World War Two Novels
For your reading consideration: some novels set in and around World War Two
“Atonement” by Ian McEwan. In 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses an encounter between her older sister and a man. Briony misunderstands what she sees and makes an accusation that alters the lives of all those involved. Then England is pulled into World War II, which alters the characters’ lives again with far different repercussions. McEwan’s suspenseful tale juxtaposes morality and war, loyalty and family, and the human search for self-understanding.
“Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson. Variations on the life stories of Ursula Todd make up this fascinating historical novel. Some moments in her life are set, and repeat throughout the stories. Others are variable and change in each telling of her life. World War II and the bombings of London are constants, and the reader is exposed to the horror of the experiences of Londoners over and over. Both devastating and uplifting, Atkinson’s intricately woven storytelling is superb.
“The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. This young-adult novel, set in Nazi Germany, is narrated by the very busy angel of death, who obliquely tells the story of Leisel Memminger, an orphan adopted by a working-class German family in the late 1930s. Leisel's coming of age (and her intense love of books) is set against the poverty of her circumstances and the uncertainty and fear that characterized Hitler's rise to power.
“Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky. “Suite Francaise” is a unique World War II novel because Nemirovsky, a Jew living in Paris, wrote it during the war while evading capture by the Nazis. Two stories comprise the novel, the first about the mass exodus of Paris just before the Nazi invasion, and the second about life in a German-occupied French town. The history of the book itself, however, is equally fascinating. After fleeing Paris for a town in Vichy-controlled France, Nemirovsky was separated from her family and taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp where she died of typhus in 1942. Her daughters saved some of her notebooks, one of which was later published as “Suite Francaise.”
“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan. The characters Anna Kerrigan, Eddie Kerrigan, her father, and gangster Dexter Styles, swirl and eddy in and out of each other’s lives in this novel set at Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach and Naval Yard. While each character has his or her own path, their lives intersect in unexpected ways. Underlying their stories are the historical realities of World War II as experienced in New York.
“Code Name Verity” by Elizabeth Wein. This gripping young-adult novel focuses on the friendship of two British young women, Maddie and Julia, who both work as radio operators for the Royal Air Force during World War II. Maddie and Julia fly and crash land into German-occupied France. Julia is captured by the Nazis and forced to reveal British military secrets or face execution. Julia weaves her confession in the form of the story of how she and Maddie became friends. Will this save Julia from her inevitable end?
“The Complete Maus” by Art Spiegelman. This groundbreaking graphic novel/memoir tells two stories. The first is the story of a father and a son trying to understand each other despite incredibly different experiences. The second, and more compelling, is the story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek, and how he survived Hitler’s holocaust as a Polish Jew. This graphic novel deals with the horrors of Hitler’s holocaust in miniature: the Jews are mice and the Nazis are cats. The starkly-drawn anthropomorphized animals are easier to view than drawings of humans would be, but at the same time, the cat-and-mouse metaphor is chilling. The Pulitzer Foundation awarded Spiegelman a special award and citation for “Maus.”
“The Plot Against America” by Philip Roth. In this “alternative history” Charles Lindbergh, a suspected anti-semite, receives the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1940 and goes on to defeat President Roosevelt on an anti-war platform. As a result, the United States does not enter World War II. Lindbergh's victory sends Jewish-Americans, and in particular the Roth family of Newark, New Jersey, into crisis. Eight-year-old Philip Roth narrates his family's attempts to deal with a growing anti-semitic climate and the nation’s rush into totalitarianism.
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