Monday, June 24, 2019

A Week in the (VA) Life

My husband and I are about to head north for most of the summer.  Starting less than a week from now, we will be staying at his childhood home on Lake Champlain, spending time catching up with extended family on both sides and managing our "Oyster Haven" VRBO rental located three miles down the road from the Pearl homestead.

I am looking forward to a couple of relatively relaxing months spent by the lake with my best guy--especially since we did something wild and crazy a few months ago...we fulfilled a lifelong dream of his and bought a boat.  And we didn't get just any old boat: we got a big pontoon "party barge" that fits a whole slew of people on it at once (which is key these days, with our growing brood).  This summer, we'll be breaking it in without our passel of grandkids, since our four oldest sons all have to save their vacation time to drive out to MI for their youngest brother's wedding in September.  Wait, that's not completely accurate; actually, our firstborn and his wife and five kids are planning to come up for a week or two, since he is now a commercial pilot and can commute to his job from anywhere, within reason (like his dad).  But for the most part, it will just be the summer of Papa and Grammy, the summer of my guy and me.   (You know, as in "the summer of George."  Do you remember that Seinfeld episode?)

It's going to be a little weird, however, being away from all the kids and grandkids for most of July and August.  I've gotten so used to spending time with them on a regular basis.  And I have to admit, I might experience a wee touch of separation anxiety!

My husband and I haven't really made any friends since we sold our NH home and moved south two years ago to live closer to our married sons--who by some miracle all ended up settling within spitting distance of each other here in Northern VA.  It's hard, at 60-ish, to start anew--especially if you're shy and/or introverted (lucky me, I'm both!).  You don't have the built-in paths to meeting other adults who are in your season of life that school and sports provide when your kids are growing up.  We're friendly with a few folks at church, and with the nice young neighbor who mows our little patch of lawn each week.   But it's hard to imagine us forming any deep friendships here, the kind that happen over the course of living in one neighborhood with the same people for decades.  I joined the Altar Society at our new parish, hoping that would make me feel more connected to our new community.  But the truth is that I am often either out of town (in Upstate NY) or busy (babysitting or visiting with grandkids) when the group has meetings or activities, so I haven't been as active over there as I would have liked, and I haven't gotten to know any of the other members really well yet.

The bottom line is that these days, our grown sons and their lovely wives are our best friends.  We enjoy spending time with them and their children more than anyone else--and we see them often now, without having to get on an airplane to do it, so our life here is blessedly full.

Last week is a great example of just how full it is, actually.  Let me show you what it was like, day by day.

Our oldest son was on a trip, so his wife and five kids came over in the afternoon to go to the pool in our neighborhood complex.  My husband was home, and he was going to give swimming lessons to the girls (aged 4 to 8).  We got the kids in their suits, slathered on the sunscreen, packed up the towels and other paraphernalia, and walked over.  It's not far, but it was oppressively hot and it seemed to take forever.  When we got there, the lifeguard told us the pool was closed for a half-hour, because they'd heard thunder not too long before.  There were about 20 minutes left to go, so we decided to wait to see if there would be an all-clear soon.  A few minutes into the wait, more thunder.   That meant the clock was reset and there would be 30 more minutes of waiting.  Such disappointment for the girls!  We decided to head back home and play in our little plastic pools.  The 6-year-old complained, "That will be boring!"

But actually, it wasn't.  It was fun.

On Tuesday, my husband left for a four-day trip.  That evening, I went over to son #3's house to help him and his wife paint their basement, which was formerly a man cave/craft area, but is now going to be an awesome playroom for their growing family.  (They have three kids 4 and under, with a fourth on the way.)  By the time I got to bed, it was well after midnight.  I slept over, so at about 6:30 the next morning I got to enjoy couch snuggles with some of my favorite little peeps--G-Man, Princesa, and Rosita--before heading back home to babysit for son #1's wife while she went to an eye appointment.  (I was too busy painting and snuggling while I was on the sleepover to take pictures.)

Our oldest boy's gang enjoyed playing in the basement while their mom was at her appointment in the morning.  (Our basement is going to get finished off, finally, in the fall; but even in its rough state, our grandkids love playing down there.)

