Saturday, August 13, 2011

Historical Fiction - My World War II Habit

I love almost any historical fiction, but I have been especially fascinated with the World War II era since sometime around fourth grade.  I am not sure what inspired this interest, but just mention 1940 something and hand me a book and I will read it.  Here are some of my old and new favorites from that time period.

For kids there is Lois Lowry's fabulous Number the Stars, which takes place in Denmark.  It is a Newberry winner, and stars a young girl who ends up helping smuggle family friends and neighbors out of the country.  While the nine-year-old protagonist does get to actively participate in the resistance, the book is realistic about her level of understanding, without being condescending to young readers.  Lowry includes historically accurate information about the resistance in Denmark, where the majority of the Jewish population amazingly escaped Hitler's final solution.  It's a good read even for adults, although perfect for upper elementary or middle school readers.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak also stars a young girl, although this much more complex story is written for older teens and adults.  Zusak's writing style has been compared to that of Kurt Vonnegut, and the chapters veer back and fourth between various protagonists and the book's narrator, Death with a capital D.  You will cry...maybe even weep...while reading about his Leisel's life in Nazi controlled Germany, you will be really glad you read it.  Its focus on life from inside a Germany highjacked by a fringe movement that many or most felt powerless to resist is enlightening and fascinating.  The fictional Katniss Everdeen from Susan Collins's The Hunger Games would identify with Zusak's story perfectly.  You should really read both, although Katniss is factually out of place in a discussion of WWII period pieces.

For a mix of time-traveling sci-fi and historical fiction, Connie Willis is alwasy a sure bet.  Her most recent novels, Blackout and All Clear chronicle the adventures of Oxford time-traveling historians in a time-travel paradox circling around the streets of London during the Blitz.  The tow books really add up to one massive narrative, and while some connections between the characters who appear in Willis's other novels can be a bit slippery, the final story is a very enjoyable tangle of events with just enough questions answered to leave you wanting a little bit more about her universe.  The history, as far as I have heard or read, is meticulously researched and presented. 

For another look at Britain during the War, Alexander McCall Smith has La's Orchestra Saves the World.  It's a quick read and while slightly more suspenseful and nerve wracking than his normal offerings, continues to demonstrate his great ear for dialogue and ability to represent many different slices of society simultaneously.  While many books about or during WWII can leave a taste of horror, La's Orchestra focuses overwhelmingly on the ability for humans to rise above evil circumstances to create community and beauty.  You might want to read it after The Book Thief, just to remind yourself that everyone doesn't always get the shaft.

This post is already too long I am sure, although I did warn you in the beginning taht we are talking WWII here.  How can I hold it down to less than a kajillion titles?  I will restrain myself by mentioning just a couple more briefly.  The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows also takes place in Great Britain, although this time on an island off the coast that was actually occupied by the Nazis.  This is another book that seems to protect the reader form the worst points of the period and instead focus's on the everyday heroes.  Diane Ackerman's The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story, provides slices of the everyday as well as episodes and seasons of horrific violence.  It is based on the journals of the Warsaw Zookeeper's Wife from just before the invasion of Poland until the Allied liberation of Poland.  It is very interesting in conjunction with La's Orchestra, if you don't know about Poland's place in the history of both Nazi-controlled Europe and the post-war years.

Of course, there are many more WWII era books that should go on this list.  If you have a favorite, please add a comment so that I can read it too!

1 comment:

  1. I like McCall Smith and WWII books. A couple I read are: In My Arms and The Holocaust Diaries. Here's my link if you're interested to many WWII books I've reviewed in addition to the above two.