So I haven’t been around here in a while, and I’m not really sure why. I’m still reading a lot, and they’re mostly good books that I want to recommend to people! But I’m about 15 reviews behind now, and the thought of trying to catch up is daunting. Nevertheless, I wanted to post today because it’s the 70th anniversary of VE Day, and I want to talk a little bit about my interest in World War II history and literature, and then recommend some of my favorite WWII books.
Growing up, I had no particular interest in World War II or in literature set during the period. I read The Diary of Anne Frank like everyone else, but I don’t think it made a particularly big impact on me at the time. I do remember reading and loving Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, however! When I got older, I started to get really excited about a few historical periods, but they were primarily the Regency era (thanks to Jane Austen) and the Middle Ages (probably thanks to my Catholicism, but I’ll give Ellis Peters and Sharon Kay Penman some credit too!). So I’m not really sure what prompted me to start reading more about World War II. Maybe it was the 2001 movie “Enigma,” which dealt with breaking the German submarine codes. (It’s a good movie, and I definitely recommend it to fans of the period!)
But regardless of what initially sparked my interest, I’ve become fascinated with World War II and especially with fiction set during the period. I must admit, though, that my interest is heavily skewed towards the British experience. That’s partly an issue of language, I’m guessing, and partly an issue of simple geography. Although America was attacked at Pearl Harbor, the war never really came to us the way it did to England. We didn’t live through the Blitzkrieg. We didn’t have to evacuate our children or plan for an imminent invasion. So for me, WWII novels set in England have much more tension and immediacy than those set in the U.S.
But of course, there were many other countries involved in the war, and I must admit that I haven’t read so much about them. I don’t think I’ve read anything at all set in the Pacific theater, which is especially shameful because my grandfather actually fought there! And as for Holocaust literature…well. Obviously it is incredibly important and valuable and necessary. I think everyone in the world should read Elie Wiesel’s Night, even though it will break your heart. But for me, reading descriptions of what happened in the concentration camps is just too much. Thinking about it for any length of time is just too horrible. So instead, I gravitate to WWII books set in Britain, which generally have plenty of gravity and pathos without being unspeakably horrific.
So, without further ado, here are some of my favorite books about World War II:
Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity — This book is about two young women and their extraordinary friendship. One is a pilot for the Air Transport Auxiliary. One is a spy who has just been captured by the Germans. The spy begins the story, stating that she is writing her confession, but her narrative is much more complex than meets the eye. I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. It’s suspenseful, fascinating, and utterly heartbreaking. My review is here.
Connie Willis, Blackout / All Clear — This novel is an extremely detailed account of the experience of Londoners during the war, particularly during the Blitz. I can’t explain the spirit of this book any better than by quoting the dedication to All Clear:
To all the ambulance drivers, firewatchers, air-raid wardens, nurses, canteen workers, airplane spotters, rescue workers, mathematicians, vicars, vergers, shopgirls, chorus girls, librarians, debutantes, spinsters, fishermen, retired sailors, servants, evacuees, Shakespearean actors, and mystery novelists who won the war.
The books are a bit long-winded, but they are so, so worth it. My review is here.
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — This book is quite a bit more light-hearted than the previous two, even though it deals with the fairly serious subject of German occupation of the Channel Islands. It starts with a thank-you note from a Guernsey man to a London woman who had donated some books to the occupied islands. The two characters strike up a correspondence, and eventually the woman, who is a journalist, travels to Guernsey to write about the experiences of the people there. The war almost takes a backseat to the various personal stories and relationships that emerge. But it’s one of my very favorite books, so I have to include it on this list! 🙂 My review is here.
Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat — A nonfiction work that reads like a novel, this book tells the story of an absolutely outrageous Allied plan to feed misinformation to the Germans — and how that plan, against all odds, succeeded! Espionage is another longstanding interest of mine (although that’s another post, haha), so I was fascinated to read this account! Now that a lot of information about WWII intelligence operations has been/is being declassified, it’s a great time to learn more about the actual history behind the fiction. My review of the book is here.
If you’re also a fan of books set in World War II, what do you think of this list? What books should I add? What is the most fascinating aspect of WWII for you?