While they were at our house, I had my granddaughters try on the flower girl dresses they're going to wear in their uncle's upcoming wedding.  (The two girls on the end are wearing dresses previously worn for the weddings of our other boys, spruced up with lace boleros and lace at the hem.  The twins in the middle are wearing their First Holy Communion dresses, repurposed with cranberry ribbon to match the bridesmaid dresses.)

After their mom returned and we had lunch at our house, we decided to try the pool again (fingers crossed!).  Without Papa, a former lifeguard and water safety instructor, there would be no formal swimming lessons; but we hoped to get in some good cooling-off time, at least.  I'm happy to say that the weather was perfect, the pool was open, and we all enjoyed a couple of hours of playing in the water (all but the girls' little brother, Simba, who is almost a year old; he is not a fan of getting wet!).

I had to get up early to make the 35-minute drive over to son #4's house, so that I could watch his 22-month-old triplets while he accompanied his wife to her morning OB/GYN appointment (which included the 20-week sonogram!).  Earlier this month, my husband and I watched the triplets for five days, while their parents went to Mexico for a wedding/well-earned vacation.  Those little monkeys were on their best behavior and we had a ball with them--but there were two of us to wrangle them at all times.  Being with them alone for a few hours really made me appreciate what a tremendous job their hardworking mom is doing; she's at home with them, alone--all day, every day, until our son gets home from work.  They are adorable--but into absolutely everything and they definitely keep you on your toes.

One of the wisest moves their parents made was to get this trash can that has a locking lid!

My husband returned from his trip in the morning, and in the afternoon, we watched our darling granddaughter Rosita at our house while son #3 and his wife took the older two kids to see Toy Story 4 at the little downtown theater where we live.  We decided to rent the original Toy Story to watch with her while her siblings were at the movies.

Can you stand it?!  How cute is she, sitting there next to her Papa?  With her little feet not
even reaching the end of the cushion!

When she got tired of the movie, we paused it for a bit and went outside to play in the pool.

Who knew that those cheap little plastic Walmart pools could provide so much quality entertainment?

As if the week hadn't already been jam-packed enough with all kinds of family fun, on Saturday our second-oldest son and his wife hosted a party to celebrate the two recent birthdays of two special people: their second son Jedi (who turned 2) and his Papa (who turned a lot older than 2).  Most of the family was there.  Son #4 was on call for work, so he had to stay behind and his wife came solo with the triplets.  (I think Braveheart was the perfect blog handle to choose for her, don't you?)  Also missing was our baby, who is currently stationed too far away from VA (but not as far away as Germany anymore, thankfully).  And son #1's wife was at a homeschool conference with their baby boy.  But otherwise, all were present.

Son #2 and Ginger have a huge fenced-in yard with a swing set and just about every outdoor climbing or riding toy a kid could hope for.  It is the most perfect yard for having a party, and it was a wonderful day that was enjoyed by all.  13 of our 14 grandchildren were there, and it was the best kind of chaos!

I started this post on Saturday, but finished it up on the Lord's day.  It's a funny thing...after writing earlier in the post that we don't have any friends here in VA yet, on Sunday night I realized that that might not be totally accurate.  As my husband and I were leaving 8:30 a.m. Mass, a dear older woman I met through the Altar Society came up to say hi and chat, and she affectionately grabbed hold of my hand.  She held onto it all the way down the aisle as we walked toward the door of the church, and she smiled at my husband and me as if we were the very people she was hoping to see.  God bless her, just that quick, oh-so-sweet interaction made me feel like maybe--just maybe--this newly adopted town of ours will really feel like home to us one day.

There were no visits with the kids and grandkids on Sunday.  My husband left for work that afternoon, and I have about a million little things to take care of before we start our road trip north when he gets back towards the end of the week, so I kept myself busy at home.

It's Monday now, and there is still so much to do to get ready for our trip.  Today was spent running errands, shopping, sewing (the last of the flower girl dresses, for 3-year-old Princesa), and driving over to say goodbye to son #2 and his family.  In the next few days, I plan to try to see the other families to say goodbye as well.

As Pooh Bear would say, how lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.  (Lots of somethings, actually!)

