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Thursday, September 8, 2016

Herstory: Three Books About Women in WWII

“Men tell stories. Women get on with it. For us it was a shadow war. There were no parades for us when it was over, no medals or mentions in history books. We did what we had to during the war, and when it was over, we picked up the pieces and started our lives over.” 
-The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

I could read books and watch movies about World War II  every day for the rest of my life and still only scratch the surface of the human experience.  The depths of some of the greatest evils the world has ever known, the heights of the greatest sacrifices, the horrors of the bombs, the unsung heroes who risked everything to save even one person.  And now, while the United States, Great Britain, France,  Germany and others are seeing a resurgence in nationalism, racism and bigotry, it seems more important than ever to remember what the world went through just over 70 years ago and vow to do better.

There are many excellent books and movies that tell stories of the soldiers who fought in the war, but recently I have read a few books that tell more of the story of what women in Western Europe went through. Though the two novels are of course fiction, a lot of the details ring true to what I have read in non-fiction accounts of the war, and they capture the human experience in a way only art can.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is one of the best books I have read in years. It tells the story of how sisters Viann and Isabelle survive the Nazi occupation of France. Viann's quiet life in the French countryside is turned upside down when the war calls away her husband and sends in her younger, rebellious sister as a refugee fleeing Paris. Viann must learn to survive while hosting a Nazi officer in her home, while the spirited Isabelle takes a more active role in the French resistance. The sisters are tested to their breaking points and learn much about love and courage in the process. This book masterfully tells how French women participated in the war efforts in ways that few history classes in the US ever discuss.

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is a middle-grade novel that follows the story of nine-year-old Ada, a crippled girl who has never left her London apartment because her mother is ashamed of her disability (a club-foot). However, she manages to escape her mother when she and her younger brother Jamie join the hoards of children being sent out of London to live with families in the countryside to escape the risks posed by the anticipated bombing of London. They move in with Susan Smith, a single woman trapped by grief. Susan opens up the world to Ada as she teaches her to read, ride a horse, and have confidence in herself; the children in turn teach Susan how to love again. But as the war comes to a close, will the children have to go back to their abusive mother? I loved seeing the war from this perspective. The book certainly covers its share of difficult topics, but has a great balance of being appropriate for elementary-aged children while still having interesting social commentary for adults to enjoy. And while thousands of men in England went off to fight, many women and elderly couples in the countryside took in children and participated in the war in other ways.

The Nazi Officer's Wife: How One Jewish Woman Survived the Holocaust by Edith Hahn Beer is a fascinating memoir of a Jewish law student in Vienna whose life is shattered by the Nazis. She is denied her law graduation and is first sent to forced labor on a farm.  As more of herself and her family are stripped away, Edith ultimately becomes a U-boat, a Jew living secretly inside Nazi society.  She takes on a stolen identity and marries a Nazi officer (who knows she is a Jew), risking both of their lives were the truth to be discovered by anyone. The story of what she did to survive is both fascinating and heartbreaking. Stories like hers remind me that I cannot just put my head in the sand while hateful rhetoric and policies take shape around me, as the lives of real people hang in the balance.


For different reasons, each of these books is a valuable contribution to the artistic and historic record of the war, and specifically, how women in Western Europe lived through these years. As it is highly unlikely that I will ever be called upon to serve my country in a combat position in war, it was fascinating to read about how women engaged in the war from their respective home fronts.

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