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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.

A fictionalized account of the life of Helmuth Hubener, a German teenager who had the courage to stand up to the Nazis in Germany, at the cost of his life. Bartoletti explores how Hubener came to be drawn into the Hitler Youth Movement, and what possibly might have motivated him to sacrifice everything to tell the German people the truth about Nazi atrocities. Bartoletti wrote this book after researching Hubener’s life for her non-fiction book, Hitler Youth: Growing up in Hitler’s Shadow.

We recently watched the HBO mini-series The Pacific. It was a fascinating and horrifying look at the American Marines who served in the Pacific theater during World War II.  One of the featured Marines was a private named E. B. Sledge.  Sledge’s journey from his country home in Alabama to the war-torn islands in the Pacific, and his transformation from boy to Marine were powerful stories.  As we completed the series, we discovered that Sledge had written a book about his service with the Marine Corp.  Eager to find out more about his story, I immediately checked out the book from our library.

Sledge’s book is a straightforward account of his beginnings as a Marine, and of the battles that he fought.  Some of the movements of the troops were confusing to me, as were the references to various Marine regiments and divisions.  I’m sure that readers who know more about the military wouldn’t be confused at all.  But Sledge’s account isn’t just a retelling of troop movements.  Rather, it’s his personal story of the sights, sounds, horrors, defeats and triumphs of war.  It’s graphic at time, but matter-of-fact.  As I ended the book, I was overwhelmed with admiration and respect for the thousands and thousands of troops who have served so faithfully in combat for our country.

Many of the things that Sledge experienced were documented in the mini-series.  If you haven’t yet watched the mini-series, I would highly recommend reading With the Old Breed first.

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.

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