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Power of the Eucharist

Today, as the Church celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi--the Feast of the Body and Blood of Our Lord--I wanted to re-post a story that originally appeared here at the blog five years ago.  It illustrates the awesome power of the Eucharist (and the awesomeness of the man I married) in the most beautiful--I daresay almost miraculous--way.

Click on that link, if you have the time; I don't think you'll be disappointed.

God bless you, dear readers--today and always!

Friday, June 21, 2019

ABC Book Update: C is for Complete!

Well, I have completed my ABC Book project.  (Time to open the cabinets, I think!)

For many, many years now it has been my goal to create a children's picture book for my family.  Way back when, I thought it might be finished in time for my youngest son to enjoy it.  He is 26 now and getting married in the fall; I guess that ship has sailed, hasn't it?  But not long after I became a grandmother 8 years ago, I got inspired once again and started the project anew.

And finally, FINALLY, I am done. 

From A

to Z!

Although it would be nice if I could somehow get this thing published and make it available at an affordable price, I just don't think that's going to happen.  My husband (who is unparalleled when it comes to supporting his wife and going above and beyond to help her see her dreams come true) would probably encourage me to go the self-publishing route if I felt strongly about it--even though that is pretty costly and it is extremely doubtful that I would even come close to making back my initial investment in sales.  (I have decided that God has plans for me that include having books in print but do not include being a financially successful author.  My two faith-filled novels, Finding Grace and Erin's Ring, were a joy to write and contain what I hope are beautiful and inspiring messages for readers; but NYT bestsellers they are not!)

So...even though he would do it in a New York minute, I just can't ask my husband to invest too much money in this ABC Book project.  My gut is telling me that trying to get it into print is just not the path I'm meant to take with it.

I did, however, stumble upon a photo book a Shutterfly-type company called Mixbook a few years back, and through them I was able to have all of my 8 and 1/2 by 11-inch pages copied beautifully into a soft-covered 8 and 1/2 by 11-inch book.  I was quite pleased with the result.

Decided to re-purpose the Finding Grace cover image for the S's--and was happy I could figure
out a way to fit it into a rhyme for this book!

I was kind of tickled when I received it in the mail recently, because it looks like a real book, and the illustrations reproduced remarkably well.  BUT (and this is a BIG but) each soft-cover copy is prohibitively expensive: $69.69.  (And the hard-cover version is $20 more per copy--yikes!)  I mean, at 50 pages it's about twice as long as the average children's picture book, but still...

I was able to find a decent Mixbook coupon online when I ordered mine; but even using that, the price of just one soft-cover copy was over $40 with shipping.  I can't imagine that anyone is going to want to pay that kind of price for a children's book!

You are, dear readers, of course more than welcome to use this link to order a Mixbook copy if you so desire. (Maybe you'll be able to find a 75% off coupon?!)   However, the main reason I decided to share the link is that it will enable you to "flip" through the pages of the book for free, while you view it on your computer screen.  In this new modern age, perhaps that's the way computer-savvy little ones prefer to look at picture books anyway.  (I've seen the way toddlers can work iPhones and iPads; it's impressive!)

To make copies for my own little people, I decided to run off two-sided copies of the illustrated pages  (using the "best" resolution printer setting) on high-quality resume paper and protect them with plastic sleeves.  Then I put all the pages in an inexpensive three-hole presentation binder.  I did use card stock for the front cover, for better durability, and enclosed that in a plastic sleeve as well.

The end product actually came out really well (in person, with better lighting and less glare, the pages look almost identical to the Mixbook versions)--and I'm thinking of offering a CD with all of the printable images here at the blog (for $15 perhaps, s & h costs included?), so that if you are interested in having a hard copy, you can run one off using your home printer.  If you have any thoughts on the CD idea, leave me a comment.  I love hearing from you!

P.S. I have been blogging about this project for a number of years, and if you have any interest in knowing the origins and inspirations for some of the artwork included, there is an "ABC Book" tab up at the top of my blog's home page.  Any posts about the book can be found by clicking on there.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

The Gift of Time

Once upon a time, my whole life revolved around being a stay-at-home mother to five little boys: five precious souls entrusted to me by God, five gifts He generously bestowed upon me--gifts that I still can hardly believe He thought I was worthy to receive. I was humbly grateful to have been chosen to be their mom, and I tried to do my best by them; but I'm sure that I made many mistakes (both by commission and omission) in shepherding them along in their journeys to adulthood.  I do, however, have faith that the best mother of all, Our Blessed Mother, filled in for me whenever I fell short in my duties.  (Thank you for that, dear Mother!)

