Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I finally realized why I read so many books about young women during World War II. My grandmother grew up in Nürnberg during this time and she has never spoken about her childhood. From what my father has told me about her experiences, I wouldn’t talk about it either. I read so many books because I wonder – is this her story? Liesel Meminger’s tale is probably closest I’ll get to the unknown story of my grandmother’s childhood in Germany.

Synopsis

It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

By her brother’s graveside, Liesel Meminger’s life is changed when she picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Grave Digger’s Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery. So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor’s wife’s library, wherever there are books to be found.

But these are dangerous times. When Liesel’s foster family hides a Jew in their basement, Liesel’s world is both opened and closed.

Review

The Book Thief is an extraordinary book. Narrated by Death, it chronicles Liesel Meminger’s life from 1939 to 1943 – the time in which she lived with her foster family, the Hubermanns, in Molching, Germany, a suburb of Munich. Liesel is not Jewish, but an incredibly reluctant member of the Hitler Youth. Her daily life, at the start of the war, continues in much the same way as life before and after the war. She plays soccer on the streets with her friends, she attends school, she reads books, and she delivers laundry for her foster mother. But as the war progresses, her life changes in the ways one would expect a young German girl’s life to change due to war – rationing, air raids, knowing people who have been drafted into the army, etc.

However, Liesel’s story is not the typical WWII era narrative as it is, on the surface, the tale of the ordinary German, not very sensational or particularly moving. But Liesel is a literary powerhouse of a protagonist. Her brother dies, and she copes by stealing a book – a book from which she learns to read. And learning to read, that changes the course of her entire life.

It was an interesting choice, on Markus Zusak’s part, to have Death narrate the book – it adds a sense of foreboding but also a tone of almost “hyper-reality” – giving a voice to the one fact that we all know but don’t like to confront – everyone dies. Death is exhausted by World War II, between the soldiers, the Jews, and the civilians, he’s exhausted. But Death is touched by Liesel, the girl who seems to see him and a girl he encounters more times than he believes he should (I use “he” because I listened to The Book Thief and the reader is male).

Personifying Death takes away the fear, Death narrates the book like Liesel’s old friend, not as an inevitable outcome and I believe that makes Liesel’s tale more profound and moving. My words are inadequate in describing the suffering Liesel endures but Markus Zusak does so with a great love for her, for all his characters. Throughout The Book Thief, Liesel is moved herself by the power of words and though she starts as an illiterate child, she quickly becomes a voracious reader. She recognizes the power words have, the words that stay with us long after they are spoken or read, and she learns some valuable life lessons from her words and the words of others. Death reveals the outcome of the book long before the final pages but that doesn’t make the end any easier to accept. While not a direct story about the Holocaust or a novel of expected and imminent danger, the outcome is heartbreaking and completely, harshly real to Liesel and the reader.

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $12.99 • 9780375842207 • 552 pages • first published March 2006, this edition published September 2007 by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers • average Goodreads rating 4.36 out of 5 • read in May 2015

The Book Thief on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Book Thief

Book Thief

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

I may need to reread Rose Under Fire – when I first read it, I was “broken” on World War II novels – I’d read so many, I didn’t really “feel” anything when I read them anymore. There are things that happen in Rose Under Fire that are absolutely horrific and I just kept turning the pages. SO, if you decide to pick this wonderful book up, I advise doing so when you have not, like me, been binge-reading WWII novels.

Synopsis

While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women’s concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery, and friendship of her fellow prisoners. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?

Review

I feel emotionally broken by books about World War II. But not in the way one would expect. I’m out of emotion. I’ve exhausted all the “feels” that come along with reading about the war by reading every book I can get my hands on with a female protagonist and a setting in the ten-year period from 1935 to 1945. I’ve tried so hard to find my grandmother’s story in book form that I’ve stopped connecting to the characters.

Time of truth: I didn’t feel anything while reading Rose Under Fire. “What?” You cry, “A book about a young woman suffering through Ravensbrück- RAVENSBRÜCK! and you felt… nothing?” But it’s true. I didn’t care about Rose. She seemed entirely too self-absorbed. Her friends died, and I didn’t shed a tear because I felt like I didn’t know them – I have enough people I know about to cry for, and Rose didn’t give them much life. But her writing is stupendous – Elizabeth Wein is one of the best writers that I have ever had a pleasure to read and for that reason I’ve rated this reasonably well and why I will still read anything and everything she writes. But back to the book.

Survivors’ accounts of the concentration camps and the Holocaust are incredibly moving because they are true, and I think Elizabeth Wein took on a massive challenge in trying to recreate a fictional survivor’s account and, by public opinion poll, she was incredibly successful. I think I found it less successful because I’m too close to it – my grandmother lost so many people in her hometown of Nürnberg during the war – real people that she loved and cared for. My love for my grandmother makes her tragedy part of my history, part of my cultural identity. My annoyance with Rose made it incredibly hard to care about the trials and tribulations of her and her compatriots. I kept wondering if it was the overall story I didn’t connect with or the character and ultimately, it was the character. Rose bores me when compared to the literary juggernaut who appears in both Code Name Verity and Rose Under Fire and I’m not talking about Maddie, but I don’t want to give anything away. I would have loved to read that story. Any chance of a third book from a certain German’s perspective?

