“Warren Piece.” I distinctly recall my mother uttering those two words as she ushered me out the door with my brothers on our summer afternoon trek to the library. Our visits to the public library were a regular occurrence in those days, and on occasion, we walked the mile+ distance sans adult supervision.
We had specific, unalterable instructions: stay together, follow the usual route, be home before dinner, and never, ever, ever talk to strangers! We had a tight camaraderie, the three of us. Brother Eric (two years older than me) and brother Kevin (younger than me by eighteen months) might run ahead or dawdle behind from time to time, but being voracious readers, our expectation of new adventures hidden in books on the library’s seemingly endless bookshelves kept the three of us on course to our destination.
On this particular day, I’d been given one extra task. In addition to choosing reading material for myself, I’d been told to bring home a specific title for my mother: Warren Piece. It seemed like an odd name for a book but what did I know? Mother said I should speak with the librarian who had reserved a copy of the book for me to pick up.
As things turned out, the librarian placed into my hands the massive tome by Leo Tolstoy entitled War and Peace! (The cover to left is a current image of the book. My recollection is the volume I carried home was dull gray or black without any illustrations, and I think it must have been 2-2½” thick.)
On our walk home, I remember wondering about my mother’s interest in this book. I considered it a baffling choice. What did Mom need to know about war? We enjoyed a peaceful home, with only minor conflicts … most often squabbles between my brothers and myself.
Looking back now, though I was puzzled by Mom’s interest in this huge book, it was (in its way) a tacit recommendation. Even so, it would be several decades before I looked closer … and several more decades before I actually managed to read the book in its entirety.
With War and Peace, master storyteller Tolstoy crafted a magnificent, epic tale. The story was released as a serial from 1865 to 1867. According to some sources, Tolstoy discouraged people from viewing the work as a novel or a poem or a historical chronicle. In some respects, I consider the masterpiece to be all three. We have the interwoven stories of fictional Russian families who connect with actual figures from history. The narrative breathes life into historic battles and features the leadership of long-dead generals.
During the time I was reading through War and Peace, the country of Ukraine surfaced as a frequent topic of discussion in the news. Talk about giving the book an unexpected relevance! The map of Europe in 1812 (at right) shows an expansive Russian Empire (in green) which includes all of Ukraine. During the years chronicled in Tolstoy’s narrative, Ukraine is not an independent country, but a region of the much-larger Russian Empire.
Families depicted throughout the narrative resemble people I know and love. While Tolstoy features mostly people of “noble” birth (his background), there are others (peasants, serfs) who populate the book. I liked his characters, many of whom experience the everyday concerns and joys I’ve known. Most of them have deep spiritual and religious convictions as an integral force in their lives. Tolstoy’s narrative reflects genuine faith.
Tolstoy devotes numerous chapters to describe war’s impact on his nation. He chronicles young men who express their eagerness to fight and find glory on the battlefield. He features older men, some exhausted by earlier wars and others still anxious to achieve greatness on the battlefield, who step up to lead the Russians into combat. As if the reader needs a reminder, the author discusses wartime strategies (both successes and failures) as well as the impossibility of achieving a predictable result even with the best battle plan.
Though never a central character, the Emperor Napoleon seems ever-present, pursuing the expansion of his empire. He spreads his war and devastation in a brutal march through Europe, all the way to Moscow. While some portrayals have represented Napoleon romantically, Tolstoy depicts a man who ruthlessly seeks glory for himself without any regard for the number of bodies scattered along the way.
In an 1880 speech, US Army General William Tecumseh Sherman told his audience:
“Some of you young men think that war is all glamour and glory,
but let me tell you, boys, it is all hell!”
War is Hell. No doubt, Tolstoy’s descriptions throughout War and Peace capture some of the misery and chaos, agony and death. But even the most vivid text is bloodless, blunting the visceral impact of a real battle. Candidly, I’m glad of that. I came away from the book understanding how blessed I am … and also knowing that events playing out half a world away are serious business.
I’ve learned the world is much bigger than my childhood perception of “Warren Piece.” I’m also prayerful world leaders can move soon from waging war to embrace lasting Peace. Let’s all pray for Ukraine and for Russia.