“Even In Darkness” by Barbara Stark-Nemon

I’m a sucker for World War II fiction. There really isn’t any other way to put it. That being said, I was very excited to get into Barbara Stark-Nemon’s EVEN IN DARKNESS. The story she writes is one of those tricky historical fiction ones that are based on actual events, in this case her great-aunt Klare’s experiences during World War I, World War II, and the years in between.

This balance, I’ve learned from reading a lot of these books, can be delicate because the author must keep true to historical fact, keep true to the characters who were real and who were important, and keep a narrative going that makes everyone want to keep reading.

Stark-Nemon does that well in this story.

The places her great-aunt existed, including Thereseinstadt, are described in ways that I have read them described before but not with the intense detail that might leave the narrative lacking. The focus is kept solely, for the most part, on Klare Kohler and what she sees as she goes from an eighteen year old girl with the world at her fingertips to a survivor of Nazi death camps and beyond.

Honestly, the thing I wanted more from the story was a longer, more detailed note at the end. Stark-Nemon referenced her family and how they survived but she didn’t mention Ansel Beckmann, the Catholic priest who figured so heavily in the story and who I am not sure was even real, or details on Bernhardt Steinmann and Melisande Durr, who were heroes in the story. I want to know more about them. So, basically, I want a non-fiction accounting of this story too.

And that, it seems, makes it an excellent book.

“Summer of My German Soldier” by Bette Greene

Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene

“Time to get going on my ambition. It’s not the only one I have, but it’s the only one I work at.”

Exciting news, fellow readers!

I have, inadvertently, just read one of the most banned books of the 2000-2009 era in school libraries! Summer of My German Soldier came in at #55, according to my Wikipedia-ing for background to use in this review. I am rather proud of this accidental discovery, and the reasons for my pride and happiness are many.

First and foremost, as evidenced by the photo of my book it is not a new book. No, I got this book in fourth grade – and I was in fourth grade before 2000. I remember it was fourth grade because it’s even marked with a reading level grade five, age eleven and up and I was not at those milestones when I got it. I don’t remember exactly why this book called to me. Possibly my mother had introduced me to Anne Frank. What I do remember is this – I loved this book. I scoured the library for the sequel (which I may look for again because I only remember it being beyond my understanding at the time). I made sure I did not lose this book when we moved. This book has never not been on my bookshelf with all the other books I love.

And that is the second reason for my reader joy – it’s been a years since I read Bette Greene’s pre-teen novel, though I did read it a couple times between fourth grade and now, and I still love it. Just enough time passed that I forgot just enough that I was able to rediscover passion for the story of Patty Bergen in the four days it took me to read this book.

“Cruelty is after all cruelty, and the difference between the two men may have more to do with their degrees of power than their degrees of cruelty.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I can see what people might use for grounds to ban this book on; child abuse (physical and emotional), the use of the n-word among other racist things, a twenty-one year old man declaring love – in words alone – for a twelve year old girl, religious intolerance…

However, I do not believe in banning books. Certainly not on the grounds that they accurately portray history in a fictional setting, and that would be the story of this book. 

In case it isn’t clear, Summer of My German Soldier takes place during World War II. It is set in a small town called Jenkinsville, Arkansas. Patty Bergen is the daughter of the only Jewish family in town. They are wealthy enough to employ a housekeeper named Ruth who is African-American. There is a POW camp for German prisoners on the outskirts of town.

If we compare that to history, we find that:

  • small town Arkansas was probably not the most open-minded place in America for Jewish families to live
  • African-Americans and white people did not live in the same parts of town, especially in the South, during the 1940s
  • white families often employed housekeepers and staff who were not the same color as them
  • the n-word was a part of daily language, for better or for worse
  • there were POW camps for German prisoners of war all over the United States during World War II
  • it was not necessarily seen as against the rules or against the rule of law to use a belt on your daughter when she did not do as you wanted her to do

In essence, the truth hurts sometimes but it is still the truth. To paper over truth because of modern sensibilities is to ignore what mistakes were made, and risk the mistakes happening again.

