Few novels can truly claim to be both fiction and non-fiction. The much abused “based on real events” really only gives license to conflate and hyperbolize factual, historical events. This is as it should be. Any story is a crafted work, condensing and omitting tangential episodes, creating new ones to serve its main purpose: engage and entertain.
In Holland’s A Pair of Silver Wings we can enjoy a terrific story, along the lines of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, an epic that can only unravel with its protagonist, Edward Enderby traveling through space (and time, effectually) in order to loop back and pick up where he left off at the end of World War Two. Actual historical events are pulled from Holland’s seminal history the HIGHLY RECOMMENDABLE Italy’s Sorrow and laced into the Enderby’s fictional story. Here you have a well-told yarn inspired by a minute and empirical study of the Western Alliance’s Mediterranean & Italian campaign in the second world war. Holland’s novel gives you both: real and factual events coupled with an engaging and heart-breaking story.
An almost somatic understanding of PTSD is present here. This effect was reached by Holland after the many hundreds of hours that he has spent interviewing survivors of the war’s bloodiest massacres and veterans from all the major, contributing nations that fought in the Italian campaigns: the heroically strenuous, and often quagmired effort exhibited by the Allies. One long peninsula with a determined enemy making our effort against them similar to the stalemate felt by the Allies in the First World War. Impossible terrain, mountainous country taken one peak at a time, unending rains, an internal civil war, a parity of numbers between the armies, roving bands of partisans and paramilitaries from both sides behind the fronts: hell on Earth. Holland has been able to study all the effects mentioned above on combatants and non-combatants alike. His is an almost anthropological understanding of that time and place–so much so that you can either read A Pair of Silver Wings or Italy’s Sorrow and walk away with an equal understanding of what it must have been like. “Soft under-belly,” indeed!
As to a “sloppy” or Spielbergian” ending: I would like to say that Holland is sharing his own enlightened observation that those men and women with whom he spoke to felt better by not ignoring those horrible years in their lives but by incorporating them into their own life’s narratives. We carry a novel in our heads and we’re our own protagonists. By failing to incorporate the traumatic effects of our most heinous moments we risk becoming detached to our loved ones, not valuing them as key factors in whom we’ve become. To put it a simpler way: you’re living a lie by ignoring or suppressing your past. Memory leads to mending– which inevitably leads to loving. This is what Holland is suggesting with Enderby’s Scrooge-like, sea-changed awareness. What’s worth noting is how said discovery was made by Holland via personal exchanges with the people who lived it.
It was generous of him to share.