The courage and ingenuity of humans when pushed to the limit is a lingering theme in the literature. What are we capable of? What hidden reserves can we tap into?
Also familiar: authors confronting these questions against the backdrop of World War II. Its oppressive threats, obnoxious actors and vast imprint provide countless settings and situations for a gripping storytelling.
A recent series of novels, all set during the conflict, places women center stage, exploring their contributions to the war effort as well as their resilience and sacrifice. Each well-researched book (all inspired by real events) gives readers the opportunity to learn and reflect, while leafing through an invigorating, richly painted tale.
Best-selling author Kate Quinn’s “The Rose Code” zooms in on Bletchley Park, the top-secret UK campus of Allied code-breakers, one character dubbed “Britain’s biggest bloody lunatic asylum.” It’s both an apt depiction of the colorful characters moving between code huts in 1940 and a foreshadowing of a key plot point set in the side storyline eight years into the future.
Three complex heroines form the heart of Quinn’s compelling story. There’s quick-witted socialite Osla to prove that she’s anything but a “dumb deb”; the brilliant Beth struggling with constant doubts and a stifling mother; and motivated working-class Mab whose fun tusks obscure painful secrets. Around the trio swirls the plot of a saga – betrayals, traitors, breakthroughs and losses, victories, growth and great love.
The decryption work is impressive; The people of Bletchley Park spend grueling hours and push the limits of their mental capacities. But sometimes the story gets bogged down in descriptions of complex machines and processes, leaving those less inclined to crypto a little confused.
The madness of war – its flashes of meteoric violence, shifting alliances and unthinkable barbarism – permeates history. The same is true of the burden of secrecy demanded by Bletchley Park. The women and men who walked through the doors of the establishment were not allowed to talk about their work, thus enduring the vitriol – and worse – of those who believed they were shirking their patriotic duties.
“The Rose Code” delivers a clever, well-crafted story that culminates in a thrilling and solid conclusion.
Duty or conscience?
Impulse races also accompany the following two novels, both set in Poland.
Kristin Harmel’s “The Forest of Vanishing Stars” follows Yona, a 2-year-old girl kidnapped from her home in Berlin by a mysterious Jewish woman, who takes her to the forest and teaches her how to survive. Two decades later, these skills are put to the test when, in the shadow of war and on her own, Yona meets Jews in hiding from the Nazis. At first fearful and reluctant, she agrees to teach the terrified group how to survive in the wild as the violence against their community escalates.
Harmel asks big questions about purpose, morality, and identity. How far can and should we deviate from a path made by others? Does duty or conscience call us when we act? As his characters make tough decisions, the answers are different for everyone.
A fast-paced survival tale, impressed by the courage and resilience of its characters, “The Forest of Vanishing Stars” rewards readers with an afterword about the real people who inspired the story.
Pam Jenoff’s “Woman with the Blue Star” offers another portrait of survival, this time in – and below – the German-occupied city of Krakow.
In alternate chapters, readers meet two young women who are a study in contrasts: Sadie, an 18-year-old working-class Jewish girl who loves books; and Ella, a lonely 19-year-old Roman Catholic living in loveless luxury with her stepmother, a Nazi collaborator.
When Sadie and her parents escape the liquidation of the ghetto, it is not towards the forest that they flee, but towards the last unguarded hiding place in Krakow: the labyrinthine sewers. In the stinking and damp darkness, they move the household into a windowless concrete shelter with another family. The rats run away. Hunger is eating away. Danger and death are never far away.
After the girls spy on each other through a street gate, a friendship forms as Ella, horrified by Sadie’s plight, vows to help. Kindness is not one-sided; Sadie soon realizes that Ella needs medical care as well. As the story unfolds, Jenoff shows off the many ways his protagonists mirror each other: both have big dreams, impulsive tendencies, and a burning desire for connection – commonalities that narrow the gap between wealth and religion.
In many ways, the star of the novel is Sadie’s mother. Initially a gracious and fragile woman, she relies on seemingly limitless courage and ingenuity to support Sadie, their escape companions, and the new life that grows within her.
“The Woman with the Blue Star” is a rough reading with its dire setting and increasingly desperate situations. Yet the tale is illuminated with compassion. The questions he asks about our responsibility to others are critical and always relevant; The same goes for the ideas in the book on the topic of containment.
France provides the canvas for “The Riviera House” by Natasha Lester. The story alternates between the Paris of the 1940s, when Éliane, a young employee of the Louvre, secretly lists works of art stolen by the Nazis, and 2015 on the Côte d’Azur, where the fashion blogger Rémy tries to rebuild her life after the death of her husband and young daughter.
Desperate to earn money to help feed her four young sisters, Éliane agrees to spy on Nazi activities at the Jeu de Paume, a gallery serving as a transit station for looted masterpieces. Sharp, multilingual and passionate about art, she poses as naive to go unnoticed alongside other brave saboteurs. It is a perilous job.
As with some books weaving very different plots, half of Lester’s story is more effective than the other. The modern-
the plot of the day seems muddy – weighed down by Remy’s uninterrupted mourning and laden with fashion details. There is also quite a bit of whiplash as readers are drawn from the deprivation of the 1940s in the fiery sunlight of privileged Riviera life. That said, Lester’s story does cast its spell, especially as the romantic (and at times steamy) subplots of the two eras unfold and the connections between past and present become clear.
“Civilization was more than a mass of people,” Éliane realizes. “It was also the beautiful things that came out of minds and hands and touched hearts.” Art must also be saved.
Women, long underestimated then and now, prove their worth in these four novels. The books are part of a growing segment of the WWII historical fiction genre, which focuses on stories about women and other marginalized groups. An example of the latter is “Sisters in Arms” by Kaia Alderson, which is about the first black female officers to serve in the US military.
Immersive and heartfelt, these novels provide opportunities to reflect on courage, compassion and perseverance.