“Maybe you’re right, but maybe, just maybe, we all have an enormous capacity for believing in anything that will provide us with a bit of comfort.”

“I’ve found this here a cold world, a mighty cold world, and a man and a woman, well, they needs a little comforting ‘for they freeze to death.”

This book should be read, not banned.

In any case, the summary of the book is more than why people might wish to ban it.

Patty Bergen’s parents are rich, on the comparative scale of Jenkinsville, and they do not particularly care what she does so long as she does what they expect her to do. Her mother’s mix of hyper-criticism of her looks and total lack of interest in her is heartbreaking. Her father is obsessed with no one ever seeing fault with him or the world he has created, so much so that he uses a belt on her for playing with a poor boy but buys her the finest steaks. Until a prisoner escapes from the POW camp, Patty’s only real friend is the family housekeeper, Ruth. It is Ruth who gives her the nuturing she craves and needs, and she substitutes Ruth for her parents with such intensity that she prays the prayers Ruth teaches her rather than the ones she learned at synagogue.

Patty hides the escaped prisoner, seeing it not as treason but as an act of kindness. It is obvious that it is a kindness she wishes someone would show her if she ever got away from her parents. She is able to see the prisoner, Anton, as a young man away from his home and his family and in need of help. And he sees her not only as a means to an end but as a kindred spirit who will look past labels and see the honest truth of anything and everything.

Summer of My German Soldier is a story of three different people, as different as possible in that time and that place, sharing a tiny spot in time during which their beliefs, their values, their hopes, and their dreams are called into question. 

Reviewed: “A Cool and Lonely Courage: The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France” by Susan Ottaway

World War II is one of the most written about parts of human history. Acts of heroism, acts of madness, acts of sacrifice, acts of survival… it is all covered in every aspect of the written word, fiction and non-fiction. And yet Susan Ottaway has managed to find something, someone whose story has never really been told. And that is the basis for A Cool and Lonely Cocurage: The Untold Story of Sister Spies in Occupied France.

The sisters are Jacqueline and Eileen “Didi” Nearne, born to British parents and raised in France. When the Nazis invaded France, the sisters wanted to help the war effort however they could so they travelled to England, where they held citizenship. Jacqueline was the first to find true work for the war effort, joining the SOE and training as a agent who would be sent to France to work against German interests. Older than Didi, Jacqueline made deals to keep her sister out of France while she went to work as a courier and an organizer.

Didi wanted to go to France.

And she went, working as a wireless operator until she was eventually captured by the Gestapo and taken through a variety of work and concentration camps.

Ottaway tells the story of sisters, in its simplest form. The older sister wants to protect the younger sister. The younger sister looks up to the older sister. She tells the story of war, of an almost inexplicable desire to fight and to be a part of eventual victory. She tells the story of survival, of living through more than ever thought possible and yet never being the same again.

Ottaway’s book does contain a lot of facts, dates, and details. But the balance she gives with the story of humanity is perfect. Reading about the organizational structure of the SOE headquarters in London and a half dozen circuits scattered throughout France could be cumbersome but it is not. Not when the people come alive on the page and when their very lives are on the line.

This book is a must-read for any student of World War II history.

(I received a copy of A Cool and Lonely Courage through the Goodreads First Reads giveaway program and the publisher in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Train to Crystal City” by Jan Jarboe Russell

25250241.jpgMore attention needs to to be paid to the part of American history that Jan Jarboe Russell details in her exquisitely researched and written THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY.

That Japanese, Japanese-Americans, Germans, German-Americans, Italians, and Italian-Americans were interned in camps in the United States during World War II is a generally known fact. And if you know a little bit more about it, you know that the conditions were harsh and that the government has more or less apologized for it. But Pearl Harbor had been attacked, so the Japanese on the West Coast were suspect. And Hitler was known to be trying to infiltrate America, so the Germans were suspect.

