rats). Building
to building, hand to hand: it was a style that favored
the Russian soldiers, who were, after all, fighting
for their own turf—and it therefore meant
that the armies were at least evenly matched enough
to draw the engagement out for half a year.
The sluggish advances and subsequent
siege heavily favored snipers. And the best Stalingrad
sniper—Vasily Zaitsev—was the peasants'
Red Baron of his day. A skilled hunter from Siberia,
he became so adept at hunting humans that he was
ordered to train a group of student snipers. One
of the students was a talented female sniper named
Tania Chernova, and Zaitsev and Tania fell in love
while skirting through the street rubble together.
Soon, Zaitsev's group became so
effective that the Germans realized their victory
depended on their ability to kill Zaitsev. So they
brought in their best sniper from Berlin. But Heinz
Thorvald, the opera-loving shooting instructor who
could hit a small target from a thousand meters,
was only marginally a soldier. "I pull a trigger
and people fall down," he says, in War of
the Rats. He was a master of the shot, but not
of the hunt. So the two snipers were fairly evenly
matched. And each sniper knew they were there for
one reason—to kill the other.
As you might guess, War of
the Rats climaxes with each of the two master
snipers trying to get inside the head of the other
and out-think him before the final duel. It's something
like High Noon on the Russian steppes, but
this time the whole town is behind Gary Cooper.
And Grace Kelly can fire a gun with the best of
of an avid reader's great delights is watching a
young, strong author develop and prosper. While
I enjoyed Robbins's first novel Souls To Keep
(1998) and found it to be both humorous and spiritual
(a rare feat), it didn't begin to prepare me for
what Robbins would do in War of the Rats.
His second novel seems certain to rank with some
of the finest of the genre.
He's a deft storyteller who has
learned that the best historical novels use history
merely as a backdrop in order to allow human drama
to develop in the foreground. It's a rare skill
among historical novelists; for every hundred books
of historical fiction, a full ninety-eight spend
most of their time wallowing in the author's research.
Fortunately, Robbins is in the select category,
and his research (while superb) doesn't overshadow
his novel—it enhances it.
With two books now under his belt,
both well-written and with the second one receiving
the kind of support most young writers can only
dream of, it's only a matter of time before Mr.
Robbins's name is recognized as readily as James
Clavell's or Tom Clancy's.