When they were little, it was hard to imagine that there would ever come a day when our boys wouldn't all be sleeping under our roof, so that I could sneak in during the night to make sure their little chests were still moving up and down, and all was well--much less that they'd have homes and families of their own.  I mean, for goodness sake, look at this picture of our two oldest, taken in 1987 (or YESTERDAY, it seems).

They were the cutest little fellas (said their very unbiased mommy), blond-haired and blue-eyed, with stocky little bodies and matching plaid shirts.  Their personalities couldn't have been more different; and yet they shared all the same interests over the years: cars and trains, then dinosaurs and drawing, followed by football and lacrosse.  They both liked to be the best at whatever they tried, whether it was a sport or a subject in school.  They had a competitive streak that made them excel both on the field and in the classroom--and full disclosure, also led to occasional bickering over video games and controllers being hurled at walls in frustration.  But the same jokes and TV shows and movie lines made them laugh, and they laughed together often.

They were very good boys--and I don't say that because I've got my rose-colored glasses on.  When I hear about what some kids will put their parents through, I realize just how great we had it with our boys.  We expected a lot of them, behavior-wise: talking back was not an option; and going to inappropriate movies or unsupervised high school parties wasn't either--no matter how many of their friends were allowed to go.  We were strict (stricter than most of their peers' parents), but if they felt oppressed they mostly kept their feelings to themselves.  There were no screaming matches in our house.  I'm sure it was hard sometimes to be the kids who always had to ask permission first, and heard "no" more often than they would have liked; but they abided by our rules and in general, life with teenaged boys was pretty sweet at Casa Pearl.

These two oldest of ours set a tone for the three younger brothers that came after them, who also grew up anxious to do well in all their endeavors and to keep out of trouble.  I know some people imagine a house filled with growing boys as a giant fistfight/wrestling match, but it really wasn't like that at all.  Whenever I think of my experience as a mother, I feel incredibly blessed.  I thought I was just about the luckiest woman on earth to be surrounded by funny and energetic little boys, then happy and endearing grade-schoolers, then kind-hearted, intelligent, and witty high-schoolers. Yes, when I had three boys under three, I had days when I didn't feel like there was enough of me to go around.  Yes, there were times when I felt like tearing my hair out.  Yes, my husband and I sometimes sighed with relief when bedtime finally rolled around.  Yet even so, I can honestly say that it was all good--every single phase they went through had its pluses.

But nothing could have prepared me for how incredibly AWESOME it would be to have grown-up sons.  Those two little guys in the matching shirts?  They are both married now and currently have eight children between them (son #1 has four girls and a boy, and son #2 is so far taking after his mom and dad, with three little boys aged 3 and under).  They are still sweet.  They are still funny.  They are still loving and respectful in their dealings with their parents.  And these days, they make me feel like they are the ones who are taking care of me.  They are very protective.  They sometimes take me on mother-son dates.  They assure me that no matter what, their dad and I will always have a place to live ("the best nursing home money can buy," they like to quip).

So don't be afraid of your children growing up and "leaving" you, young mamas.  They may have to move far away, geographically, because of work or whatever; but they don't ever really leave you.  And not only that, they will bring new people to love into your life, making it richer than it ever was when they were "yours" alone and lived under your roof.

Here are some pictures of me with sons #1 and #2, taken recently when we met up with three of our boys and their families at a lake in VA, to celebrate the 8th birthday of our firstborn's twin daughters, the oldest of our 14 grandchildren.  (Son #4 was there to celebrate, too, with his wife and 21-month-old triplets; but they'd had to head home before these pictures were snapped, to rest up after spending a few exhausting hours chasing after those little monkeys--who like to take off in three different directions at once!)

I am so proud of these thirty-something boys of mine, I can hardly stand it.  Imagine heart-eye emojis all over this page.  They are hardworking men, devoted husbands, hands-on dads, and most importantly, they consider raising their children in the Faith their prime responsibility.  I love them so much--for all they were, and for all they've become.

