Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

I resisted reading this book because concentration camp sagas are sad and depressing; the inhumanity hard to digest. But the author quickly drew me into the story about three women from different countries whose paths eventually intersect. Caroline Ferriday, a liaison to the French consulate, is safe in America, but WWII becomes personal when her lover is trapped overseas. Her character is based on the true story of a New York socialite who championed a group of concentration camp survivors after the war known as the Rabbits. In Poland, Kasia Kuzmerick is drawn into the underground resistance; a decision which lands Kasia, her mother and her sister in Ravensbruck, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. The terrible conditions provide for difficult yet compelling reading. Unable to find work, young German doctor Herta Oberheuser answers an ad for a medical job only to find herself at Ravensbruck caring for prisoners. Through Herta, we see how her Nazi upbringing allows her to lose sight of humanity as she oversees heinous medical experiments. Although the subject is gruesome, the book provides at least some small voice for the horrors one group of Polish women endured at the hands of the Nazis.

 

 

Orphan Monster Spy – Matt Killeen

This is a sensational young adult book; a unique take on an old theme. Stories about WWII aren’t my favorite, maybe because Nazi behavior is so extreme, but enter a new heroine named Sarah-a smart, sassy, blue-eyed blonde Jew struggling to survive in 1939 Germany. The action starts right away when Nazi’s shoot Sarah’s mom at a checkpoint. Fifteen-year-old Sarah escapes, meeting a mysterious yet kind man with a luxurious Berlin apartment. Using her ingenuity, she quickly learns he’s part of the Resistance. Rage at what’s happening in Germany prompts her to accept his assignment to befriend the daughter of a top Nazi scientist at an elite boarding school to discover what’s going on behind the well-guarded walls of their estate. Sarah’s classmates prove vicious, trained to prop up Third Reich ideology. She’s soon in yet another battle to survive, but woe to anyone who underestimates this cherubic looking girl. The book’s premise is farfetched but there were teenage spies during WWII, and the pacing’s so smart it’s never a problem. You’ll quickly find yourself rooting for Sarah to beat the Nazis at their own game. My highest recommendation.

 

So Far From the Bamboo Grove – Yoko Kawashima Watkins

A story about a young Japanese girl fleeing Korea at the end of WWII, this is a children’s novel recommended by members of my book club. Published in 1986, the book has lost none of its relevance or punch. Eleven-year-old Yoko is living a happy secure life as the daughter of a Japanese official stationed in North Korea. Everything changes when the U.S. drops nuclear bombs and Japan surrenders. Yoko, her mother and her older sister, Ko, must abruptly flee Communists looking for revenge without her father or older brother.  Having lived the experience, the author is able to bring Yoko to life as a spoiled little girl forced to get tough to survive. The writing is spare, scenes of death, rape and other atrocities delivered without sensationalism yet all the more compelling for the restraint. Will the family get back to Japan and be reunited in this riveting tale of escape and survival? Highly recommended for all ages.

The Women in the Castle – Jessica Shattuck

I got immediately sucked into this historical drama as three women struggle to survive in post WWII Germany. Smart bold Marianne’s husband is killed after a failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. She vows to help the families of his fellow conspirators. To that end, she rescues beautiful but broken Benita, being taken advantage of by Russian soldiers, as well as Benita’s son. She finds strong practical Ania and her two boys languishing in a refugee camp for displaced persons. With Marianne’s three children, the makeshift family lives in a rundown castle where they must forage for food and fend off marauding predators. But their struggle is more than physical as they cope with jealousy, dangerous secrets, class differences, children left scarred by war and hatred for the Nazis. The book is very well written and emotionally gripping as the author explores themes of love, friendship, survival, judgment and ultimately forgiveness in the face of unimaginable horror. WWII is not my favorite time period to read about, but I didn’t want this one to end.

Baker Towers – Jennifer Haigh

9780062262882Bakerton, Pennsylvania has areas called Little Italy, Swedetown and Polish Hill.  It’s a company town, built on coal.  The black piles of dirt from the mines are landmarks, evidence of good times.  That means union jobs, enough food, paid vacations and presents at Christmas.  Born and raised on Polish Hill, the five Novak children come of age during WWII. Georgie, serves on a minesweeper in the Pacific.  Dorothy, fragile and beautiful, gets a job in D.C., but isn’t ready for city life.  Joyce longs for meaning, but is bitterly stuck in Bakerton.  Sandy sails along on looks and charm.  Lucy has a bottomless need for attention.  The book centers around their interaction with each other, and the community, through the mines, church, gossip and sports.  It pays homage to an industrial America long gone.  Haigh is a talented author with a unique voice who does characters and scene exceptionally well.  Her other books, Mrs. Kimble, The Condition and Faith are equally good, but this one is my favorite.