On the face of it, makes sense. The real world implications and cause and effect make sense.

Until they don’t.

Until you realize that little of it was fair, that FDR and Earl Warren and Francis Biddle – now seen as heroic paragons of American virtue and pride and civil rights – acted in ways so very much against those principles. They did it out of fear, which is ironic given that FDR is so very well-known for “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” It was fear that led him to order everyone, based on little more than the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and the spelling of their names to be rounded up and put in camps in the harshest climates in America.

All of that sounds eerily familiar if you know anything about the early days of Nazism, before the extermination.

Jan Jarboe Russell focuses on Crystal City, a Texas camp that held up to 4,000 at one time. Crystal City was special because families lived there. There were houses and there were schools and hospitals and even a camp swimming pool. But the Japanese and German families could not leave because their fathers were considered enemies of America because they had been born in Germany and Japan. Some of them were dangerous. Most were not. But the American government wanted to rescue Americans caught in Japanese and German territory and the way to do that, as they saw it, was to exchange people. So they told the men that if their wives and children, American born children who counted as citizens of the USA, volunteered to come to the camps, they could live as a family. The volunteers could not leave. The volunteers were meant to be repatriated, whether they wanted it or now, back to Germany and Japan.

Focusing on the experiences of Sumi, a Japanese teenager in Crystal City, and Ingrid, a German teenager, the book uses them as examples of how the all-American children of immigrants went from hope and happiness to internment and fear. Sumi was returned to Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ingrid was returned to Germany during the Battle of the Bulge. Their fathers wanted to go, they went because their fathers said so, their fathers saw no other option, and their fathers regretted it in the end.

The heroes of this story, this particular part of American history, are not FDR and the leaders who “won” World War II. The heroes are the people who kept their dignity when others tried very hard to take it from them. The heroes are the people who were told what to be, told that they failed at it, told what to do, and still came back to be good and do good.

All of this seems even more appropriate to read today, as so many people would have us fear and exclude all Muslims because a few have been bad. It makes me wonder if this is a part of history we really want to repeat?

(I received a copy of THE TRAIN TO CRYSTAL CITY through NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “Interrogating Ellie” by Julian Gray

Interrogating EllieInterrogating Ellie is Julian Gray’s fictionalized account of the real life of Ellie Maurer – who becomes Ellie Bauer for the book, a British woman who lived in Austria for the duration of World War II. Gray combines Ellie’s real life and the people she knew, based on her interrogation files, with other colorful characters who are drawn and adapted from other stories of Austria during the 1940s.

The fictionalization of reality in Interrogating Ellie does not make the reality of horrors in World War II any less.

Ellie Bauer is a woman who can’t be classified, literally and figuratively. Growing up without her mother and not having any idea who her father was, she comes to adulthood searching for a family. This would seem to be why she agrees to move from Jersey to Austria with her Austrian husband and their daughter just as the Nazis come to power. To say it is a mistake would be putting it lightly.

But this is an area we don’t often read about in World War II – average Austrian families and how they dealt with national pride warring with National Socialism. And Gray handles it beautifully. Ellie goes through the things during her time with the Bauer family that many women have gone through, but it’s made more daunting by the Nazis.

When she’s cut off from her family, she’s forced to survive the war on her own in Austria. She alternates between following the rules – registering with the work and housing authorities – and breaking the rules – hosting clandestine resistance meetings while not being registered to work. It’s about survival for Ellie, nothing else. She has no firm political alliances and even as she learns more about what the swastika and the men behind it mean, she carries on for herself most of all.

And it doesn’t end after the war.

Ellie is forced to fight her way out of Austria to get home to some sort of life in England. She has to fight Austrians, Americans, and British for the right to keep searching for her place in the world. And she never really finds it, even when she wins – or what passes for winning.

Gray’s book on World War II isn’t cloak and dagger resistance movements and it isn’t focused on the concentration camps. It’s more like reality, reality that probably was for a lot of women in that time and in that place. That is what makes it beautiful.

