Tag Archives: World War II

Code Girls

I had just been lamenting that the show Bletchley Circle was so short when Liza Mundy’s Code Girls came out. Code Girls is the untold and largely unknown story of the women who helped break German and Japanese codes during World War II.

Mundy begins by introducing several women whose lives the book will follow, showing how they received secret letters inviting them to secret meetings and were offered positions in code breaking. Many women, bored with teaching and anxious to contribute to the war effort, said yes.

Code breaking was used during World War I, but not to the same extend and to the same success in World War II, though the groundwork was laid for women to be involved, as some of the stars of World War I code breaking we’re female as well.

While not particularly the story of any one woman but a picture of the collective experience, Code Girls was a very interesting read. You really get a feel for the secrecy, for the pressure and importance of the work. Plus you get a little understanding of how code breaking is, and you see how hard it is.

It reminded me a little of Hidden Figures, and I could easily see this as a movie or even tv series.

All in all, it was a good book, and not a challenging read, as far as history books go.

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Manhattan Beach

I’ve always found something inherently intriguing about the Great Depression and World War II era. So Jennifer Egan’s book immediately caught my attention.

Manhattan Beach begins by showing Anna Kerrigan’s childhood in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. She accompanies her father on a trip to visit a business associate.

Years later the memory is stuck in her mind. Her father has disappeared and the world is in the midst of war. Anna, working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard and dreaming of being a diver, provides for her mother and her severely disabled sister. But when she starts to step out from her normal routine, Anna finds herself once more introduced to Dexter Styles, her father’s business associate from so many years ago. Anna thinks Dexter must know what happened to her father, and Anna finds herself drawn toward a different kind of lifestyle that promises excitement and ruin.

While the book was engaging and well written, I definitely expected a little more intrigue from this story. It was certainly more about Anna learning to make her own choices and deal with the consequences, as well as a story of achieving a dream through hard work and dedication. But with her father mysteriously disappearing, I thought perhaps this would be more of a plot anchor, a piece that drives the story forward. Instead, more than anything, Anna stumbles onto pieces of information related to her father’s history. Finding the truth isn’t something that really drives Anna, but it felt like it could have.

I wanted more of the “noir thriller” promised in the synopsis. While I enjoyed reading it, the book was still a disappointment, in terms of what I thought I was getting. For historical fiction, it was excellent. For intrigue, it was lacking. Even still, when this book comes out in October, it’s worth the read if you’re into historical fiction.

Sarah’s Key

I’d heard of Sarah’s Key before, but until I had the chance to bring a copy home, I don’t think I knew what it was about, but it made sense to read it shortly after finishing the Book Thief.

Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, is a story about Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in France. On the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ de’Hiv roundup, Julia is assigned a story, to find out about it. She discovers that Vel’ de’Hiv refers to the days in July 1942 when the French police rounded up Jewish families–men, women and children–and herded them into the stadium before shipping them out to other camps and, ultimately, to Auschwitz and other death camps.

In her research, Julia discovers the apartment she is moving into with her husband and daughter was the home of a Jewish family that was rounded up during Vel’ de’Hiv. Thus begins her quest to find out all she can about the family that lived there, despite opposition from her husband and in-laws. What Julia discovers is tragic.

Throughout the Julia’s narrative we get a snapshot into the life of Sara Starzynski, the daughter of the family whose home Julia is moving into. Sarah, at age 10, leaves her home on July 16, 1942 with her parents. Her younger brother, only four, hid in the secret cupboard, and Sarah, expecting to return soon, locks the cupboard door and takes the key with her.

De Rosnay writes a moving tribute story to the children who survived the French round up and the holocaust. Her characters experience ups and downs, in a break from what seems to be traditional approaches to this kind of story, where it ends in utter grief or else complete triumph. For de Rosnay’s characters, you wrestle with the same dilemmas they do, the moral obligations and the emotions. It’s a story that let’s you know what’s coming, but makes you unable to believe that it will–and to me, those are some of the best kinds.

If The Book Thief deserves a place in school literature for depicting the Holocaust, I think Sarah’s Key should be on the shelf right next to it. They are vastly different books, showing opposite ends of the spectrum. And yet, they are moving, and Sarah’s Key gives some insight into the challenges survivors must certainly face–survivor’s guilt, rebuilding a life when everything has been destroyed.

Based on a true event, I think de Rosnay is successful in creating a touching tribute to all the children who were involved.

Last Hope Island

I’ve always been a fan of history, and World War II history in particular. So Lynn Olson’s Last Hope Island was a natural pick for me.

I’ll confess straight off though, I want quite as impressed as I’d expected to be. I was expecting a little more action, more description of battles or escapes.

That said, I still enjoyed the book. It was a close look at Britain and its relationship with several occupied countries via the governments in exile that took up residence in Britain.

It was also a close look at how those nations played key roles in the Allied win.  From spies and resistance fighters to exiled troops and politicians, countries including the Netherlands, Poland, and France, though occupied, made significant contributions that turned the tide of the war.

What I really enjoyed were the few snapshots into the lives of unsung heros, people like Andree De Jongh and Jeannie Rousseau, and other women and men who risked their lives for the cause. I found, as I read, several people that I’m now very interested in researching. Their lives and stories, in addition to just being fascinating, could also fuel some really interesting historical fiction.

Some parts of the book, though, are hard to read. It’s hard to understand the justifications for some actions, and without living it, I’d say impossible to pass any kind of judgment. But you can learn a lot about empathy from reading it.

This book is definitely a must read for history buffs, and I would say an easy enough read for anyone wanting to dip their toes in. It’s not a one-week read, for many people, I think, but it’s certainly worth the read.