I could sit around feeling sad that my nest is empty, and feeling sorry for myself because I'm getting old...but look at those pictures, folks.  I mean, truly, who wouldn't want to be me?  When they were loud and scruffy little ruffians, running around doing what little boys do, my husband would say, "Just think: someday you'll have tall, strapping young lads walking along on either side of you, and they'll treat their mom like a queen."  Well, that day has definitely come.

You can either bemoan the passage of time, or you can celebrate it.  I choose to celebrate it.

Especially when I see the same plaid shirt worn in that 1987 picture on son #2's firstborn boy, Junior (because my daughter-in-law Ginger shares my sentimental streak when it comes to vintage clothing once worn by her husband).

If I'd frozen time to keep my boys with me forever, I wouldn't have had the joy of knowing the two little guys in this photo--who give me a distinct feeling of deja vu!--or their baby brother and 11 Pearl cousins (and counting).

Luckily, time marches on.  Because in spite of the wrinkles and gray hairs that appear, and the jaw lines that turn soft and jowly, time is not my enemy.  One day, my time here in this world will be at an end; but until then, every extra minute, hour, day, week, month, and year I am privileged to enjoy brings with it a new blessing.

As if I haven't been given enough already, God, thank you for the gift of time!

Monday, June 10, 2019

A Green Door for Oyster Haven

My husband and I are currently in Upstate NY, cleaning and doing odd jobs at our VRBO lakeside rental, which we named Oyster Haven after we bought it in the fall of 2015.  (We opened it for business in the summer of 2016.)

A while back, I blogged about the name of the house and where it came from, and how eerily apropos it was--considering how Irish our family is, especially on my husband's side.  (Here's the link to that old post that explains everything, in case you're interested.)

If you don't want to bother reading the post, I'll just tell you that we named our house before we knew that there was actually a place in County Cork called Oyster Haven Bay--and when I realized we had inadvertently given it an Irish name I was beyond tickled, let me tell you.
This 5x7" photo (taken at the Oyster Haven in Ireland) hangs in the kitchen of our lake house,
a nod to its Irish cousin across the ocean.

Anyhoo, our Oyster Haven is a lovely old farm house, the main part of which dates back to about 1830.  (An addition was added in the 1940's, and about 10 years ago the kitchen and bathrooms got some major upgrades.)  Right now, the poor old girl is peeling on the outside and badly in need of a paint job, but we recently had a new roof put on.  (Having a leak that causes the ceiling in one of the upstairs bedrooms to almost fall down will make a new roof happen lickety-split, dontcha know.)  We are hoping to have a fresh coat of white paint applied by this fall; but in the meantime, I thought the least we could do would be to give the front door a facelift.

From the road, it doesn't look too bad.  But the paint on the door (which has been that same blue hue since we bought the house) had faded quite a bit, and when my husband put a new combination lock on it recently and touched it up, the paint he found in a rusted can in the basement no longer matched what was on the door.

I decided that maybe as long as we had to repaint it anyway, we should go with something a little more bold and daring (and a little more Irish).

I was inspired by a scene from the John Wayne movie The Quiet Man.  His character, Sean Thornton, goes back to Ireland to reclaim his family's ancestral home, White 'o Morn, and he decides to paint the front door green.  I love the line from Mrs. Playfair, who pays a visit and says to Sean, "Only an American would have thought of emerald green."

Hey, Sean Thornton had a new roof put on, too, just like us!  (Only ours is not thatched...)

Yes, I decided, our front door just had to be green.  Emerald green, or Kelly green, or whatever you want to call it.  There wasn't another color that would do!  I painted it today--and oh, do I love the way it looks!

The blue was fine, it was...

...but the green--in my opinion--is so much better!

What do you think?!

That's it for me, today, folks.  But this green door, and all this talk about The Quiet Man, has got me in the mood for some Irish music.  So I'll leave you with this offering from a band called Flogging Molly.

And how about this one, from the Face Vocal Band, while we're at it.

Until next time...

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

An Open Book: Novels about WWII-Era Heroes

Over the course of the past few months I have devoured seven novels, all of them set during Word War II and all featuring heroic men and women who were as courageous and daring as the soldiers fighting at the front lines.  Some of these amazing individuals, in fact, served as nurses right near those lines and sacrificed their own comfort and safety to tend to the wounded and dying.  Others did whatever they could on the home front, working tirelessly, in secret, to hide the hunted or feed the starving, often at the risk of their own lives.  Still others strived to make life within the walls of Nazi concentration camps bearable for the suffering victims imprisoned there.