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9781423184690 • 384 pages • originally published September 2013, this edition published September 2014 by Disney-Hyperion • average Goodreads rating 4.13 out of 5 • read in June 2015

Elizabeth Wein’s Website

Rose Under Fire on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire

Fiction, Historical

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

I enjoy a well written WWII narrative as much as the next person – there’s a reason there is a whole sub-genre of historical fiction dedicated to the time period – 70+ years later it still holds the world’s attention, particular in the current world climate that seems to threaten WWIII. I picked up The Nightingale not only because it’s a WWII story, but because it is the story of two sisters and as an older sister, it is a character relationship I can relate to well.

Synopsis

France, 1939 : In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says good-bye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France… but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaëtan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can… completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and time again to save others.

Review

The Nightingale is a tale of the women’s war. With few resources and even fewer allies, the women of France fought back against the Nazis, oftentimes right under their noses. The Nightingale is a tale of remarkable courage and bravery and impossible decisions. Impossible decisions that, more often than not, only make things worse.

Our two protagonists, sisters Vianne and Isabelle, could not be more different. Ten years apart in age, their lives could not be more different. Vianne is mother and wife, steadfast in her ways in her small village and Isabelle is rebellious student, constantly moving and finding new directions, new paths, to follow. But The Nightingale does not start with their differences. It begins fifty years later, in the 1990s, with one of the sisters, we do not know which one, narrating and beginning to tell the story of the sisters’ experiences in France.

It begins with an exploration of family and love and how crucial such things are to surviving unbelievable adversity and hardship. The story quickly jumps back to the “beginning” of the story in 1939, and the decision making begins. Really, what is life, besides a constant stream of decision making? Over the course of 500+ pages, Vianne and Isabelle are forced to make decision after decision, the outcome of each and every one having incredible effects on the trajectory of their lives.

The sisters’ love for each other is constantly put to the test, and they do not always respond to such challenges with love and compassion. More than once, their arguments are of the strength that one or the other walks away doesn’t look back or come back for quite some time. But The Nightingale is not, at its heart, a book of regret, but a book of hope. A book of hope that no other family is put through the trials and tribulations that faced the women, and these two particular women and their families, of France ever again.

Over the course of the coming months, there will be a number of reviews of World War II fictional works populating this space. They are all unique and different, but certainly with many similarities. I have enjoyed each one, and I have bawled my eyes out while reading each and every one. As the granddaughter of a German woman who survived growing up in Nürnberg during such a difficult time and has had to live with the stigma of being a German of that generation, it is important to me that I hear as many voices from that time as possible to try to do my part to make sure that the world does not experience such horrors again.

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback • $16.99 • 9781250080400 • 592 pages • first published in February 2015, this edition published April 2017 by St. Martin’s Griffin • average Goodreads rating 4.54 out of 5 • read in March 2016

Kristin Hannah’s Website

The Nightingale on Goodreads

Get a Copy of The Nightingale

Nightingale

Fiction, Historical, Young Adult

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys

As a lover of WWII historical fiction, I had heard that Between Shades of Gray would most likely be a book I would enjoy. When I happened to find it by chance at a used bookstore in Center City Philadelphia, I knew I needed to get it. After meeting Ruta Sepetys back in January of 2016, I was even more excited to read it!

Synopsis

A knock comes at the door in the dead of night, and Lina’s life changes in an instant. With her young brother and mother, she is hauled away by the Soviet secret police from her home in Lithuania and thrown into a cattle car en route to Siberia. Separated from her father, Lina secretly passes along clues in the form of drawings, hoping they will reach his prison camp. But will her letters, or her courage, be enough to reunite her family? Will they be enough to keep her alive?

Review

First, I read Salt to the Sea (review to come later), in a day and a half – for a slow reader like myself, that was quite speedy. Then, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t stop thinking about Ruta’s storytelling and gnawing, sinking feeling I felt while reading, knowing the MV Wilhelm Gustloff’s fate. And I realized that any writer who can tell a story that I cannot forget must be amazing, so it was time to read Between Shades of Gray.

Ruta turned her magic storytelling to a topic near and dear to her heart – the plight of Lithuanian refugees. The daughter of a Lithuanian refugee who spent years in refugee camps after suffering horrors during the war, she has a unique perspective on a war story not often told. She made the world of the Soviet gulags so real. The absolutely terrifying world of Siberia and the horrors of what the Soviets did to their prisoners. To women and children. I cried. I bawled my eyes out.

Not only to I love Ruta Sepetys’ storytelling. But, I also love how open and welcoming Ruta herself is. I had the opportunity to meet her again last month and when I ran into her outside of her autographing session, I asked her kindly if she had a quick moment. She said yes, and I proceeded to tell her how much not only I love her books, but my sister, Laura, does as well. She was exceptionally sweet and asked if Laura was with me. I said, alas she was not, but would love to have been able to come. Ruta then asked if she could send Laura a message, so I went digging for a notebook, and she said she wanted to send her a video! The result is below.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Edition: Paperback • $9.99 • 9780142420591 • 352 pages • originally published March 2011, this edition published April 2012 by Speak • average Goodreads rating 4.35 out of 5 • read in October 2016

Ruta Sepetys’ Website

Between Shades of Gray on Goodreads

Get a Copy of Between Shades of Gray