World War II Novels and Nonfiction

On September 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and World War II began. So I’ve gathered up for you and for me a list of as many of the reviews of novels and nonfiction set during World War II that I could find while looking through the back posts of the Saturday Review of Books.

Adult Novels:
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute.
The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada. Reviewed at Bart’s Bookshelf.
War on the Margins by Libby Cone. Reviewed at Amy Reads.
The Gathering Storm by Bodie and Brock Thoene. Reviewed by Beth at Weavings.
Against the Wind by Brock and Bodie Thoene. Reviewed by Beth at Weavings.
A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell.
The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. Reviewed by Mindy Withrow.
My Enemy’s Cradle by Sara Young.
Sarah’s Key by Tatiana De Rosnay. Reviewed at Small World Reads.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson.
The Swiss Courier by Tricia Goyer and Mike Yorkey. Reviewed by Beth at Weavings. Reviewed at 5 Minutes for Books.
The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico.
Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis.
The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. Reviewed at Small World Reads. Reviewed at Diary of an Eccentric. Reviewed at The Common Room. Set in New England and in London.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Reviewed by Janet at Across the Page. Set on Guernsey Island.
While We Still Live by Helen MacInnes. Sheila Matthews, a young Englishwoman is visiting in Warsaw when the Nazis invade. She stays and joins the Polish underground to fight against the German occupation.
The Kommandant’s Girl by Pam Jenoff. Reviewed at Lucybird’s Book Blog.
The Winds of War by Herman Wouk.
Atonement by Ian McEwen.
Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom.
My Enemy’s Cradle by Sara Young.

Young Adult and Middle Grade Fiction:
Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salibury.
Code Talker by Joseph Bruchac.

The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen.
Meet Molly by Valerie Tripp. Reviewed at Diary of an Eccentric.
Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop. Reviewed by Nicola at Back to Books. Set in France.
Someone Named Eva by Joan M. Wolf.
Don’t Talk To Me About the War by David A. Adler.
On Rough Seas by Nancy L. Hull. Young adult fiction. Fourteen year old Alex lives in Dover, England in 1939, and he is eventually a hero as he participates in the rescue of the British soldiers at Dunkirk.
Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan. Reviewed by Nicola at Back to Books. Set in Norway.
Blue by Joyce Meyer Hostetter.
Yellow Star by Jennifer Roy.
Jimmy’s Stars by Mary Ann Rodman
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen.
Weedflower by Cynthia Kadohata
The Fences Between Us: The Diary of Piper Davis by Kirby Larson.
Flygirl by Sherri L. Smith.
Tamar by Mal Peet.
Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba by Margarita Engle.
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys. Reviewed at Books and the Universe. Set in Lithuaina and Siberia. YA.
The Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow.
The Boy Who Dared: A Novel Based on the True Story of a Hitler Youth by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.
For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley.
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein.
The Winged Watchman by Hilda van Stockum.
Children of the King by Sonya Hartnett.
The Winter Horses by Phillip Kerr.
The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages.
The Extra by Kathryn Lasky.
Up Periscope by Robb White.
My Family for the War by Anne C. Voorhoeve. Reviewed at Hope Is the Word.
Projekt 1065: A Novel of World War II by Alan Gratz.

Nonfiction:
A Boy’s War by David Michell.
The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom.
Anne Frank: The Book, the Life and the Afterlife by Francine Prose. Reviewed by Girl Detective.
Night by Elie Wiesel.
The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Reviewed at Library Hospital. Reviewed by Alice at Supratentorial.
Lost in Shangri-La: The True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff. Reviewed at Sarah Reads Too Much.
South to Bataan, North to Mukden by W. E. Brougher. Reviewed by Hope at Worthwhile Books. More about the same book.
Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings.
The Mascot: Unraveling the Mystery of My Jewish Father’s Nazi Boyhood by Mark Kurzem.
We Die Alone: A WWII Epic of Escape and Endurance by David Howarth. Reviewed by The Ink Slinger.
W.F. Matthews: Lost Battalion Survivor by Travis Monday
High Flight: A Story of World War II by Linda Granfield. Illustrated by Michael Martchenko. A children’s biography reviewed by Nicola at Back to Books.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy by Eric Metaxis. Reviewed at 5 Minutes for Books.
The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin.
Home Front Girl by Joan Wehlen Morrison.
The Boy on the Wooden Box: How the impossible became possible . . . on Schindler’s list by Leon Leyson with Marilyn J. Harran and Elisabeth Leyson.
Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp by Helga Weiss, translated by Neil Bermel.

