I went to my home town this weekend to run the 5k trail run that my friend organizes to raise money for student needs where she teaches. It has been nice to have a break from the weekend routine, but of course, my heart aches when I remember that I am missing cuddles in bed with my toddler and family swim time in the YMCA pool. Anyway, we also went to see McFarland, USA, which coincidentally ties into today’s post about three books that complement each other in their themes and messages. I would recommend McFarland, USA. It is a great underdog story that helps to illuminate issues of social class and understanding the marginalized migrant worker population in Southern California. Who does not love a good underdog story?
History is full of underdogs, and, as such, historical fiction is an excellent place to find a good underdog story. It is an important genre because it brings history to life for people in a way that isn’t portrayed in having to learn facts and dates. I love what I learn about past times when I read this genre. Reading novels that are based in events and times of the past engenders an added understanding and therefore empathy and sympathy for the plights of those having to survive the crises of the past. Empathy and sympathy are powerful tools for preventing the re-creation of history’s past mishaps, and for this post in particular, World War II.
I have chosen three novels that go well together because they each deal with how Europeans were affected in various ways by WWII. They impart factual information about what that was like as well as engendering empathy for all the players involved (yes, the Germans too) all while encapsulating one in a story that can be the right amount of intense: not fluff, but not completely focused on the devastation. Books that are too focused on devastation make me feel helpless (so does the daily news sometimes, so I have to content myself with helping in the little ways I can) and I often turn away if they get too heavy. These novels demonstrate how the war brought out the good in people as well as the bad. Similarly, none of these novels portray the Germans as unilaterally bad. Some Germans in these pages show their benevolence in the backdrop of this war for which they are held chiefly responsible. People under duress in the novels get down to the most basic valuable things in life and find ways to celebrate the simplest of joys and remain hopeful. They remind us that we are all still human in the end. It’s a feat to be honest but uplifting about such topics.
Without further ado:
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
This book deals with a lifetime, not just WWII survival. It chronicles a young woman’s life who gets random chances to do things in her life over and take different paths and therefore have different outcomes along the way. It paints a clear picture of what life was like in England after the Great War for the upper middle class, and then during WWII, the main character Ursula lives out a number of different pathways and roles that her life could have taken. Atkinson uses WWII as a particular point where Ursula’s life loops into different possibilities for her. In one loop she is out recovering people after the bombings, one where she has an encounter with Hitler himself, darker paths that confront the realities of war and other paths where she is not so much in the middle of the action. Everyone wonders what they would do if they could ‘do it over’ and Atkinson chose such a fantastic backdrop for the potential trajectories for Ursula’s life that one gets a good look at many angles of this tumultuous time. And as a side note, she hops around different realities without being confusing. I listened to this book as well as read it and it is an absolute credit to her talent that I could follow her narratives while driving.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Lee Shaffer and Annie Barrows
I re-read this gem for the purposes of this post. I wanted to do a grouping of complementary novels for WWII but was looking for the third book to include, because all my groupings should be at least three. I was combing through my reading history over the past few years on Goodreads and there was the Aha! moment. Of course this beautiful book had to be included, for all the reasons in my preamble (babble?). This one is more focused on the war than Life After Life. This time around I enjoyed all the different voices used in the audible edition. It is composed of letters written between different characters chronicling a British writer right after the war, who comes in contact with residents of the island of Guernsey off the coast of Britain and learns about how they survived the German occupation and kept their chins up and their hearts together. The letter format was ambitious but worked. Characters can be best shown in contrast to other characters, and the multiple viewpoints clarified each personality by contrasting it with the other personalities in the book. The authors work in dashes of facts, like all the pets having to be put down on the island, and how women were brought to work in brothels, and how the island was completely cut off from the outside world, and what the evacuation of children was like. (Life After Life also talks about the evacuation of the children). The authors manage to talk a lot about the death camps and their after effects in a chilling but relatable way, reminding us about how the trauma of war haunted the souls of many long into the years where others were pressing to move on and forget. It was done tastefully to describe events but from the perspective of hopefulness, resilience, and love.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
I need to be clear on two points: one, that I will not return to this novel all the time in my blog, and two, that this post was congealing in my mind before the Pulitzer winners were announced. I do derive satisfaction though with my opinion being so plainly endorsed by the pundits. This book is the ultimate example of showing rather than telling. I am aiming toward other Pulitzer books (AVisit from the Goon Squad, Olive Kitteridge, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao) to see if I find them equally as spellbinding. I liked Karen Russel’s Swamplandia!, which is as close as anyone got to the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Enemy and civilian fates are entwined in All the Light We Cannot See more so than in the other two. One can see the opportunities afforded many German boys by the Third Reich at a time where Germany was in desperate need of revitalization. A life in the drudgery and danger of the mines or a life using and being respected for ones talents? What would you pick? The French civilian (Marie-Laure) that waits out the war is lucky to be with family, whereas the children in the other novels were not. Both are protagonists from opposite sides.There is devastation and resistance to the war in both lives. Both love science and the mysteries of the natural world. Both are adept at figuring out puzzles and problems. They are both heroes. The reader roots for both.We are all the same in the end.
Can you think of any other books that would fit into this list of books giving perspectives on surviving the Second World War? That we learn about the devastation while remembering what is really important and having some uplifting hopefulness? Please leave a comment below.