Interrogating Ellie is available for purchase now.

I received a copy of Interrogating Ellie through NetGalley and cloiff books in exchange for an honest & original review.

Reviewed: “Every Man Dies Alone” by Hans Fallada

Every Man Dies AloneNovels based on true events and real people can be hit or miss. There’s always a chance that too much artistic license will be taken to flesh out a story that doesn’t quite fill a novel and there’s always a chance that the true events and real people will be far more interesting than the novel can ever be.

Hans Fallada’s “Every Man Dies Alone” is neither of things. It bridges the gap between fiction and reality and it makes the reader realize that sometimes there is a compelling story in being absolutely ordinary.

Otto and Anna Quangel are the protagonists of Fallada’s story and they are based on Otto and Elise Hampel. The Hampels were ordinary citizens of Berlin during World War II when they decided that they had to do something to protest the war. They wrote treasonous postcards and left them around the city. There weren’t many people who saw the postcards and the culture of fear in Germany at the time was such that most people were terrified to read them. But the Gestapo was afraid of the writers of these postcards. Fallada was given the Hampels’ Gestapo file after the war and he created the Quangels in their place.

The Quangels don’t bring about an end to the war and they don’t even shake the foundation of the Third Reich. There’s a telling scene early on in the book in which Anna asks Otto if his plan for the postcards isn’t a “bit small” and he replies that they will be executed if they are caught. To some, it might seem as though there’s no point in risking one’s life when it is something small that might not mean anything – and this is a recurring theme in the book – but to the Quangels it means everything.

Fallada writes them in a way that the reader wonders what she might do in the same situation, because the Quangels are the “every man” of every society and no society is immune from the necessity to make a stand. The question of whether one stand is more right than another is an important thread in the book. The answer isn’t easy, not for the Quangels and not even for the Nazis who are searching for them – one inspector even kills himself with the thought that he has become Otto Quangel’s only disciple.

The starkest scene in the novel is when Otto is sharing a cell with a symphony conductor and they discuss what impact the actions that led them to their cells might have on the larger world and whether or not it was worth it. The conductor tells Otto that if there were men willing to assassinate the Nazi hierarchy the moment it came into power, then they wouldn’t be there in the first place. That they will die alone is not a condemnation of the bravery that led them to stand up, even if no one noticed they were standing.

Fallada wrote the novel in twenty-four days after being released from a Nazi mental hospital. The appendices in the book make it clear he was definitely not anti-Nazi and that makes his fictional accounting of a small act of defiance against a regime he tolerated, more than he supported it, all the more telling about what the average German might have felt and thought. It’s easy for the reader to imagine Fallada, and herself, finding the cards under the looming shadow of the Gestapo and being terrified at the stupidity of whoever left them.

But still, you want to be brave enough to do something.

Reviewed: “The Christmas Train” by Rexanne Becnel

The Christmas TrainRexanne Becnel’s “The Christmas Train” is a sweet and heartbreaking holiday novella. The story of a ten year old girl being sent to live with father she’s never met and a very old woman who believes she’s traveling home to her family for Christmas – a family that died in World War II, it is what the holiday season is in a nutshell.

Holidays are stressful. They are the time of year when we miss the people who’ve gone before us the most. Holidays are when we are surprised to find ourselves filled with a warmth and love we hadn’t expected. They are the time of year when we realize that as bad as things are now, they’ve been worse and we should cherish what we have.

Becnel did a fantastic job of portraying Miss Eva as an elderly woman who likely suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Her periods of being in the moment and fading into the past are well-written and believable. It’s sweet and heartbreaking that Anna and her father become Miss Eva’s surrogate family, filling whatever roles she needs filled in the moment. And she’s able to help them fill the roles that they need to fill for each other.

At the end of “The Christmas Train,” there is no doubt that Anna will be okay. And that’s how a Christmas story should end.

“The Christmas Train” is available now.

(I received a copy of “The Christmas Train” through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This review will be posted on NetGalley, Goodreads, and on my blog.)