D-Day: The Invasion of Normandy, 1944 by Rick Atkinson.
The Story of D-Day: June 6, 1944 by Bruce Bliven, Jr. (Landmark Book #62)

Mission at Nuremburg: An American Army Chaplain and the Trial of the Nazis by Tim Townsend.
Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom by Thomas E. Ricks.
Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War by Lynne Olson.
Irena’s Children: The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto by Tilar Mazzeo.
For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton.

More World War II reads and reviews at War Through the Generations.

What is your favorite World War II-related novel or work of nonfiction?

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The Jersey Brothers by Sally Mott Freeman

It’s raining; it’s pouring here in Houston, Texas. And Hurricane Harvey is headed for Corpus Christi and set to bring Houston a whole heck of a lot of more rain and possible/probable flooding. And my personal and family life is a bit of a mess, too.

However, if ever a book would cause me to pause and count my blessings, The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home is that book. I thought the scenes and descriptions in Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand were harrowing and violent and disturbing, but this book tops that one for sheer cruelty and horror, man’s inhumanity to man. It’s not gratuitous, either. As far as I can tell the scenes and events the author describes really happened and were the central truths of the experience of Barton Cross, an American Navy prisoner of war to the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II. YOu’ve heard of the “Bataan Death March”? Well, that’s described in this book in excruciating detail, even though Ensign Cross didn’t have to participate in that particular piece of history. (Many of his fellow prisoners did.) And the Battle of the Coral Sea and Iwo Jima and Tarawa—all described, again in horrific detail because one or the other of Barton’s two brothers were there. All three brothers were Navy officers, and the older two, Bill (the author’s father) and Benny, spent the war fighting on Navy ships or working in Washington, D.C. and trying all the time to find Barton, their baby brother.

Between the three of them the Jersey Brothers, called that because they were from New Jersey, had a sweeping view of the war in the Pacific, from FDR’s War Room in the White House to Pearl Harbor to the battles across the Pacific to the prisons and camps of Mindanao and Leyte and other Philippine islands. As I read about the experience each of the brothers and of their mother, Helen Cross, at home in New Jersey, I was overwhelmed with gratefulness both for their sacrifice and that of many, many others and for my relatively easy and uneventful life. We may have our problems, but not many of us since World War II have had to suffer or endure anything near what those “greatest generation” men and families did.

I was also convinced again that maybe the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the best solution for an intractable problem—that of ending the war with the least possible loss of life for all concerned. The Japanese were employing suicide bombers (kamikaze) to a much greater extent than I ever remember reading about, and they were not willing to surrender. General MacArthur was intent on invading the Japanese islands, but the predictions of 600,000 American casualties—or more—convinced Truman that the threat of the atomic bomb would save many American and Japanese lives. The army was predicting Japanese casualties during an invasion to run over a million. The Japanese civilians and military were instructed to fight to the death, and many, many were willing to do so. Deaths from both atomic bomb blasts were much, much fewer than any of those estimates and many times fewer than the deaths already sustained by both the Allies and the Japanese in the battles across the Pacific. As horrific as the atomic bombs’ destruction and devastation were, they were not nearly as cruel as the terror and savage brutality that the Japanese visited upon the prisoners of war and the subject peoples that they conquered and ruled over in the Philippines and elsewhere. Take what you’ve read about the Holocaust and the concentration camps in Europe and transfer it to jungles of the Philippines and Southeast Asia, and you will have some idea of the absolute evil that was put to an end by the evil of two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yes, the atomic bombs were vicious and horrible, but maybe it was God’s mercy that allowed it to happen.

