I was the last child born in my family, both of my parents in their forties when I came along. My father was old enough to have actually fought in World War II. Not that he ever talked about it. He was of a stoic generation that avoided talking about terrible things that no one could fix. I asked, but he never had anything to say. Until I came home for a holiday visit from college. This time he pulled out a photo album I had never seen. He turned the pages and pointed to his friends and told me their names. His voice cracked and tears welled in his eyes and they wouldn’t stop until he finally got up and fixed himself a drink.
My father had been stationed in the Philippines. It was odd: all these photos of sand and palm trees and smiling young men in uniform. They could have been photos from a tropical vacation, except most of these men had died there. They had died in ways that I could only imagine because my father wouldn’t tell me. I didn’t press him. It felt wrong. Voyeuristic.
Maybe every war is different from every other war. Maybe not. But something about World War II feels different: the scope of it, the depth of the hatred, the extent of the genocide. That factories were built for death, and that so many people, out of fear or complicity or denial, allowed it.
It’s purely coincidental that I have read so many books on World War II lately. It started with a need to slow down my reading pace, so I asked my friends for literary fiction recommendations, and that is what they gave me: A God in Ruins, The Nightingale, All the Light We Cannot See. Here is why you should read them:
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson – The story of Teddy, a British Halifax bomber, told though his own eyes and the eyes of others. This book is a slow seduction. You learn of this character through his small heroic acts and failings, all the meager bits that add up to a life. I fell in love with this character, and then Atkinson crushed my heart to smithereens. I hyperventilated, cursed the author, and then decided I have to read all her other books as soon as possible. This book is not what you think it is, and its strangeness and surprises are pure magic. I’m still trying to figure out how she pulled it off.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – The story of two sisters in occupied France, both in peril in different ways. One is neither resistance nor collaborator, being forced to house a Nazi officer while trying to avoid losing her family home, her one goal to keep her daughter alive. The other is a member of the resistance who smuggles downed airmen to Spain. This book is the story of women in wartime and the lengths they will go for their children, and for their principles and country. What I found so compelling was how Hannah showed the glacial pace of accumulating horrors in this small village. What began as polite occupation became ever more restrictive and terrifying. But this book is ultimately about family, about sisters and sons and daughters. That is where its deepest beauty lies.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – The story of a blind girl, a German boy, and a cursed diamond. Nominated for the National Book Award and, oh yeah, it won the Pulitzer Prize. The structure is beautifully done, alternating points of view and timelines masterfully. The point of view always maintains a certain distance, but the language is beautiful enough to draw the reader in. This book is more than anything a love story, but one between a child and her parent. That is the heart of this story, and that is what touched me. But the book also attempts to do more: to weave this story into the war, to build relationships between strangers that come of music, of buried memories of loved ones, of childhood fascinations.
These books are beautiful in may ways, but they are also necessarily tragic. They serve to remind us of that we humans are capable of astonishing resilience and love and courage. And equally astonishing denial and hatred and cruelty. Those of us privileged enough to have never lived through such experiences need to listen to the stories.
We need to remember.