We’re smack dab in the middle of summer break and I have two thoughts right now- 1) Ohhh how I love summertime! and 2) Why do summer days pass by TEN TIMES as quickly as winter/spring/fall?? The kids have been running around like hooligans for the past month (okay, okay and playing soccer, reading, crafting, and doing a plethora other responsible summer activities) and I have been striking GOLD with my summer reading list!
Today I want to tell you about not one, not two, but three wonderful historical fiction reads. I didn’t have a theme or anything going in to summer break, but it seems I’ve added lots of WW2-centric novels on my list in the past couple of months. So here, ladies and gentlemen, are my three favorites I’ve read this past couple of weeks:
RESISTANCE WOMEN by Jennifer Chiaverini
(Published May 14th, 2019 by William Morrow)
First of all, if you keep up with book blogs and/or upcoming hot book lists, you’ve heard about this one. Jennifer Chiaverini is a master storyteller and her ability to make history engaging and raw is uncanny (if you haven’t read Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker…do it!). This 604-page book tells the story of real and imaginary characters through the decade leading up to Hitler and the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany as well as through to the end of the war. I have to tell you, without being incredibly political, I found this portion of the book (the first 2/3 or so) the most terrifying and eye-opening, and parallel in some ways to the current climate of division and scapegoating happening here in the USA over the past several years. Hitler didn’t begin his career slaughtering or even calling for the murder of millions of innocent people. He started slowly, first by giving disillusioned working and middle-class Germans an ear to listen to their concerns, and then worked to sow a level of distrust between ordinary citizens and “others”- Jews, women, highly-educated intellectuals, not to mention any non-Aryans and the entire media (the “fake news” of their day, if you will). Hitler slowly wove a web of distrust and hatred which created a climate ripe for the invasion of many countries and the murder of MILLIONS of Jews, soldiers, and everyday citizens.
Resistance Women tells the story of Mildred Harnack and her husband Arvid, both of whom were real resistance champions at a time when speaking up could and often did lead to a death sentence. Mildred, an American, marries her husband Arvid, a German scholar, after they meet in college in Michigan. Mildred falls in love with Germany and sees what the rise of fascism is doing to her new home. We also follow Martha Dodd, the daughter of the US Ambassador to Germany, author Greta Kuckoff, and a young Jewish student Sara Weitz, all with real stories and lives full of promise and conviction.
The bravery these people showed during one of the most tumultous times in world history is mind boggling, beautiful, and awe-inspiring, not to mention heartbreaking and devastating. I won’t give spoilers, but if you don’t already know the stories of the Harnacks and the others, prepare yourself….I promise you won’t ever forget these amazing resistance women!
5 out of 5 stars for Resistance Women by Jennifer Chiaverini which is available to purchase now!
BETWEEN SHADES OF GRAY by Ruta Sepetys
(Published April 3. 2012 by Penguin)
Although Between Shades of Gray has been on my to-read list for a few years now, I’d hesitated to read it because it’s YA, and I’ve just read too many “blah” young adult novels. So if you’re like me and tend to stay away from YA titles , PLEASE give this one a chance. As soon as I finished this one, I immediately put several other books by this amazing author on hold at my local library. I think I’ll read this one again with my daughter, and although some of the content is disturbing, I remind myself that history is real and we cannot shield our children from the past horrors of the world. This book isn’t problematic in terms of language and though we may skip a couple of paragraphs here and there due to violent content, I am 100% confident my soon-to-be 10 year-old can handle it and appreciate this book’s beauty and tragedy. Also important to note, this book gives a wonderful historical perspective of the Soviet Union, Lithuania and their role in World War II, which was interesting to me as I really don’t know a lot of the details of these countries’ roles in the war.
In this story, Lina is a fifteen year-old typical girl and blossoming artist living in her native Lithuania with her mother, father, and younger brother. Life is normal and quite wonderful, until one night when Soviet soldiers bang on her family’s door and demand everyone pack only what they can carry and then force them onto cramped, disgusting train cars to who-knows-where. This book is SO fast-paced that I felt myself holding my breath and wondering how so many people could even manage having their lives uprooted without a moment’s notice.
We find out that Lina, her mother, and younger brother are being sent against their will, along with thousands of other Lithuanians (their crime simply being Lithuanian, as the Soviets have invaded their country during WW2), to a brutal work camp in the far reaches of Siberia. Lina’s father has been sent to prison, as was the case for too many innocent Lithuanian men, women, and children. On the cramped journey to Siberia, Lina meets several people from all walks of life and begins a friendship with a teenage boy named Andrius. Their story, and that of their mothers, and Lina’s younger brother are both vivid and heartbreaking. They all work in these work camps for YEARS, and the ending of the book literally made me cry. I was so engrossed in this book, I just read it straight through in a couple of hours and ended up with a major book hangover the next morning.
5 out of 5 stars for Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Also, just FYI, there’s a movie out called Ashes in the Snow which is based on this book, and I am excited to see it.
WHITE ROSE, BLACK FOREST by Eoin Dempsey
(Published March 1, 2018 by Lake Union Publishing)
Last but certainly not least is White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey, a brilliant Irish author who tells the fictional story of Franka Gerber. It’s a winter night- December 1943 and Franka is venturing into the Black Forest from her family’s once-happiness-filled vacation cabin with a gun and a mission- she’s ready to kill herself and be done with this war once and for all. However, on her way to commit suicide, she comes across a badly injured and unconscious man, connected to a parachute, in a Luftwaffe uniform. A dissenter who abhors the Nazis and what they’ve done to her country, Franka wonders- Should I just leave him here to die? But then, just for a moment, the man wakes up and yells something……in English. Huh?! She immediately believes this man is not who he claims to be and risks her life and safety, abandoning her plan to kill herself in order to rescue this guy and nurse him back to health.
I really loved this book because there was so much mystery woven everywhere. We don’t find out who the man really is until quite far into the book and I found myself guessing incorrectly at every turn. I loved the perspective of the war from a “perfect Aryan” (as she is described by the Gestapo), because Franka could be one of the few people in Germany to live a fairly normal life during the war, if only she’d just marry a Gestapo officer and have tons of Aryan babies. However, we learn this is SO not Franka Gerber. She’s just a regular German who despises what Hitler and the Nazis have done to Germany, and is at a point where she feels that literally everything has been taken from her, so what’s the point of living? Thorughout the book, I wondered how, unlike Franka, many millions of Germans chose just to try making it through the war, barely more than a generation after The Great War, unaware (out of ignorance or though sheer will and force) of what was happening all around them.
Once we find out who the man is, Franka and the man must determine whether or not they can trust each other, and how they can both meet their objectives before the world crumbles around them more than it already has. This book moves incredibly quickly, and I LOVED the ending. It seems strange in a book with this kind of premise, but I felt it ended just how it needed to. I finished the last page with the belief that we’re all meant to find our place in the world, and that we have a sincere obligation to confront hatred and division whenever and wherever we see it.
5 out of 5 stars for White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey.