Before World War II fades from living memory and thereafter resides exclusively in the history books, take a few moments to appreciate those who actually lived it. After all, the history books can only tell us statistics and names, the locations of battlefields and the number who died there. Only the people who were actually there can tell you the personal stories – sleeping in cow pastures, spending time with your buddies in a war zone, seeing the planes of D-Day flying overhead, the pain of watching your best friend die. The Last Good War: the Faces and Voices of World War II with photos by Thomas Sanders, shines the spotlight on some of these last remaining veterans through a series of affecting portraits and reminiscences. Proud, solemn, spirited, these men and women once again show us what made them “the greatest generation.”
One decision can alter a life forever – turning left instead of right, stopping instead of going straight home, holding onto a piece of information. That a life can be saved or shattered by the smallest gestures is movingly illustrated in The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.
Set during the early stages of World War II when London is staggering under the relentless German bombing from the Blitz and America is teetering on the verge of entering the war, The Postmistress looks at how simple decisions change and connect the lives of three women. Frankie works for Edward R Murrow in London, reporting on how the bombing is affecting the people and their lives. Newlywed Emma Trask, just arrived in a small Cape Cod town, waits for her doctor husband, who has gone to London to volunteer. And the town’s postmistress, Iris James, holds onto a crucial piece of information that will impact all of them.
The scenes set in London and Europe are especially good; Blake brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the Blitz where panic gradually gives way to resignation, and death is random and arbitrary. Frankie’s journey through Europe (as an American she is still able to travel through German-occupied countries) is tense and heartbreaking and terrifying. I felt that the parts of the book that are set in Cape Cod are not as strong – less action, less immediate – and that the ending suffered because of this. However, many readers felt differently; this book is worth reading to find out how you feel.
Like all boys growing up in Rome during the 1930′s and 40′s, the author was expected to join Balilla, Mussolini’s Fascist Youth Organization in Italy. An unwilling participant, he counters this activity by becoming a bicycle runner, secretly delivering pamphlets and other materials to members of the Resistance. Later, near the end of the war, after Italy has surrendered to the Allies but is still controlled by a puppet German government, Romagnoli flees Rome to avoid military conscription. Hiding in the remote mountainous countryside, he becomes even more dangerously involved in the Resistance, working with both American and British soldiers.
But The Bicycle Runner, which covers his life from ages 14-25, is much more than a war story. In fact, it reads much more like a coming-of-age novel, full of the usual adolescent angst weaved together with plenty of humorous anecdotes. Examples include his descriptions of fearful confessions to the local priest (which the entire congregation can hear) to his first experiences with love and lust.
The author may be better known for co-hosting the first American television program on Italian cooking, The Romagnoli’s Table, for which he coauthored two companion books. Though he passed away in December of 2008, the love for his native land and culture comes through strikingly clear; the subtitle, A Memoir of Love, Loyalty and the Italian Resistance, is perfectly appropriate.
The setting for David Benioff’s City of Thieves is grim and brutal – the siege of Leningrad during World War II – yet there is also light and optimism, even laughter in this book. Lev Benioff, is a naive, 17-year-old is picked up for looting, a sentence punishable by death. Instead of the firing squad, he is thrown together with brash, confident, Red Army soldier Koyla Vaslav (arrested for deserting). They are given a task: find 12 eggs for the general’s daughter’s wedding in five days. If they succeed, they’re free; if not, they’ll be shot.
What follows is the nearly impossible search for fresh eggs in a city that has virtually no food (conservative estimates place the number of Soviet deaths during the siege at 1.7 million, most of whom starved to death) The unlikely pairing develops from forced to begrudging to a true partnership. What these two see, both the cruelty and kindness, is almost unfathomable now in our comfortable, well-fed lives, from the desperate couple resorting to cannibalism (who they barely escape from), to the former call girl that shelters artists and surgeons made homeless by the relentless bombing, to the Nazi commander they must outwit, the book is full of unforgettable characters and heart-stopping tension.
At first, you will want to hate Koyla. He is arrogant and brash and a bit of a braggart. He is also charming and charismatic and at heart, a kind and generous man who does the right thing for others time and again. Lev, who narrates the story, is full of self-doubt and (he believes) weakness, but finds unimaginged courage and strength when he needs it, partly because of Koyla.
Based on Benioff’s grandfather’s memories, this is storytelling at it’s best, the kind of book that stays with you – a story of cruelty, desperation and hardship, but also of kindness, strength, loyalty, love and friendship.
On July 16, 1942 thousands of Jewish families were rounded up in Paris and held under brutal conditions at the Vel’ d’Hiv’ train station before being shipped to Auschwitz and almost certain death. Although the orders were issued by the Nazi’s, they were carried out by the French police; most of the Jews were French citizens and almost no one came to their defense. Property and homes left behind by the Jews were quickly taken over by Parisians and the incident buried. While France has recently made an effort to acknowledge and apologize for this dark chapter in their history, and public memorials have been erected, it remains a story that is little known and even deliberately hidden.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay brings this horrific story to life. Alternating chapters follow 10-year-old Sarah Starzynki and her family when they are brutally taken from their home in 1942 and present-day journalist Julia Jarmond who is writing a story about the little known roundup. The secret that Sarah carries with her – that, at his insistence, she has locked her little brother into a secret hiding place, believing she will return in a few hours – as well as the suffering she and her family endure shadows her life. Julia, an American living in Paris, discovers that her in-laws have a connection to Sarah, a family secret that they have tried to deny. Julia’s determination to find answers and to trace Sarah threaten her marriage and forever alter her view of her beloved adopted home.
This book is a real page turner – both stories are dramatic, full of twists and revealing of human character both at its worst and its best. There are interesting insights into how the people of Occupied France reacted to the persecution of the Jews, and how many modern French continue to dismiss or ignore their past. At one point someone asks Julia why she, an American born long after the war and with no connection to the tragedy, is so determined to find Sarah. Julia replies that she wants to apologize, “Sorry for not knowing. Sorry for being 45 years old and not knowing.” Reading Sarah’s Key can help all of us correct this error.
In 1937 Shanghai, Pearl and her sister May are living a glamorous, sophisticated life, modeling as “beautiful girls” for the painters of magazine covers and calendar pages. Their sheltered, privileged world comes to a shattering halt when their Father loses everything and he must sell them into marriage. At first they are able to escape this fate, but when the war begins and the Japanese attack their beloved city, they must flee for their lives.
Shanghai Girls by Lisa See follows the harrowing journey that the sisters must undertake – the hardship, the pain and the betrayals as they try to escape the Japanese and find a safe haven first in Hong Kong, then in San Francisco. Throughout it all the sisters remain each others staunchest supporters through good times and bad, through arranged marriages, lost children and oppressive discrimination. Their triumph is that, not only do they emerge from their trials as stronger people, they come through it together.
See also wrote the wildly popular Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, also set in China, and has done extensive research to fill her story with authentic detail. Her story gives us unique views of the past – the Japanese invasion of China and the suffering of the Chinese people at their conquerors hands, the discrimination against the Chinese in America and the Red Scare fear of communist threat that created suspicion against the Chinese in America in the 1950s.
While the trails and suffering that Pearl and May must endure sometimes seem almost endless, the author has left us with a cliffhanger ending, promising a possible sequel and future hope for the beautiful girls from Shanghai.
D-Day was June 6th, 1944. This year marks its 65th anniversary. For those who served so long ago, let us take a moment to remember them. As members of that generation die out, we lose those incredibly precious first-hand accounts. For those of us born later, we can always rely on the history that has been faithfully recorded in books and videos.
Check out D-Day:Reflections of Courage, a DVD put out by BBC Video. Shot on location and told from the various point-of-views of American, British, French and German participants, it is an excellent overview of this historic day.
If you prefer a written version, try Ten Days to D-Day by David Stafford. The Normandy invasion was the largest single-day amphibious invasion of all time, landing 160,000 troops on that fateful day in June. An operation that large, involving several different governments and armies required unprecedented planning. Told from several points-of-view, from the Generals and Presidents to the soldiers and civilians, this is a gripping story of courage and sacrifice.
You might also want to take a look at The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan, the acknowledged classic of the invasion. Ryan interviewed participants shortly after the war while memories were still fresh and skillfully weaves their personal stories into the overall history. A must-read for history buffs.
And watch for the ongoing Honor Flights, now being conducted throughout the country (Davenport just sent a group in April; another is scheduled for October) Volunteers fly veterans of World War II to Washington D.C. to visit the recently built World War II Memorial. All expenses for the veterans are paid by contributions – a small return to these everyday heroes from a grateful nation.
What would you do, what choices would you make if a war arrived in your once peaceful life? Who would you save and who would you betray? Your friends, your family, your country – even yourself - to save yourself? And one day, when the war is over and you return to some semblence of your life, how would you live with those choices? Can you ever escape the past?
The Piano Teacher by Janet Lee explores those questions in the exotic world of Hong Kong before, during and after World War II. Arriving in Hong Kong ten years after the war, Claire Pendleton soon begins an affair with Will Truesdale, the English driver of a powerful Hong Kong family. Gradually she learns that Will hides many secrets – his love affair with the Eurasian heiress Trudy Liang before the war, his experiences as a prisoner-of-war, his current plan to right past wrongs. Almost without her knowledge, she’s swept up into a story that was set in motion years in the past.
Lee writes beautifully, evoking the glamour and glitz of pre-war Hong Kong and the horrors and suffering of the war years with equal clarity. This is an eye-opening look at a lesser known arena of the war and at how people struggled to survive. It’s richly populated with interesting characters and their stories, not the least of which is Hong Kong herself, exotic and mysterious and full of secrets.
Already a favorite with book clubs, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a charming novel that will make you laugh and cry about characters that seem as real as your neighbors.
During World War II Guernsey Island, situated in the English Channel, was invaded and occupied by the Germans beginning in 1940. All communication with England was completely cut off for nearly five years. The cruel practices of the German commanders and near starvation conditions forged strong bonds among the islanders.
Written as a series of letters between Londoner Juliet Ashton and the residents of the island shortly after the war, the history of the occupation of the island and the resident’s struggles to survive is slowly revealed. As the stories are told, a vivid picture of the people is painted – their strengths and weaknesses, their quirks and cleverness, their loyalty to and concern for others. When Juliet finally arrives at the island to visit, she is welcomed as part of the family and quickly takes her place in island lore.
There is a satisfying end to the book, but all of the characters suffer losses; it is their ability to move on while remembering and honoring what happened that make them so real and makes their stories come to life. Treat yourself to this novel – you’ll be glad you did.
Imagine being so valuable to Uncle Sam he gives you an unlimited expense account and has bombers dispatched across the ocean just to pick you up. All this, and none of the rules that restrict enlisted men.
Welcome to the life of a plucky and resourceful Air Force Civilian Technician and Quad Citian named Harold Labonte, in this week’s Davenport Public Library Podcast #3.