I have always been drawn to historical fiction--but particularly to works of that genre that are set in the 1940's, the era of the "Greatest Generation," where the Second World War is the backdrop for the story.  What people had to endure back then--especially in Europe--is unimaginable to those of us who have never known true want or need in the course of our lives, even when our country has been at war.  These days, when our brave men and women are fighting for our freedom abroad, we here in "the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave" are not waiting in lines to get enough food to keep us from starving or experiencing any hardships even remotely similar to those endured by many poor souls during that turbulent time.  No, life goes on almost exactly as usual.  When our oldest son, at the time an Army officer and helicopter pilot, was deployed to Iraq for a year back in 2008, my husband and I realized that his life would be one of total self- sacrifice; therefore, we thought that the least we could do was to impose some Lenten-like sacrifices on ourselves.  So we gave up some favorite foods and entertainments for the year (one of them for me was reading novels--one of my best-loved rainy day or sunny day or any day activities).

I know novels are not "real"; but the authors who wrote the books I'm going to share here today all did extensive research to get every detail right, and their works have a ring of authenticity.  Some of these stories were also based on real people and events--which gives credence to the saying that "the truth is stranger than fiction."  You couldn't make this stuff up, truly you couldn't; and yet scenarios that were equal parts terrifying, heartbreaking, and inspiring, such as those described in these works of fiction, actually did happen.  In real life.

First up, a novel called The Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan.

I love to bake, so the title was what drew me to this book--on a Sam's shopping trip with my husband, where we were supposed to be buying groceries but I couldn't help browsing the book section!  When I read the synopsis on the back cover, that paperback was in our cart before you could blink your eyes.

This story is about a 22-year-old girl named Emma who lives in a Nazi-occupied village on the Normandy coast of France.  All the young and able-bodied men are off fighting the war, and the women, children, and elderly people left behind are waging their own battles to find enough food to stay alive.  Emma had apprenticed with the village baker, an older gentleman named Ezra, and when the Germans realize that she can make mouthwateringly delicious bread, she is ordered to bake a dozen baguettes a day for the occupying troops and given a steady ration of flour to do so.  Emma stealthily begins to add increasing amounts of sawdust into the dough, so that eventually she can create two extra loaves each day (with the Germans none the wiser!) which she distributes to the most needy in her village.  She begins to build a huge secret network of barter and trade in an effort to help her friends and neighbors survive the occupation.

Emma's clandestine activities are exceedingly dangerous, of course.  And Ezra is Jewish, so you can imagine this will play into the story, too. I won't say more because you should read this book!

Next up is Teresa Messineo's The Fire by Night, a page-turner of a novel.

I won't lie: the appealing cover artwork made me want to buy this paperback book.  I knew right away that it was about the era that intrigues me more than all others.  Then when I read the back cover and realized it tells the story of two American WWII nurses working on different fronts--one named Jo, who tends to the wounded in a makeshift field hospital near the front lines in war-torn France, and the other named Kay, who strives to help her fellow prisoners suffering at the hands of sadistic captors in a Japanese POW camp in Manila--I knew I had to read it.  I have always been in awe of nurses, and often thought that if I had wanted to work instead of stay at home with my boys (and if I'd been born a much less squeamish person!), being a nurse would have appealed to me more than any other profession.  I couldn't wait to dive into this novel.

This is another book that I wholeheartedly recommend.  It is an exceedingly well-written debut novel by a homeschooling mom of four who spent seven years doing exhaustive research before she began writing it.  And there is even a wonderful love story included, but I don't want to give any spoilers because you really should read it yourself.  You will come away inspired by the indomitable courage of these women--characters who are not real people but definitely resemble actual WWII nurses whose courage and strength they mirror.  It is an unforgettable, deeply inspiring book.

The next three titles I'm going to share here are stories about the Holocaust, and although they are told as fiction they were all inspired by real people and events.

Karolina's Twins, by Ronald H. Balson, will keep you turning the pages long after you should have turned out your bedside lamp and gone to sleep!

