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Elsie is a baker’s daughter in 1945 Germany. Her family is somewhat sheltered from the realities of the war by her older sister’s participation in the Nazi Lebensborn (breeding) program, and the attentions of a Nazi official. When a Jewish boy follows Elsie home and asks for shelter, she must decide whether to continue being her family’s daughter, or if she should choose for herself what is right.

In modern day Texas, Reba meets Elsie, now a bakery owner with a daughter of her own. Reba discovers that the seemingly simple task of interviewing Elsie for a newspaper article opens a floodgate of emotions for both herself and Elsie. Together, the two women reveal pieces of their own stories to each other, and find a way to make peace with the past and the present.

Told in alternating points of view from young Elsie and present day Reba, this novel is hard to put down. While not quite as suspenseful as Sarah’s Key, the story is well-written, and the characters struggle with similar issues of right, wrong and what we can and should do about it.

Soviet Terror

28th April 2011

I read two books recently that shed new light for me on the suffering caused by the Soviets during World War II. The first, Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, is a novel based on the author’s family history. Stalin and the Soviet government used the cover and confusion of World War II to “cleanse” the Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, killing outright or deporting millions of people. Lina and her family live in Lithuania in 1941. Because of unknown “crimes,” 15 year old Lina, her younger brother and her mother are sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in Siberia. Only her mother’s sheer determination, her brother’s childlike innocence, and Lina’s love of drawing can sustain the family during their darkest hours.

The second, Hiding in the Spotlight, by Greg Dawson, is a biograhpy of the author’s mother, Zhanna.  Zhanna and her family were Jews living in the Ukraine during the start of World War II. Already suffering under Stalin’s brutal communistic policies, the people’s torment increased as the Germans swept into Russia. Soothed by false promises of kindness from both the Soviets and the Germans, Zhanna’s parents decide not to flee from the swiftly moving German army. Once the Germans reach their town, the Arshanskys soon realize their terrible mistake. Unable to save themselves, Zhanna’s parents manage to save their two daughters. Through the kindness of strangers, and using their amazing musical talents, the girls are able to survive the war in plain sight, by entertaining the Nazis.

Evie and her family abruptly leave their New York home for an unexpected Florida vacation. While at first Evie believes that the family is merely celebrating her father’s safe return home from World War II Europe, she soon realizes that something is wrong. Secrets and lies are swirling all around her. But does Evie really want to know the truth, or will she allow herself to be blinded by her love of Peter, the handsome soldier who served with her father, followed her family to Florida, and is hiding a secret that can destroy them all?

I can’t say enough good things about this book.  It has so much going for it–accurate and interesting historical setting, real mother-daughter interactions, suspense, love, betrayal, moral dilemmas.  This is a quality and timeless historical fiction novel, and its themes of truth and betrayal will appeal to readers of all ages.

World War II Fiction

22nd January 2011

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr: This juvenile autobiographical novel tells the story of 9 year old Anna and her family.  Anna’s family must flee their Berlin home for the relative safety of Switzerland, leaving friends, family, and most of their belongings behind.  Anna’s life as a refugee is completely different from the one she left in Germany.  In spite of the hardships and danger, she learns to cherish her family even more, and even finds satisfaction in making their new life together.

Black Radishes by Susan Lynn Meyer: Gustave and his family leave Paris just ahead of the Nazis, settling in a small French village that happens to be just across the river from Nazi occupied France.  Even though the Nazis technically aren’t in control of Gustave’s village, the Vichy French government is still in complete cooperation with the Nazi agenda.  Gustave comes to realize that he must face his fears and help the people close to him, even if it means risking his life to do so.  While the story is fiction, many of the events in the book are based on real events from the Meyer’s father’s life.

While We’re Far Apart by Lynn Austin: Penny, trying to escape her domineering parents, agrees to care for handsome Eddie Shaffer’s children, Esther and Peter, when he goes off to war.  Jacob Mendel, still grieving after his wife’s death, spends every spare moment searching for his grown son and family, trapped in Nazi controlled Hungary.  Esther and Peter, missing both mother and father, desperately need someone to love and care for them.  Everyone is searching for meaning, comfort and reason in a broken world.  This was definitely one of Austin’s best books.  The stories of the characters are alternately told, without being distracting.  While the ending was somewhatpredictable, there were a few surprises, and throughout the book, God’s love, mercy, providence and unseen workings are gently shown, without being preachy or overly dramatic.

Stones in Water by Donna Jo Napoli: Roberto and his friends are taken from their Italian town by German soldiers and sent to a work camp deep in Nazi occupied Europe.  Struggling to survive and to protect his best friend, Roberto must find the courage to finally fight for his freedom.  An excellent book.  There is a sequel, Fire in the Hills, that I am eager to read.

Historical Fiction Roundup

30th October 2010

Blue Willow by Doris Gates

Janey and her family have been on the move since their farm failed in the dust storms of Texas.  Janey can’t even imagine staying in one place for more than a few months, and her dream is to settle in a house like the one pictured on her precious blue willow plate.  This Newbery Honor book told Janey’s story gently, and was enriched with illustrations by Paul Lantz, whose drawing style reminded me of Lois Lenski.

Bound for Oregon by Jean Van Leeuwen

A fictionalized account of the Todd family’s journey to Oregon, told through the eyes of 9 year old Mary.  Written for upper elementary/middle grades, the story is authentic, full of details and awe inspiring.

Lost Childhood: My Life in a Japanese Prison Camp During World War II
A Memoir by Annelex Hofstra Layson

When the Japanese invaded the island of Java during World War II, they imprisoned the island’s Dutch citizens in prison camps for the duration of the war.  Annelex was 4 years old when she was sent to a prison camp with her mother and grandmother.  In this slim volume, she shares her memories of that horrible experience in order to honor those who suffered, and to share the lessons of compassion, freedom, and positive thinking that she learned in the camps.

Annexed: A Novel by Sharon Dogar

Anne Frank’s story has been told in many ways by many people.  But what about Peter’s story?  For the first time, an author explores what life may have been like for Peter VanPels, hiding in the annex with Anne and 6 other people.  This novel is based on Anne’s diary, other historical documents and extensive research.  Haunting, powerful, heartbreaking.