I recommend The Jersey Brothers, if you are able to read about the savagery and the suffering that went on during the war in the Pacific. It did make me thankful for the problems I have and the ones that I don’t.

Up Periscope by Robb White

According to Jan Bloom’s Who Should We Then Read, Volume 2, author Robb White’s books are “high action, well-written adventure yarns peopled with realistically drawn, likable characters in plausible yet exciting situations.” This particular yarn is a World War II submarine adventure that takes place in the South Pacific. Kenneth Braden, lieutenant (junior grade), U.S. Naval Reserve, volunteers for an unnamed job while he’s in Underwater Demolition School, and he soon finds himself in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, talking to an admiral about doing something “hard, lonely, and dangerous” somewhere in the Pacific. Ken can take the job or back out. Of course, he decides to go for it.

I won’t spoil the story by telling what Ken’s job entails, but it does involve a great deal of time on a submarine. Both Ken and the readers of the novel learn a lot about submarines by the time the story is over. I knew almost nothing about submarines and submarine warfare when I started reading, and now I know . . . a little, not because there’s only a little information in the book, but mostly because I could only take in and assimilate so much. Readers who are really interested in submarine warfare will find the story absorbing and informative, and I assume the details are accurate since Mr. White served in the U.S. Navy himself during World War II. Suffice it to say I enjoyed this action tale, and World War II buffs or submarine aficionados will enjoy it even more than I did.

Apparently, the book was popular in its time, or else Robb White had connections in Hollywood. The novel was published in 1956, and it was made into a movie, starring James Garner, in 1959. White’s memoir, Our Virgin Island, about the Pacific island he and his wife bought for $60.00 and lived on before the war, was filmed as Virgin Island in 1958. The movie starred John Cassavetes, Sidney Poitier, and Ruby Dee. (White did write for Hollywood, so I guess he had connections.)

The author is just about as fascinating as his novel. He was born in the Philippines, a missionary kid. He learned to sail at an early age, graduated from the Naval Academy, and loved the sea. But he also wanted to be a writer, and he wrote magazine articles, screenplays, three memoirs, and more than twenty novels. His novels were mostly marketed to what we would now call the young adult market, but Up Periscope at least is not about teens, but rather adult men, fighting in an adult war. The only reason it might be considered a “children’s” or “young adult” novel as far as I can see is that there is a distinct lack of bad language and sexual content, a welcome relief from modern young adult novels. I counted only one “damn”, and on the flip side, several instances in which the men pray in a very natural, fox-hole way for God to save them from impending death. There is some war nastiness and violence, but that’s to be expected in a war novel. I think anyone over the age of twelve or thirteen could appreciate this thrilling story of espionage and submarine derring-do.

Only a couple of Robb White’s books remain in print; the rest are available at wildly varying prices from Amazon or other used book sellers. On the basis of just having read this one (and Jan Bloom’s recommendation) I would recommend his novels for your World War II-obsessed readers, and I would be quite interested in reading Mr. White’s three memoirs: Privateer’s Bay, Our Virgin Island, and Two on the Isle.

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman

I read The Zookeeper’s Wife back in 2008 and wrote about it on Semicolon. Since the book is set to become a movie at the end of March, here are my thoughts on the book at the time I read it.

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Jan Zabinski was the Polish director of the Warsaw Zoo in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and subjugated Poland. His wife, Antonina, was his helpmate in runing the zoo and the mother of a young son. During the German occupation, she gave birth to a daughter as well.