This is the second novel I've read by this talented author (the first was Once We Were Brothers, for which I wrote a review here at the blog, four years ago).  The same husband-and-wife team from that first book--private investigator Liam Taggart and attorney Catherine Lockhart--combine their skills to help an elderly woman named Lena Woodward solve the mystery about the fate of some loved ones who disappeared back in Nazi-occupied Poland during the war. When Lena's best friend Karolina dies (like so many others did during the harsh Polish winter, when they were forced to do slave labor for the Nazis while wasting away from starvation), Lena becomes the caretaker of Karolina's two small orphaned twin daughters.  Now nearing the end of her life, she is obsessed with finding out what happened to the twins.  Her son thinks she is going crazy (he doesn't really believe Karolina's twins ever existed), but Taggart and Lockhart disagree and they are determined to help Lena solve the mystery.  The story jumps back and forth in time, from present-day Chicago to World War II-era Poland, and this is a technique that this author employs skillfully.  I love his writing style--and I so enjoy how the engaging characters Taggart and Lockhart interact.  Their sometimes humorous exchanges keep a book that tells a very dark and depressing story from getting too overwhelming.  And there's even a surprising twist.

The character of Lena is based on a real woman whom the author met while doing research for the novel.  And again, the research he did was obviously extensive.  This is another novel (and author) that I highly recommend.  It's simply a great story, heart-wrenching but ultimately uplifting, another fine example of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of extreme adversity.

Another thoroughly engrossing novel that was based on actual people and events is The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris.

You're going to see a pattern with these books...because like all the ones I've talked about in this post already, this haunting novel illustrates that there is nothing more powerful, more indomitable, than the human spirit--even in the most horrific circumstances imaginable, even when facing the most insurmountable odds.  The fact that it is based on a true story--about a Jewish man at Auschwitz named Lale Sokolov, whose job it was to permanently mark his fellow prisoners with the numbers by which their captors identified them--makes it even more poignant.  Furthermore, the fact that Lale falls in love with a woman named Gita, whose skin he is forced to mark in this way, and that their relationship actually has the chance to blossom and grow in the midst of all the suffering and fear in the Nazi death camp, is proof of the tremendous power of love.  Lale Sokolov believes in love at first sight, and if you didn't before, you will by the time you turn the last page of this book.

Because of his job as a tattooist, Lale holds a privileged position among his fellow prisoners, and he uses every opportunity at his disposal to try to help them--repeatedly risking his own safety and even his very life in the process.  This is a tough book; any story about the Holocaust--with its countless examples of man's inhumanity to man--is bound to be.  But ultimately, this brilliantly executed novel is also about Christ-like sacrificial love, resilience, and hope.  I enthusiastically recommend it.

I recently read another novel set in that terrifying and deadly place:  Auschwitz Lullaby, by Mario Escobar.

This novel is based on a real-life heroine named Helene Hannemann, a woman who could have remained safe and free but chose instead to accompany her beloved family to Auschwitz.  Her husband is of Romani heritage (a "Gypsy"), and therefore so are her five children.  The Romani people are one of the groups targeted by Hitler's thugs.  Helene is a "pure-bred" German and thus safe from the Nazi invaders; but when the SS demands that her family be taken into custody, she insists on going with them.

Once in the camp, the infamously monstrous Dr. Mengele asks Helene to organize a school for the Romani children, and she agrees, using her relatively privileged position as a non-Jewish, non-Romani German citizen to do as much for the children as she can, creating for them as safe a haven as one could hope to find inside the fences of that terrible camp.  Helene will be given the opportunity to save herself, but will she? Can she save the Romani children in her care? Will she and her family survive the horrors of Auschwitz?

This is a spell-binding story of courage, kindness, and once again, of Christ-like sacrificial love.  I was inordinately touched by it.  I couldn't stop thinking about Helene Hannemann and her incredible selflessness and strength, long after I'd finished the last chapter.  I guarantee if you choose to read this beautiful testament to the power of the human spirit over adversity, you will not be disappointed.

Thus far, the novels I've highlighted here have told stories about characters' experiences in Western Europe and the Far East during WWII; this next one tells what things were like in Stalin's Russia during that same period.

