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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

“The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930’s” by Piers Brendon

795 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN13: 9780375408816

The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930’s by Piers Brendon is written in an episodic format with each chapter covering a period of time in one country, which means that, on occasion one event is covered multiple times in separate chapters; not necessarily a bad thing when it allows a different perspective on any one event. It also means that the narrative weaves back and forth through time: the chapter on France might end in 1936 but the next step in Italy starts in 1931. The effect of both is to make each chapter stand on its own but keeps the whole from quite fitting seamlessly together. Though Brendon does try to knit the chapters together by introducing the country covered in the next chapter in the last pages of the previous this tactic feels clunky more often than not. This is not a showstopper, just something to keep in mind. The chapters on Japan and Italy are especially strong, possibly because so few writers of popular history have given much attention to either country’s experience during the 1930s lately. The chapters on Spain and France are quite good also (oddly, considering that Brendon is English, the chapters on the UK are surprisingly patchy). The chapters on the United States are, on occasion, a bit odd; Brendon’s take on the Supreme Court was surprisingly ill-informed and his sudden segue into Hollywood was downright bizarre. After paying little attention to culture in general Brendon spends pages essentially complaining about the output of the movie factories (I’m still wondering what the line “Even monsters like Boris Karloff and Shirley Temple did not seem credible” is supposed to mean; even more strangely, Brendon keeps referencing Citizen Kane, a great movie – released in 1941; pop culture critiques are not Brendon's strength).

Brendon skims across the surface in a way that I found very accessible, showing the parallels that existed during this terrible period in world history, rather than attempting to explore any one region's social, political, cultural and economic crisis in deep, penetrating detail. Through what I thought was an extremely effective comparison-and-contrast approach, he points out the underlying causes of the poverty, unemployment and the related suffering, stagnation and unrest that plagued every continent during that dismal era. He also shows quite clearly how these things all led to the rise of fascism and ultimately to World War II. Yes, it’s depressing as hell; yes, there are eerie echoes in modern political debates; and yes, it’s quite a large book. While Brendon spends too much time describing period details which are not directly relevant to his historical arguments, I enjoyed being immersed in those details and found it transporting. That kind of description is what makes this read a little bit more like an epic novel and a little bit less like a textbook.

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