This nonfiction book tells the story of how Jan and Antonina worked with the Polish Underground to hide Jews, stockpile arms and ammunition, eventually participate in the doomed Uprising of August 1944 when the Russians halted outside Warsaw and allowed the Germans to destroy the Polish Underground that had come out of hiding to support the Allies in re-taking Poland and driving the Nazis out. A lot of the story tells about the animals in the zoo and what happened to them and how Antonina survived pregnancy-related illnesses, inadequate rations, and providing secret hospitality for fifty to seventy people at any given time throughout the course of the war and the German occupation.

Something about the way the story was told made me admire these people, but not like them very much. I’m not sure what I didn’t like, but I felt uncomfortable in their company. Jan seemed very controlling, and Antonina like a wife making excuses for an authoritarian husband. Maybe that’s not the way it was at all since Ms. Ackerman derives her story from written accounts, Antonina’s diary mostly, and from interviews with people who knew the Zabinskis during the war. Both Jan and Antonina Zabinski died before this book was conceived. Their son, Rys, did contribute his memories of a childhood filled with animals and with war.

I don’t know. I’m ambivalent. If you like nonfiction about animals and and about World War II, you should try it out.

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Aim by Joyce Moyer Hostetter

Aim is a prequel to Ms. Hostetter’s two books about Ann Fay Honeycutt, Blue and Comfort. Aim is about Junior Bledsoe, a secondary, but beloved, character in those other two books. (Ann Fay is the minor character in this one.)

The story takes place in 1941-1942. Fourteen year old Junior Bledsoe of Hickory, North Carolina has a troubled life. His father is a drunk. Junior doesn’t like school and can’t really see the point of it. His cantankerous and sometimes cruel granddaddy has moved in and taken over Junior’s bedroom. And World War II is about to involve the United States of America, except according to Granddaddy, “That yellow-bellied president is too chicken to take us to war. He ain’t half the man the Colonel was.” (The Colonel, in Grandaddy’s jargon, refers to Teddy Roosevelt.)

While Junior worries about school and the draft and impending war and that fact that his father seems distant and stern most of the time, Junior’s dad manages to go on a drinking binge and get killed in a accident. Or was it an accident? How can Junior go back to school when he’s not sure what really happened to his Pop? And what are they going to do about Grandaddy who’s becoming more verbally abusive and demanding every day? Should Junior drop out of school and get a job? Or join the army? Or investigate the moonshiners who may have been involved in Pop’s death?

This story is really all about a boy who’s trying to find his way to adulthood without the guidance of a father. However, the wonderful thing is that the community steps in to work together and separately to help Junior find his “aim” in life. Even when Junior Bledsoe makes some really poor choices and gets himself into what could become serious trouble, members of his extended community help his now-single mother guide Junior back to the path of good sense and responsible moral judgement. Junior is a good kid, but he’s looking for a way to deal with his father’s death and a way to earn the respect of his family and his friends. It’s not easy for a fourteen year old boy to lose his father, especially not the way Junior Pop dies. It was inspiring to read about how ordinary, ind neighbors, teachers, and friends help Junior to process his father’s death and to decide which parts of his father’s legacy he wants to continue and which parts he wants to leave in the grave.

Aim is an excellent coming-of-age novel, and I would also recommend Blue, about Ann Fay and her encounter with the dreaded disease of polio about a year after the events in Aim have taken place. I have yet to read Comfort, the sequel to Blue, but it is definitely on my TBR list.

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The Three-Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway

The Three-Year Swim Club: The Untold Story of Maui’s Sugar Ditch Kids and Their Quest for Olympic Glory by Julie Checkoway. “For readers of Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat comes the inspirational, untold story of impoverished children who transformed themselves into world-class swimmers.”

The author, Julie Checkoway, is a National Endowment for the Arts individual artist grant recipient and a journalist for the New York Times and other respected publications. She chose a really good and inspiring Olympic story, from poverty in the sugarcane fields of Hawaii to Olympic glory in the swimming pool. However, the execution and the storytelling just weren’t up to par.