Kristin Hannah's Winter Garden is an absolutely enthralling, epic tale, with some of the most heart-wrenching scenes I've read in modern literature, and I really don't think you want to miss it!

I have heard that Hannah's The Nightengale is also an excellent novel, and after reading this one I believe I may have to put that title on my "to read" list!  If it is even half as well-written and engrossing as this incredibly affecting tale of suffering and perseverance, of brokenness and forgiveness, and more than anything else, of the fierceness of a mother's love, I'm sure it's a winner.

In Winter Garden, this extremely capable author goes back and forth in time, between Leningrad in 1941 and Washington state in 2000.  Anya Whitson is now an elderly woman of Russian descent who used to tell her adult daughters, Nina and Meredith, fairy tales about a girl named Vera and her Russian prince.  But she was a cold and distant mother the whole time they were growing up, and they relied almost completely on their American-born father for parental affection.  They stopped being interested in Anya's fables years ago.

Knowing he's close to death, their father worries that his girls will drift away from their mother, whom he loves deeply, after he's gone; so he begs Nina and Meredith to let their mother tell them the whole fairy tale.  As more and more details emerge, they begin to realize that perhaps their mother has been telling a true story all along.  And then they begin to wonder if the person she calls Vera is actually Anya herself.  Most astoundingly, they learn that perhaps their mother is not an unfeeling person at all, but has endured such heartbreaking losses that she has put up a wall around herself all these years as a defense mechanism.

I'd heard, of course, that millions of people died under Stalin's dictatorship--most of them from starvation; but I knew little to nothing about what life was like in Russia during WWII. I've always been more interested in what was going on in the European war theater.  This book was a revelation to me.  And ultimately, it was one of the most touching books I have ever read.  As a mother, it is almost impossible to comprehend what Anya had endured as a young woman living in war-torn Leningrad; there are passages that will make you weep.  But ultimately, Winter Garden is a story of hope, of family love, and of the courage and fortitude of one determined young woman, who persevered and almost to her own surprise survived some of the most harrowing experiences imaginable.

Three words: read this book!

Finally, I read an engaging and very enlightening novel called The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard, a story set inTennessee in 1944.  This is another book that grabbed me with the cover graphics right off the bat.

June Walker is a wide-eyed 18-year-old girl who goes to work at a place not far from where she grew up known as Oak Ridge, alongside soldiers, scientists, and other workmen.  She and many other young women become residents of a secret city that is a military reservation; they are told, "What you do here, what you see here, what you hear here, let it stay here."  They know that what they are doing will help to win the war, but they aren't allowed to ask questions about the machines they man or to talk about what they do to outsiders.  Unbeknownst to June and the other "Atomic City girls" who work at the facility with her, they are actually monitoring machines that are enriching the uranium that will eventually be used in the atomic bombs that are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I've heard of the Manhattan Project, and of course knew that many scientists worked to create the powerful weapons that brought an end to the war.  But I really had no idea that a place like Oak Ridge existed, and that naïve young people like June Walker were put to work to move this top-secret project along.  This was a very interesting and informative book, complete with official Department of Energy photos from the period.  (I believe this could be used in a high school classroom setting, when studying about WWII.)  It was populated with characters I cared about and was quite well-written.  I give it two thumbs up.

Okay, before I sign off, here is a quick plug for my own first novel, Finding Grace:

I have always been a huge fan of stories set in WWII that feature characters who triumph over adversity, who endure the most horrific kinds of suffering and live to see better days, with their faith intact--especially stories about the Holocaust that show man at his worst but also at his very best and finest, his bravest and most self-sacrificing.  When I set out to write what I thought would be my one-and-only novel, I wanted to figure out a way to incorporate something about the Holocaust into the book, even though it was a story about a young Catholic girl coming of age in the early 1970's.  So I gave Grace Kelly some across-the-street elderly neighbors named the Perlmanns, who had survived Auschwitz and moved to the US after the camps were liberated.  I think that section gave the book some added depth and a bit of an historical fiction component.

Okay then, that's it for me.  Congratulations if you're still here--this was a long one!   But this is what happens when I start talking about how I cannot resist well-written novels set in WWII...

Now head on over to Carolyn's Open Book link-up for more great reading suggestions.