John W. Warner IV’s “Little Anton” is a story to get lost in. Teetering between fact and fiction, it’s a trove of information and historical events we would have remembered from high school classes had we been paying attention.
Then it slides off-center into the occult where believability meets intrigue. Add a sexy and daring heroine to a mix of real-life characters that include Adolph Hitler, Ferdinand Porsche, Sir Winston Churchill, Ettore Bugatti, and long-distance flying record-holder pilot Amy Johnson, and Mr. Warner’s novel in three parts seems to have something for everyone.
AN ERA OF UNCERTAINTY AND WONDERS
It’s that unsettling time between the two world wars. Europe is struggling to find her place; countries struggle to repair their cities and economies. But these also are years of innovation and invention, challenging long-held beliefs and fears and bursting open a future few saw coming.
Clarence Birdseye introduced frozen foods; Nestle, tinned evaporated milk; and Danish painter Einer Wegener became Lili Elbe, the inspiration for the 2015 movie “The Danish Girl” starring Eddie Redmayne. Einstein takes a stand against Nazism and exiles himself from his hometown of Berlin. ALCOA shares a new metal with the world.
Deftly, Warner threads industrial history, the incipient women’s movement, international relations, America’s foreign policy, and engineering challenges with the thrills and dangers of racing — both on the ground and in the air.
The Great War tore apart families and ruined cities and countryside, but it also generated fierce national pride and rivalry, an atmosphere that encouraged Hitler’s not-so-clandestine efforts to re-arm his struggling country.
A NAZI COLLABORATOR AND THE WOMAN SENT TO SPY ON HIM
Presented as historical fiction, “Little Anton” is also a love story, a spy novel, and a book about engines, speed, adventure, war and intrigue.
Although it begins as a paean to Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, the genius behind the Porsche automobile and the Volkswagen “bug,” the fictional Sunderlands, Briggs and Lainey and their spirited daughter, Bea, soon take center stage.
As parents, Briggs and Lainey are dicey role models, taking their daughter on African safaris (where people die!) and tolerating her dangerous hobbies: target shooting, driving fast cars, and flying — back when airplanes were made of wood and canvas. Lady Bea, as she is rightfully called, and her debutante friends live a lavish lifestyle in British society, gossiping over tea about suitors and hemlines.
Porsche, on the other hand, was the son of a tinsmith in a tiny town in Austria. Obsessed with batteries, electricity and any mechanical devices he could get his hands on, Ferdinand was a misfit in his family.
He had to be his own source of encouragement and master of his own future. His romance with voltage, however, leads him to work with two of Germany’s most powerful automobile companies: first Mercedes, then Auto Union. His genius leads him to Hitler.
FAST CARS AND THE FUHRER
Part One revolves around the competition of the Grand Prix racing circuit and the rivalry and technological advances of the auto world.
There’s fancy dress and dirty coveralls, straw boaters and leather helmets. It’s a fancy life at high speeds with sharp corners. There’s a lot of family love, a little naughty sex, some Cuban cigars, and a lot of Veuve Clicquot.
It is here that we learn that Hitler is himself a gear head and enthusiastic automobile lover. While serving time in prison for high treason, he sent an audacious letter to a Mercedes dealership.
“I would like to ask you to reserve the grey car you have in Munich,” he wrote — while also asking for a loan!
After he is chancellor, his love of fast cars grows in scope and influence. It’s understandable that he would enlist the help and brains of Ferdinand Porsche. And he does.
A BRILLIANT AND DARING HEROINE
Here is where Warner bleeds fiction into history. The irrepressible Lady Bea finds a soul mate in her mother’s uncle — Sir Winston Churchill — and as the Second World War looms inevitable, that relationship proves pivotal.
Fiercely patriotic and with the help and approval of Churchill, Lady Bea accepts an assignment as a spy for Great Britain. Her mission is to learn as much as she can about Ferdinand Porsche’s work as head of Hitler’s tank commission. Her connections in high places and her unbelievable talents behind the wheel of a car, in the cockpit of an airplane — and in bed — earn her a place at the table with some of the most important members of the Nazi party, as well as the inner sanctum of Porsche’s workplace.
Lady Bea is a volatile James Bond — seductive and irresistible, but also dangerous and explosive. She can fly an airplane upside down, shoot a gun, speak four languages, and handily assist in the pit of a sports car race. Like Mata Hari, she collects lovers as well as information.
Readers become unwitting students of mysticism as Lady Bea studies the occult in order to better understand the minds of the Nazis with whom she must mingle. Presumably, the Third Reich was obsessed with the Thule Society, the doctrine of the Holy Grail, Aryan warriors, and the keepers of ancient knowledge. Bea must burn her notes as she reads.
The war looms heavy, Bea and her paramour du jour witness the pogrom of Kristallnacht, Germany annexes Austria, Czechoslovakia falls, the world wakes to the nightmare that is unfolding — and Bea falls into a rabbit hole of epic proportions. Readers will need to keep their balance, and when they finally meet “Little Anton,” the story spins tightly into control.
A BINGEABLE READ THAT TRANSPORTS YOU THROUGH TIME
Reading all three volumes of “Little Anton” is much like binge-watching a Netflix series like “The Crown” or “Downton Abbey” with the added pleasure of holding a book in your hands, turning pages and inserting a bookmark instead of clicking a mouse. Sometimes it feels good to step away from the computer and into the pages of a good book.
Warner clearly shows a passion for detail in his research and writing. It’s also passion that powers the story — that of the characters, both real and fictional. “Little Anton” is a good place to get lost.
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