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.


  1. Thank you for these great recommendations! I've read 'Winter Garden' but not the others ~ and as a nurse 'The Fire by Night' definitely has me intrigued.

    1. I am in awe of nurses. Every time either I or one of my loved ones has to be hospitalized, it is the nurses who make what would otherwise be a scary and uncomfortable experience endurable. Their hard work, and most of all their kindness, is what stays with me afterward. God bless you for being a nurse--my hat is off to you!!

  2. What a great collection of recommendations! I want to read ALL of them. Look what you're doing to my TBR list. LOL Thanks for linking up!

    1. Carolyn, I need to thank YOU for this link-up. I can't think of many things that I enjoy talking about more than books (not counting my grandkids, of course!); I love writing about the ones I've enjoyed and seeing what gems I've missed. So this is my favorite blog link-up. :)

  3. WWII books are not my cup of tea. I've read so many of them anyway (because it's such a huge genre on it's own!) but they often cause me great stress and grief. My grandparents lived in Poland and were young children displaced by the war so it hits too close to home I guess. The Nightingale is quite well written. It's such an interesting perspective on the war, even if there are obviously parts that are hard to stomach.

    1. Oh my goodness, I am so sorry to hear about your grandparents. There was so much suffering and pain. It's unimaginable. And I don't know why I'm drawn to those stories. I think it's just that in spite of the horrible things that happened, so many brave souls lived not only to tell the tales, but to have rich and happy lives. I can't even wrap my brain around most of it; when authors say they are novelizing true events about actual people, it's still hard for me to believe that all of those things could have really happened to anyone.

      God bless your grandparents. I believe people who suffered the way they did are victim souls, specially chosen to carry Christ's Cross with Him. And that their reward will be great. I can't figure out any other reason why so many good, innocent people were put through a kind of hell on earth during that war.

  4. Well, I just added a whole bunch of books to my wish list! The only one of these I've read (besides yours) is "Atomic City Girls." Great list!

    1. Hope you enjoy some of these titles. I kind of devoured them all.

  5. I want to read them all! I will have to check them out!!

  6. Had read Winter Garden, and loved it. Was engrossed from start to finish. Appreciate your reviews and may read a couple more of the books listed. Thank you for the reviews!

    1. Glad you liked it. Engrossing is a perfect word for it.

  7. Read Karolina's Twins this weekend. The autrocities (is that the right word?) suffered by the Jews is beyond my comprehension, even as I read the words.

    1. It's unfathomable. How were those things ever allowed to happen? It breaks my heart--man's inhumanity to man...