I read the entire book, and I’m glad I know the story of these swimming champions from Hawaii and their eccentric Japanese-American coach. However, I feel that the same story in the hands of a Laura Hillenbrand or John Krakauer could have been so much better. I never really understood what motivated the non-swimming coach, Soichi Sakamoto, to spend so much time and energy teaching a bunch of kids to swim competitively. Although Sakamoto is the central character in the book, he remains an enigma throughout, with a shadowy and stereotypical Japanese inscrutability. And when Ms. Checkoway moves the focus to other characters, one of the kid swimmers in training or the famous Hawaiian veteran swimmer Duke Kahanamoku or Sakamoto’s wife, that focus is still soft and indistinct. I never felt I knew any of these people or what they lived for.

Another problem with the story is the lack of suspense or dramatic tension. Almost anyone reading would know that the Hawaiian swimmers’ dreams of going to the Olympics in 1940, and Japan’s dreams of hosting the 1940 Olympics, were doomed by World War II. The only suspense that remains for us is to watch and read about how the characters in the book find out that that there will be no Olympics in 1940 nor in 1944. And after the war, the focus changes again to a new generation of swimmers who didn’t have to train in a sugar ditch and who are more “normal” and middle class and therefore less compelling and interesting than the original group of come-from-behind swimmers who somehow managed to learn to swim and win national championships in spite of their poverty-stricken beginnings.

I think Ms. Checkoway tried to to flesh out her characters and make them more knowable and therefore more interesting, but unfortunately, probably because of a dearth of people to interview almost eighty years after the fact, she often speculates or imagines what the thoughts and feelings of her characters might have been. As I just did. I really don’t know why the author couldn’t or didn’t find out more about what her characters were thinking and feeling, but I assume it was a lack of access to interviews of the characters themselves. Ms. Checkoway makes these sort of assumptions throughout the book, and I didn’t always agree with her imaginary attribution of feelings and thoughts to the people she writes about.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown are still the gold standard for Olympic narrative nonfiction. This book, while it has its moments, doesn’t even medal. Do you have nominations for the bronze medal in this genre?

The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute

I have had this book on my TBR list for a few years, but I haven’t been able to find a copy anywhere, not in my big city library system, not at the local used bookstores. So when I found a copy at the Blooms’ little bookstore, I was delighted. Britisher Nevil Shute (Norway) is most famous for two of his other books, On the Beach, an apocalyptic novel about nuclear holocaust, and A Town Like Alice, a story of post-World War II development in the outback of Australia. However, I’ve enjoyed others of his books, too, including The Pied Piper, The Far Country, and Trustee from the Toolroom.

So, The Chequer Board begins with Mr. John Turner going to see a doctor, a specialist, for help with some troubling physical symptoms that have been interfering with his life and work as a sort of traveling salesman for the company, Cereal Products, Ltd. Mr. Turner’s life is about to take a “turn” for the worse when he receives the news from the doctor that an old war injury is about to take his life. Mr. Turner only has a few months, maybe a year, to live.

Dr. Hughes, who is a sort of framing narrator for the novel, appearing only in the first and last chapters, is not terribly impressed with his patient, John Turner, at first. The good doctor describes Turner as “not very prepossessing. He was about forty years old with a fresh complexion and sandy hair, going a little bald. He had a jaunty air of cheerfulness and bonhomie which did not fit in well with my consulting room; he was the sort of man who would be the life and soul of the party in the saloon bar of a good-class pub, or at the races. He was wearing rather a bright brown suit with a very bright tie, and he carried a bowler hat.” With the added information that this book was published in 1947 and takes place in about that year, can’t you just picture Mr. Turner, in all his florid, Willie Loman-esque splendor?

Mr. Turner reminded me of Willie Loman (Death of a Salesman) in other ways, too. Turner is a little bit crooked, we find out, not above taking advantage of an opportunity to make a good deal on the side or skim a little money off a sale. Otherwise, he says, the taxes would make it impossible for a man to get ahead at all. And he and his wife have settled into a rather typical middle class life, with not much in common, and a lot of low-level wrangling and mis-communication between the two of them. The news of Mr. Turner’s imminent death changes everything.

