1943: Dragon’s Teeth by Upton Sinclair

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Plot Summary:

In another great story of Lanny Budd and his fascinating family, Sinclair has made the world-shaking events and brilliant characters share a memorable reality.

He writes of the era between the Wall Street crash of 1929 and Nazi blood purge of 1934, as seen through the eyes of an American privileged to live behind the scenes.

Dragon’s Teeth is more dramatic than any of his other novels. In it we see characters born to a life of wealth and ease venturing into the Nazi fortress of Munich, Berlin, and-even-Dachau. We see Lanny matching wits with Magda Goebbels, winning the dubious confidence of Göring, searching the fevered eyes of the Fuhrer himself.

Once again Sinclair leads us into scenes of luxury and glamour, lays bare the inner workings of international society and world intrigue, makes real to us people and events which heretofore we have only known in headlines. Dragon’s Teeth is a rare and unforgettable reading experience.

My Thoughts:

In Dragon’s Teeth, Upton Sinclair finally hits the balance that he has been moving and striving toward through his Lanny Budd novels thus far, and the result is a thrilling and engrossing read. While the first novel in the series, World’s End, was very much a novel about world events that just happened to have characters in it to push the story forward, and Between Two Worlds felt like a transition into something else, not quite deciding whether the fictional characters should have their own stories amid the background of world events, Dragon’s Teeth delivers a compelling character-driven story that occurs within the framework of important historical events (although at the time it was published, they were very recent history).

Lanny Budd returns, with a wife, and a child on the way, but more importantly for the story, with a half-sister who is married into a family of German Jews, as 1929 draws to a close and Hitler and the Nazi party begin to rise to power. While Lanny still manages to show up just in time for all the major historical events throughout the novel, Dragon’s Teeth is a much more personal, individual, character-driven novel. While the reader is still treated to scenes depicting the larger world ramifications of events, the focus is on how those events impact Lanny and his family, and the Jews and Socialists in Germany whom Lanny has befriended over the past two novels are persecuted, imprisoned, and even murdered. The reader sees the consequences of the larger historical narrative on a very personal level, which makes it feel more real and visceral.

As the persecution and imprisonment increase for his friends and family in Germany, Lanny uses his wealth and his connections with art to make connections with and befriend members of the Nazi party, interacting with Goring, Goebbels, and even Hitler. He plays an increasingly dangerous game as he attempts to get his friends and family out of Germany in any way he can, whether working with the Nazi government or against it, without ending up imprisoned or murdered himself.

For the first time in the series, Lanny is faced with situations that his wealth, family, and influence cannot solve. Although he had a brief encounter with Italian fascism in the previous novel that put him at risk and ended up getting him kicked out of Italy, the Nazi party and their supporters are more brutal and much more dangerous, and for an extended time in the book, we are faced with Lanny not always getting his way. And while this does ratchet up the tension up to the climax of the book, it is also a bit of a relief to see him facing real problems to which there are no good or easy solutions, because he finally starts to feel like a real character, instead of an idealized literary tool.

At the same time, there is a very personal, very intimate devastation in the book that gives it an emotional weight, because the reader sees characters they have begun to connect with placed in terrible situations. Unlike in World’s End, where the only view of the horrors of war are in the descriptions of injured men, Dragon’s Teeth gives the reader a first person view of the concentration camps, of torture, and even of execution by the end of the novel. They are things that Lanny Budd experiences, and the reader is able to undergo that emotional transformation side by side with him.

It is a darker novel than the previous two in the series. Written while World War Two was still being fought, while the atrocities in Nazi Germany were still coming to light, but before America was brought into the war, it gives a hard look at not only the Nazi rise to power, but also makes numerous mention of the inability and the unwillingness for other nations to see what was going on, and to notice the rising threat. But if Sinclair means it as a criticism of the American response to the Nazi rise to power, it is a subtle one. I think instead he means it as a reminder, just as his previous books have been reminders. It is a chronicle of the 20th Century as Upton Sinclair has seen it. And unfortunately, this chapter in history is darker than the previous, and even darker chapters are yet to come.

Favorite passage:

Human beings suffer agonies, and their sad fates become legends; poets write verses about them and playwrights compose dramas, and the remembrance of past grief becomes a source of present pleasure–such is the strange alchemy of the spirit.

Why you should read it:

The strongest of the Lanny Budd novels yet, Dragon’s Teeth dives into the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party through a well-grounded, personal storyline. The characters finally come in to their own, and it turns into a thrilling, dramatic, and intriguing story.

Currently reading: Journey in the Dark by Martin Flavin

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