Remembrance Day is a time for reflection, especially on the horrors of war. The famous poems urges us to never forget, and yet as a world we seem to have a short memory, because it seems we end up in this position time and again. As the world now watches Eastern Europe with bated breath, hoping against hope we don’t descend into utter chaos, it seems more important than ever that we think on the consequences of war. Not that there are no wars worth fighting, but no wars are glorious.
Below are some of my favourite war reads. Zero of these support war for war’s sake, but deal with the devastating consequences when powers decide to clash for their own benefit. It is the people who suffer the most, and the fallout is felt through generations. War shapes worlds, global structures and individual, but the results are rarely what was predicted.
Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein
Code Name Verity is told as a written confession, taken down by British agent “Verity” after being captured and interrogated by the Gestapo in German-occupied France in 1943. Like Scheherazade, she unfurls a tale in order to buy time before her eventual execution. Her story begins with her best friend Maddie, and how it came to be that Maddie flew her into France before crashing.
The most important thing to know is that you will love the characters. As in, you will fall deeply in love with best friends Maddie and Verity. They are alive and breathe paper air; because you love them, this book will draw you in soul first. I think Verity goes to the top of the five fictional characters I’d like to be friends with.
The use of the unreliable narrator is exceptional here. Verity’s confession ends with “I told the truth,” and yet she spent the entire time demonstrating that she was a superb liar, designed for the “Great Game,” so the reader wonders how the Gestapo could possibly believe a word she writes. But Verity is so compelling, so charming, you want so badly to believe her. And then parts of her confession start to look an awful lot like plans, and you get so excited that maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance that everything could turn out okay. The storycraft here is exceptional, and keeps you guessing to the very end.
Another thing, and you wouldn’t expect this, but the book is in some ways quite funny. Verity is funny, even while being tortured, and you wonder how that is even possible. But she is so aware of her situation, of how on top of everything she needs to be, and she is still able to come up with zingers and set up her captors in little traps that have them running around in circles, barely able to keep up with their injured, bound captive.
At the heart of it, the book is about friendship, the deep kind of kindred souls which doesn’t come along every lifetime. Two beautiful spirits find each other and would die to save the other – or kill. I will never forget this book. Enough said? I seriously cannot convey strongly enough how well crafted this book is.
Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett
Follett is known for writing epic reads, and his Century Trilogy, writing about the 20th century, is about as epic as it gets. Fall of Giants begins at the tenuous time before WWI, the Great War, and follows several different families through the tumultuous century, generation after generation. It is done through a Eurocentric lens, but the basis of the First World War is entirely Eurocentric.
I enjoyed Fall of Giants the most of the three, as he introduces each of the families – from coal miners in England to Russian aristocracy. There is obviously just SO MUCH going on, and Follett manages to present this history in a way that is both entertaining and informative.
When it comes to the war, he doesn’t pull any punches as to the horrors, and the sacrifices, and the questions of whether they were worthwhile. This is an excellent book for those looking for a quality read on the First World War (as well as all the class struggles that were involved or ongoing at that time period).
Code Girls, by Liza Mundy
In the same theme as the Bletchley Girls, Code Girls follows the stories of young American women who worked as code breakers in WWII, and who helped shorten the war. Young women who never expected to be doing war work were recruited from all over the country to help in the war effort and revolutionized cryptanalysis.
The role of women in codebreaking was kept silent for a very long time, so it’s lovely there has been renewed interest in seeing the part these girls played in what was considered a man’s game. I will always be here for anything that has to do with code breaking and espionage during war, but a million times over when it’s feminist. This book is a fascinating walk through history – one that isn’t very well known.
The book is fantastically researched and there is a lot of information to consume. But it’s the women’s stories and their personal insights that make this book come together. An excellent non-fiction read on the role of American women in cracking Nazi codes.
The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
Who hasn’t had their heart broken reading the scrawlings of Anne Frank as she develops from a girl to a woman, all while hiding in a cabinet behind a wall for years on end?
As the Nazis invade Holland, the Franks are forced to flee their home in Amsterdam. As a Jewish family, they are aware they are not safe while the Gestapo surrounds them, and they find shelter in a small “secret annexe” at the top floors of an office building. There they stay for more than two years, before their location is betrayed to the Gestapo and the Frank family is taken to concentration camps throughout Europe.
Both Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen. Their mother Edith died at Auschwitz. Only her father survived, and he fought to have Anne’s diary published. Anne was fifteen when she died.
The diary is astonishing in how ordinary it was. Anne Frank was an insightful, intelligent teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. She writes of the joys and the boredom and the horrors of being locked up with her family month after harrowing month. Delving into her most intimate thoughts is to know her, to become her friend – and knowing how her fate ended makes it all the more tragic. The importance of Anne Frank’s Diary is that it gives a human face to the suffering and atrocity that occurred during WWII. The victims of the Holocaust were not numbers – they had names and families and they loved, and they lived. And remembering that is the most important thing.
Last Christmas in Paris, by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb
Last Christmas in Paris is neither a book about Christmas, or about Paris, but is a book about WWI. In England, spirited and charming Evie keeps correspondence with her brother, Will, her brother’s good friend, Tom, and her friend Alice, who are all deployed to France to fight les Boches. Secrets are spilled, miscommunications run rampant, important letters go missing and confessions are revealed. Love conquers all.
Though a war book, Last Christmas is full of hope and courage. The plot was pretty straight-forwarded and the “mysteries” that coaxed things along were pretty transparent, but is anyone minding here? No, we are not. I want romance and happy(ish) endings! I want engagements and secret babies and dastardly but handsome villains trying to woo the fair maiden’s heart! Yes to all of it!
One of the sweetest parts of the novel is that it’s told in letter format. While this isn’t new, it gives a sense of intimacy that works perfectly in this situation. It brings you back a century to a time when you waited weeks, even months, to get a response from a loved one.
There is an interesting concept of fake news that actually comes up in the book. The British government censored war news coming out of the battlefields and what was written in the newspapers, in order to control the story. People back home were kept in the dark as to the real conditions of the soldiers on the front. Evie is determined to enlighten the public as to the truth, and her efforts are met with mixed reactions. She concedes at the end that she’s not even sure revealing the truth is worth what she risked losing.
Does real reporting matter? Such an important question in this age, as rampant allegations of “fake news” are deteriorating the ability to report, or trust, the truth. As the public loses confidence in the press, the truth becomes more and more elusive. And a free press is one of the pillars of democracy.
What did the lack of truth mean to the public during WWI? Did it allow them to maintain a level of normalcy in their daily life to keep society alive? Or did it allow a government to control the message of glorious victory, that encouraged more and more volunteers and afterwards support for a conscription law, which provided more human fodder into a desperate war that shattered the souls of nations? Interesting questions, and I’m not quite sure how I’ve arrived here, as I swear when I read this book I was feeling light and fluffy and romantic. I’ve now convinced myself this feel-good book is also deeper than initially thought.
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Books I Still Think About Years Later
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