Turner begins to reminisce about the time he spent in hospital with three other injured servicemen, and he becomes fixated on finding the other three men and helping them, if they need help. As it turns out, Turner is more helped by the search and by what he finds out about his three fellow hospital mates than he is able to help them.

I must have been in just the right mood for this novel. There’s some World War II adventure involved, and themes of racial harmony and overcoming adversity, but it’s really just a gentle, rather philosophical, story about people muddling their way through life. My own life is in sort of a muddle right now, and I appreciated Mr. Turner’s frequent, though cliched reminder that “we’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” In spite of its tendency to promote Buddhism and denigrate Christianity, the novel was still a comfort to me. It’s about normal, average people dealing with the war and its aftermath in interesting and somewhat unpredictable ways.

The characters do make frequent (and jarring to a 21st century reader) use of the n-word in reference to a black American soldier who was one of Turner’s three hospital mates. The word was fairly typical, I think, in 1947 in England and in America, and perhaps didn’t carry quite the same derogatory meaning in British parlance? Anyway, the book treats its black characters and other POC characters (Burmese) with respect and understanding, while showing how many people in the 1940’s did not do the same.

The title of this book by Mr. Shute is fun to think about, too. It could refer to the past events that Mr. Turner explores in the book, chequered with light and dark. Or the theme of white and colored people reaching for racial reconciliation and even community is another meaning that finds an apt image in the light and dark chequerboard. The idea that life is a sort of game in which one makes moves either good or bad, and that in consequence each person might be reincarnated as a higher or lower being than he was before is also alluded to in the title and in the story.

A Year of Borrowed Men by Michelle Barker

1944. Not all World War 2 stories, even those about prisoners, are about concentration camps and horror and death. Even those stories that exist in the shadow of death and destruction can be human and hopeful. A Year of Borrowed Men is one such hopeful war story about kindness and friendship.

Seven yer old Gerda’s father and brother have been “borrowed” by the German military to fight in the war. But the farm where Gerda and her mother and her four brothers and sisters live is necessary to the war effort, too. So the Nazi government sends three French prisoners of war to Gerda’s farm to help with the farm work.

The German families who were hosting the French prisoners were under strict orders not to treat them as family members or even as valued workers, but rather the prisoners were to be used as slave labor to support the German war effort and the feed the populace. However, Gerda’s mother tells her that the French men are only borrowed, that someday they will return to France, and in the meantime they are to be respected and well-treated. The growing friendship between little Gerda and the French prisoners demonstrates the possibility that even in a time of oppression, humanity can bloom.

The illustrations in this Canadian import are beautifully evocative of a rural island of peace in the midst of war. Renne Benoit, the illustrator, lives in Ontario, Canada, and the pictures remind me a little of photographs I have seen of the Canadian prairies, although the book is set in Germany. The watercolor and colored pencil illustrations are also quite similar in style to Renee Graef’s illustrations for the Little House picture books. If you like those pictures of cozy farm life, you’ll probably appreciate those found in The Year of Borrowed Men.

The story is based on the World War 2 experiences of the author’s mother. An afterword at the end of the book informs the reader that little Gerda, Ms. Barker’s mother, never saw her father and brother return from the war. She also never again saw the three Frenchmen who worked the farm after war was over, but she did remember the French “borrowed men” with fondness as “fruende” or “amis”.

I am pleased to add this picture book to the World War 2 section of my library as it gives a different perspective on the war and its many stories.

The Bomber’s Moon by Betty Vander Els

This fictional treatment of missionary children escaping World War II China reads almost like a memoir. In a brief search on the internet, I couldn’t find any information about the author, Betty Vander Els, but I would almost bet that this story is a fictionalized version of her own experiences or those of a very close friend. In the book in 1942 “Ruth”, about eleven years old, and her younger brother, Simeon, are sent away to an emergency boarding school for missionary kids so that they won’t end up in the concentration camp of Weihsien, captured by the approaching Japanese. However, their emergency school site is no safer from Japanese bombing raids than their homes were, and so the children are evacuated over the Himalayas to Calcutta.

The contrast between the children’s petty day-to-day concerns and the enormous events that are happening around them is one focus of this book. Ruth considers herself to be a naughty girl. She gets spanked (or strapped as the book calls it) a lot. But her infractions seem petty and inconsequential, too, for the most part: wandering away from the group, forgetting responsibilities, being disrespectful to teachers. Ruth’s concerns are to survive school and her nemesis, Miss Elson, and to take care of Simeon as her parents have charged her to do. The book paints a vivid picture of what it must have been like to see the war and its effects from a child’s point of view.

Ruth is a bit of an annoying child. She calls Simeon “dope” and “dummy” and “cowardly custard” and other such epithets frequently. She does forget to do her work, and she and her friend Anne play tricks on the teachers and band together to outwit the other children and get their own way. However, at the same time Ruth is quite concerned about taking care of Simeon, and she tries to teach him to be tough and to stand up to hardship. Simeon and his friend, Paul, are both daydreamers and and imaginers who run away, get lost, and find themselves in trouble with alarming frequency. And ever in the background and on the periphery of the children’s lives, there are Japanese bombers, American flyers, Chinese children, and Indian amahs. The setting is both exotic and dangerous, and Ruth and Simeon sashay through all the danger and foreign cultures with style and childlike confidence. In short, they act like children.

There’s a sequel (that I haven’t read) with the same characters called Leaving Point: “Home from boarding school to spend Christmas with their missionary parents, fourteen-year-old Ruth and her brothers find that the Communist Revolution has brought about many changes and new restrictions that complicate Ruth’s growing friendship with a young Chinese girl who may not be what she seems.” (Goodreads)

Silence Over Dunkerque by John Tunis

Mr. Tunis was known as “the inventor of the modern sports story.” He wrote numerous sports novels featuring young baseball players and young football players, but her did not consider himself a “children’s writer”, even though his publishers insisted on marketing his books to young people. Since there was no separate “young adult” publishing sector at the time that Tunis wrote his books, they were sold to children and teens and adults. The books mostly feature high school and college age, sometimes even older, protagonists.

In fact, Silence Over Dunkerque, is not a sports story and is mostly about Sergeant George Williams, member of the British Expeditionary Force and his escape from occupied France during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Since he has fourteen year old twin sons back home in England, Sergeant Williams is obviously older than the average Tunis protagonist, and though the story also features a fourteen year old French girl, Giselle, and also the twins to some extent, Sergeant Williams is the main character and the anchor for the story.

Silence Over Dunkerque was published in 1962, and it’s not quite as fast-paced as a more contemporary YA novel might be. Sergeant Williams is caught in the maelstrom of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, and he has adventures—escape from the Germans, a failed attempt to evacuate from the beach, encountering Nazi patrols, the capture of a German parachuter—but these adventures are interspersed between times of waiting in long lines on the beach, hiding out in a French farmhouse, hiking across enemy territory, rowing tediously across the Channel.

And there’s a dog. Sergeant Williams befriends an abandoned dog in a small French village on his way to Dunkirk. The dog tenaciously follows Sergeant Williams through all his journey across France and even across the Channel, and Williams comes to appreciate the dog’s loyalty and protective instincts. The dog, the twins, Sergeant Williams’ wife searching for him on the beach at Dover day after day, Sergeant Williams’ companion in his adventures, Three Fingers Brown, all add to the human interest of a story that is essentially a humanization of an episode in World War II history: Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk evacuation.

World War II history buffs and general history buffs (like me) will enjoy the novel and appreciate the ebbs and flows of plot and action and the sturdy prose of a sportswriter turned novelist. Recommended.

If you’re interested in a list of other books and movies about Operation Dynamo, the evacuation at Dunkirk, check out this post about Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose.