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I attended a screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1980 film Lili Marleen at the Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist series at Lincoln Center last weekend, and it was an extraordinary experience. This is one of Fassbinder's weirdest and in some ways most problematic films, a movie for which he had a relatively giant budget and got lots of publicity, but which has since become among the most hard-to-find Fassbinder films (which is really saying something!). Despite a lot of searching, I didn't come upon a reasonably-priced copy of it until I recently discovered an Australian DVD (seemingly out of print now) that was a library discard.
The story of Lili Marleen is relatively simple, and is very loosely based on the wartime experiences of Lale Andersen, whose performance of the title song was immensely popular, and whose book Der Himmel hat viele Farben is credited in the film. A mildly talented Berlin cabaret singer named Willie (Hannah Schygulla) falls in love with a Jewish musician named Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), whose father (Mel Ferrer) is head of a powerful resistance organization based in Switzerland, and who does not approve of the love affair or Robert's proposal of marriage. A Nazi officer (Karl Heinz von Hassel) hears Willie perform one night, is captivated by her, and guides her into recording the song "Lili Marleen", which unexpectedly becomes a song beloved of all soldiers everywhere on Earth. Willie becomes a rich and famous star, summoned even by Hitler himself, while Robert continues to work for the resistance and ends up marrying someone else. By the end of the war, Robert is a great musician and conductor and Willie seems mostly forgotten, many of her friends dead or imprisoned, and Robert lost to her. She had no convictions aside from her love of Robert, but that love was not enough. (I should note here that there are interesting overlaps between the film and Kurt Vonnegut's great novel Mother Night. But that's a topic for another day...)
I was surprised to find that Lincoln Center was using the German dub of the film rather than the English-language original (it was a multinational production, so English was the lingua franca, and, given the dominance of English-language film, presumably made it easier to market). It was interesting to see Lili Marleen in German, but unfortunately the print did not come subtitled, and so Lincoln Center added subtitles by apparently having someone click on prepared blocks of text. The effect was bizarre: not only were the subtitles sometimes too light to read, but they were often off from what the actors were saying, and when the subtitler would get behind, they would simply click through whole paragraphs of text to catch up. My German's not great, but I was familiar with the film and can pick up enough German to know what was going on and where the subtitles belonged, but I missed plenty of details. The effect was to render the film more dreamlike and far less coherent in terms of plot and character relations than it actually is. Not a bad experience, though, as it heightened a lot of the effects Fassbinder seemed to be going for.
Afterward, I said to my companion, "That was like watching an anti-Nazi movie made in the style of Nazi movies." I'd vaguely had a similar feeling when I first watched the DVD, but it wasn't so vivid for me as when we watched the German version with terrible subtitling — my first experience of Nazi films was of unsubtitled 16mm prints and videotapes my WWII-obsessed father watched when I was a kid.
Lili Marleen was controversial when it was released, not only because it is probably Fassbinder's most over-the-top melodrama, a film that defies both the expectations of good taste and of mainstream storytelling, but also because it arrived at a time when what Susan Sontag dubbed (in February 1975) "fascinating fascism" was on the wane (The Damned was 1969, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS was October 1975, as if to bring everything Sontag described to an absurd climax) while interest in earnest representations of the Nazis and the Holocaust was on the rise (Holocaust 1978, The Tin Drum 1979, The Last Metro 1980, Playing for Time 1980, Mephisto 1981, Sophie's Choice 1982, The Winds of War 1983, etc.). Lili Marleen is much closer to The Damned (a film Fassbinder loved) in its effect than to the films with similar subject matter released in the years around it, and so its contrast from the prevailing aesthetic regime was stark, leading to what seems to have been in some critics utter revulsion. It's notable that Mephisto, a film with very similar themes* and a significantly different aesthetic, could win an Oscar, but though Germany submitted Lili Marleen to the Academy, it was not nominated — and I'd bet few people were surprised it was not.
Even though it exudes the signs of a pop culture aesthetic, Lili Marleen can't actually be assimilated into the popular culture it was released into, partly because the aesthetic it's drawing from is passé and partly because it is deliberately at odds with conventional expectations. In a chapter on Lili Marleen in Fassbinder's Germany, Thomas Elsaesser writes that "coincidence and dramatic irony are presented as terrible anticlimaxes. With its asymmetries and non-equivalences, the film disturbs the formal closure of popular narrative, while still retaining all the elements of popular story-telling."
At the time of its release, there was much handwringing about the ability of works of art to create a desire or nostalgia for fascism in audiences, and Lili Marleen became Exhibit A. Heins quotes Brigitte Peucker: "One wonders whether, in Lili Marleen, Fassbinder’s parodistic style is not unrecognizable as parody to most spectators, and whether his central alienation effect, the song itself, does not instead run the danger of drawing us in." This is absurd. Fassbinder's style is parodistic, but it's also much more than that — it is multimodal in its excess — and I have about as much ability to imagine an audience member getting a good ol' nostalgic lump in the throat and tear in the eye while watching it as I have the ability to imagine someone watching Inglourious Bastards and mistaking it for Night and Fog.
Heins paraphrases Peucker as apparently thinking that "the often repeated title song may ultimately generate more sentimental affect than irritation". I can't believe that, either. For those of us who are not especially misty-eyed about the long lost days of the 1,000-year Reich, the song becomes as grating as it does for the character of Robert (Giancarlo Giannini), who gets locked in a cell with a couple lines of the song playing over and over and over again. What begins as sentimentality becomes, through repetition, torture.
The song is repeated so much that even if it doesn't irritate, it is stripped of meaning, and that's central to the point of the story, as Elsaesser describes:
When Willie says, "I only sing", she is not as politically naive or powerless as she may appear. Just as her love survives because she withdraws it from all possible objects and objectifications, so her song, through its very circularity, becomes impervious to the powers and structures in which it is implicated. Love and song are both, by the end of the film, empty signs. This is their strength, their saving grace, their redemptive innocence, allowing Fassbinder to acknowledge the degree to which his own film is inscribed within a system (of production, distribution and reception) already in place, waiting to be filled by an individual, who lends the enterprise the appearance of intentionality, design and desire for self-expression.
One of the things I love about Lili Marleen is that its mode is utter and obvious kitsch, undeniable kitsch. It highlights the kitschiness not only of the Nazi aesthetic (which plenty of people have done, not least, though unintentionally, the Nazis themselves), but to some extent also of many movies about the Nazis. (I kept thinking of the awful TV mini-series Holocaust while watching it this time, and Elsaesser makes that connection as well.) We love to use the Nazis and the Holocaust for sentimental purposes, and representations of the Nazis and Holocaust often unintentionally veer off into poshlost. To intentionally do so is dangerous, even as critique, because it is too easy to fall into parody and render fascism as something absurd and ridiculous, but not insidious. The genius of Lili Marleen is that the insidiousness remains. It's what nags at us afterward, what lingers beneath the occasional laughter at the excess. There is a discomfort to this film, and it's not just the discomfort of undeniable parody — it is the discomfort of realizing how easily we can be drawn in to the structures being parodied: the suspense, the action, the breathless and improbable love story, the twists and turns, the pageantry, the displays of wealth and power. Our desires are easily teased, our expectations set like booby traps, and again and again those desires and expectations are frustrated and mercilessly mocked.
It's worth thinking about the place of anti-Semitism in Lili Marleen (and Fassbinder's work generally), because this was also part of the uproar over the film, an uproar that was really a continuity of the complaints about Fassbinder's extremely controversial play Garbage, the City, and Death. While not as brazenly playing with anti-Semitic imagery and language, Lili Marleen does give us a very powerful Jewish patriarch in Robert's father, played by Mel Ferrer, a character that can be seen in a variety of ways — certainly, he is an impediment to Robert and Willie's romance (clearly wanting his son to marry a nice Jewish girl), but I also think that Ferrer's performance gives him some warmth and grace that the Nazi characters lack. Nonetheless, while Lili Marleen is very obviously an anti-Nazi film, it's not so obviously an anti-anti-Semitic film (though there is a quick shot of a concentration camp, and Willie redeems herself by sneaking evidence of the camps out of Poland). Heins writes:
It cannot, of course, be concluded that the Absent One of all of Fassbinder’s films is The Jew, or that the sense of danger created by an unseen presence is racialized or nationalized, as it is in Harlan’s film [Jud Süss]. The malevolent other of Fassbinder’s films is more properly patriarchy and the police state, acting in the service of a repressive bourgeois order. In the case of Lili Marleen, however, we must conclude that Fassbinder did fail to effectively counteract the Harlanesque paranoid delusion of total Jewish power, if only because The Jew in this film is described as capitalist patriarchy’s main representative.
That point is astute, though for me it highlight the (sometimes dangerous) complexity of Lili Marleen: by employing certain features of Nazi storytelling, by putting clichés (aesthetic, narrative, political) at the center of his technique, and by seeking to wed this to the sort of anti-capitalist, anti-normative-family ideas common to his work from the beginning, Fassbinder ends up in a bind, one that forces him to trust that the various opposing forces render all the clichés hollow enough that performing and representing them does not give them new validity or justification — that the paranoia and delusion remain legible as paranoia and delusion. I think they do, but I feel less certain of that than the certainty I feel against the old accusations of glamourizing Nazism.
In addition to the title song, Lili Marleen includes an ostentatiously schmaltzy score by Fassbinder's frequent collaborator Peer Raben. It's schmaltzy, but also very sly — as Roger Hillman points out on the Australian DVD commentary, Raben includes brief homages to composers and works that the Nazis would not have looked fondly on, such as Saint-Saëns' Samson and Delilah. This technique is similar to the film's entire strategy: to booby-trap what on the surface is an overwrought deployment of old tropes.
Finally, a note on the acting: sticking with the concept of the film as a whole, the acting is generally a bit off: sometimes wooden, sometimes unconvincingly emotional. (It's acting a la Brecht via Sirk via Fassbinder.) The more I watch it, though, the more taken I am by Hannah Schygulla's performance. On the surface, it's an appropriately "bad" performance, one redolent of the acting style of melodramas in general and Nazi melodramas in particular. And yet Schygulla's great achievement is to find nuance within that — hers is not a parodic performance, though it easily could have veered into that. Instead, while abiding by the terms of melodramatic acting, it also gives us a transformation: Willie starts out awkward, not particularly talented, a sort of country bumpkin ... and she becomes a poised, distant, sculpted icon ... and then a refugee from all she has ever known and loved. There's still a sense of possibility at the end, though, and one Schygulla's performance is vital for: a sense that Willie may reinvent herself, may find, in this newly ruined world, a path toward new life.
Elsaesser suggests that Lili Marleen can be seen within the context of some of the other films Fassbinder made around it:
the three films of the BRD trilogy — shot out of sequence — are held together by the possibility that they form sequels. If we add the film that was made between Maria Braun and Lola, namely Lili Marleen which clearly has key themes in common with the trilogy, then Lili Marleen's status in the series might be that of a "prequel" chronologically: 1938-1946 Lili Marleen, 1945-1954 Maria Braun, 1956 Veronika Voss, 1957 Lola. Four women, four love stories, four ambiguous gestures of complicity and resistance.
It could be a tagline for so many of Fassbinder's films, not the least Lili Marleen: Ambiguous gestures of complicity and resistance. For a world entering the era of Thatcher, Kohl, and (especially) Reagan, Lili Marleen was a most appropriate foil.
------------------- *In one scene of Fassbinder's film, Willie looks through a magazine and we quickly glance a picture of Gustaf Gründgens as Mephistopheles.
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The Right Fight. Chris Lynch. 2014. Scholastic. 192 pages. [Source: Library]
I enjoyed Chris Lynch's The Right Fight. Roman, the protagonist, loves, loves, LOVES baseball. But he loves his country even more. That is why he enlisted even before America entered the war--the second world war. The book chronicles his early experiences in the war as a tank driver. Readers see him through training, war games, and going overseas, his various assignments and missions. (Most of the book sees him in North Africa). Readers experience it from his point of view and from a few letters as well. One sees how his fellow soldiers--the men in his tank specifically--form a family. One also sees the many (often-ugly) sides of war.
I enjoyed this one. I thought there was a good balance of action (war) and characterization. I liked getting to know Roman, his fiancee, his war buddies.
Children in the Holocaust: Their Secret Diaries. Laurel Holliday, ed. 1996. 432 pages. [Source: Library]
Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries is an almost must-read in my opinion. It is incredibly compelling and emotional. Memoirs are great. They are. I have loved many autobiographies and biographies. But diaries are a bit unique. They tend to stay in the moment; there is a rawness perhaps in the emotions. They capture specific moments in time. They record the best and worst and everything in between. These diary entries are well worth reading.
These children's diaries are testimonies to the fact that telling the truth about violence is not harmful. In fact, one wonders how much greater harm these boys and girls would have suffered had they not written about the horrific events they were experiencing. Far more dangerous than reading about atrocities, I believe, is the pretense that atrocities do not occur. To turn our eyes away and refuse to see, or to let children see, what prejudice and hatred lead to is truly to warp our collective psyche. It is important for all of us--adults and children alike--to acknowledge the depths to which humankind can sink. The children teach us, by sharing their own direct experience of oppression, that nothing is more valuable than human freedom. This lesson alone is reason enough to read and to encourage children to read, these diaries.
This book gathers together diary entries from twenty-two writers. The countries represented include: Poland, Holland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Lithuania, Russia, Belgium, England, Israel, and Denmark. Seven of the twenty-two writers are from Poland. Some writers survived the war. Others did not. I believe that all of these entries have been previously published in some format, in at least one language. The listed age refers to the writer's age for the first diary entry printed in the book. This book provides excerpts from diaries. None of the diaries, I believe, are reprinted in full. These excerpts represent the diaries as a whole, and provide a bigger picture for understanding the war.
Janine Phillips, Poland, 10 years old
Ephraim Shtenkler, Poland, 11 years old
Dirk Van der Heide, Holland, 12 years old
Werner Galnick, Germany, 12 years old
Janina Heshele, Poland, 12 years old
Helga Weissova-Hoskova, Czechoslovakia, 12 years old
Dawid Rubinowicz, Poland, 12 years old
Helga Kinsky-Pollack, Austria, 13 years old
Eva Heyman, Hungary, 13 years old
Tamarah Lazerson, Lithuania, 13 years old
Yitskhok Rudashevski, Lithuania, 14 years old
Macha Rolnikas, Lithuania, 14 years old
Charlotte Veresova, Czechoslovakia, 14 years old
Mary Berg (pseudonym), Poland, 15 years old
Ina Konstantinova, Russia, 16 years old
Moshe Flinker, Belgium, 16 years old
Joan Wyndham, England, 16 years old
Hannah Senesh, Hungary and Israel, 17 years old
Sarah Fishkin, Poland, 17 years old
Kim Malthe-Bruun, Denmark, 18 years old
Colin Perry, England, 18 years old
The Unknown Brother and Sister of Lodz Ghetto, Poland, Unknown Age and 12 years old
I won't lie. This book is difficult to read. Difficult in terms of subject matter. It is an emotional experience. Readers are reading private diary entries. The entries capture the terror and horror of the times. They capture the uncertainty that almost all felt: will I survive? will I survive the day? will I survive the war? will my family? will my friends? will I witness their deaths? will I have ANY food to eat today? tomorrow? how much worse can it get? when will this all be over? will I be alive to see the end of the war? what if the Nazis win? The diaries capture facts and details. But they also capture feelings and reactions.
Shootings have now become very frequent at the ghetto exits. Usually they are perpetrated by some guard who wants to amuse himself. Every day, morning and afternoon, when I go to school, I am not sure whether I will return alive. I have to go past two of the most dangerous German sentry posts..., Mary Berg, February 27, 1942, p. 233
Dr. Janusz Korczak's children's home is empty now. A few days ago we all stood at the window and watched the Germans surround the houses. Rows of children, holding each other by their little hands, began to walk out of the doorway. There were tiny tots of two or three years among them, while the oldest ones were perhaps thirteen. Each child carried a little bundle in his hand. All of them wore white aprons. They walked in ranks of two, calm, and even smiling. They had not the slightest foreboding of their fate. At the end of the procession marched Dr. Korczak, who saw to it that the children did not walk on the sidewalk. Now and then, with fatherly solicitude, he stroked a child on the head or arm, and straightened out the ranks. He wore high boots, with his trousers stuck in them, an alpaca coat, and a navy-blue cap, the so-called Maciejowka cap. He walked with a firm step, and was accompanied by one of the doctors of the children's home, who wore his white smock. This sad procession vanished at the corner of Dzielna and Smocza Streets. They went in the direction of Gesia Street, to the cemetery. At the cemetery all the children were shot. We were also told by our informants that Dr. Korczak was forced to witness the executions, and that he himself was shot afterward. Thus died one of the purest and noblest men who ever lived. He was the pride of the ghetto. His children's home gave us courage, and all of us gladly gave part of our own scanty means to support the model home organized by this great idealist. He devoted all his life, all his creative work as an educator and writer, to the poor children of Warsaw. Even at the last moment he refused to be separated from them. ~ Mary Berg, August, 1942, p. 239
"Yes," said Tom bluntly, on opening the front door. "What d'you want?" A harassed middle-aged woman in a green coat and felt hat stood on his step. He glanced at the armband on her sleeve. She gave him an awkward smile. "I'm the Billeting Officer for this area," she bagan. "Oh yes, and what's that got to do wi' me?" She flushed slightly. "Well, Mr., Mr..." "Oakley. Thomas Oakley." "Ah, thank you, Mr Oakley." She paused and took a deep breath. "Mr Oakley with the declaration of war imminent..." Tom waved his hand. "I knows all that. Git to the point. What d'you want?" He noticed a small boy at her side. "It's him I've come about," she said. "I'm on my way to your village hall with the others."
Read this book. Read it. At the very least, you should consider watching the movie adaptation. I doubt you regret meeting Willie Beech and Tom Oakley.
Goodnight Mister Tom is set during the early months of World War II. For the most part, it is set in the English countryside. William (Willie) Beech is one of many children being evacuated to the country for safety reasons. Willie has been assigned to a widower, Tom Oakley. Willie isn't quite sure what to think about his new home? Everything in the country seems to surprise him including Tom's dog, Sammy. Tom isn't quite sure what to think about Willie either. He's a bit puzzled because Willie does act a bit off. It's not just the fact that he's never been out of the city. Willie doesn't know how to read or write even though he's almost nine. (He also wets the bed.)
Tom soon learns enough to get him good and angry. Willie arrives essentially with nothing but the clothes he has on. But his mom has included a belt with a note on how and when to use it on her son. Tom soon sees the evidence of abuse for himself.
It was oh-so-easy to care for the characters, especially Tom and Willie. As Willie spends time in the country, it is in many ways his first taste of safety and freedom. And love and kindness. And stability. And friendship. I loved seeing Tom with Willie. I loved his patience and firmness. I loved his kindness and encouragement. I loved seeing Tom work with Willie on his writing and reading. I loved seeing them read together every day. I loved seeing Tom encourage Willie with his drawing.
Willie also finds friends his own age. His best, best friend is a Jewish boy named Zach. Plenty of time is spent with Willie and Zach and their other friends and/or classmates.
The novel is both intense and ultimately satisfying. It it intense for multiple reasons. I expected it to be intense because of the war. And it was. I wasn't necessarily expecting it to be intense for psychological reasons. The novel is ultimately satisfying, but, don't expect sweet scene after sweet scene. The sweetness is found in friendship and hope, but, there are some bitter shocks as well.
I loved this one. I did. I loved, loved, loved the characters. I am so glad I read this one.
Blackout is about (three) time travelers studying World War II. For the most part, the novel is set in the year 1940. However, the novel also contains other stories--almost like riddles. These small stories are set in 1944 and 1945, they feature other characters--or do they?--studying World War II: V1 Rockets and V-E Day.
Merope Ward (aka Eileen O'Reilly) has gone back to study the evacuation of children to the country. She is working as a nurse/maid on a country estate. Her assignment was for the spring of 1940.
Polly "Sebastian" (she takes on a different Shakespearean last name for every assignment) has gone back to study the London Blitz. She wants to work as a London shopgirl. Her assignment was for the fall of 1940.
Michael Davies (Mike) has gone back to observe the Dunkirk evacuation. His assignment was for the summer of 1940.
They've heard over and over again that historians cannot change the past, that historians cannot damage the timeline, that historians can merely observe past events. But what if everyone was wrong? What if time travel is dangerous and risky? Not just dangerous for the time traveler who may find himself/herself in trouble, but dangerous for everyone. What if there are negative consequences for time travel?
Eileen, Polly, and Mike will question what they've all been told when they find themselves trapped in 1940 unable to return to Oxford and their own time. Eileen missed her deadline because of a quarantine initially. Months later she tried to use her drop and failed. She thought it was because there were too many people nearby--the military has just taken possession of the estate where she worked. She remembers that Polly Churchill will be in London soon. She wants to find her and use her drop to go back. Mike was injured during the Dunkirk evacuation. An injury that kept him trapped for weeks. His drop is also impossible to use. He remembers Polly's assignment. He goes to London desperate to find another time traveler. These three reunite only to discover what Polly already knew--her own drop was damaged--she thinks because of a bomb. She was hoping that THEY were there to rescue her. Being trapped changes everything.
Blackout is an intense read. Primarily the focus is on what war was like on the homefront, what the war was like for Londoners. I definitely recommend this one. But it does come with a warning. It is only half the story. All Clear is the sequel, and, you'll want to read it to finish the story. Blackout does not stand on its own.
When the first production of On the Town in 1944 featured the Japanese American ballerina Sono Osato as its star, as part of a cast that also included whites and blacks, it aimed for a realistic depiction of the diversity among US citizens during World War II. It did so at a time when African Americans were expressing affinity with Nisei – that is, with second-generation children of Japanese nationals who had immigrated to other countries. The two communities shared the struggle of discrimination by the majority culture.
In 1942, the Office of War Information conducted a survey in Harlem, trying to gain an African-American perspective on the war, and opinions about the Japanese emerged in the process. Many Harlemites communicated a feeling that “these Japanese are colored people.” That quotation comes from a letter written by William Pickens, an African-American journalist who worked for the US Department of Treasury during World War II. When asked “Would you be better off if America or the Axis won the war?” most blacks in the survey stated they “would be treated either the same or better under Japanese rule, although a large majority responded that conditions would be worse under the Germans.”
Yet relationships between these two marginalized communities were not always easy, and On the Town became a flash point for racial distress. A striking case appeared in the memoir Long Old Road (Trident Press, 1965), written by Horace R. Cayton, Jr. An African American sociologist from Chicago, Cayton attended On the Town soon after he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred on 6 August 1945. He articulated a shared mission between Nisei and African Americans, yet he did so with considerable agitation. “Our seats were good, and the theater was cool after the heat of New York,” wrote Cayton. He responded positively to the opening number, “New York, New York,” then launched into an assessment of the racial and political complexities posed by Osato’s appearance on stage at that particular moment in time. He perceived her as racially accommodating.
“It was a catchy tune with cute lyrics, but when the beautiful Sono Osato, who is of Japanese descent, appeared and frolicked with the American sailors, I was filled with anger and disgust,” wrote Cayton. “I care more about your people than you do, I thought, as I sat through the rest of the first act looking at the floor and wondering how soon I could escape to the bar next door.”
Cayton’s “anger and disgust” came from watching Osato engage directly and uncritically with white actors playing the role of sailors. At intermission, Cayton’s wife June, who was white, said to him: “This is the first good musical I’ve seen in years. Isn’t Sono Osato wonderful?” Cayton then recounted a tense conversation between the two of them:
“If I were half-Japanese I wouldn’t be dancing with three American sailors at a time like this,” I [Cayton] commented sourly.
“Why shouldn’t she? She’s as America as you or I.” June began to warm to her subject. “She was born in this country. She’s one hundred per cent American, doesn’t even understand Japanese.”
[Cayton replied:] ‘She’s a Jap, I’m a nigger, and you’re a white girl. Let none of us forget what we are.”
Cayton’s outburst comes across as a racial polemic. But there was deep complexity to his reaction, as he expressed solidarity with other non-white races as they confronted the hegemonic power of Caucasians. Even though his language is disturbing, it is extraordinarily frank, acknowledging the era’s venomous racism against the Japanese and the degree to which African Americans felt themselves to be backed against a wall during World War II. Cayton continued:
“I’m torn a dozen ways. I didn’t want the Japanese to win; after all, I am an American. But the mighty white man was being humiliated, and by the little yellow bastards he had nothing but contempt for. It gave me a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that white wasn’t always right, not always able to enforce its will on everyone who was colored. All those fine white liberals rejoicing because we dropped a bomb killing or maiming seventy-eight thousand helpless civilians. Why couldn’t we have dropped it on the Germans—because they were white? No, save it for the yellow bastards.”
Those multi-layered thoughts were unleashed by watching Sono Osato on stage, dancing an identity that was intended to portray her as “All-American” yet could not avoid the realities of her mixed-race heritage at a harrowing historical moment.
Headline Image: Sono Osato modeling a dress by Pattullo Modes, early 1940s. Dance Clipping Files, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
Unbroken. Laura Hillenbrand. 2010. Random House. 473 pages. [Source: Library]
Unbroken is an incredible read and an emotional one. It is the biography of Louis Zamperini. Readers learn about his family, his growing up years, his training and competitive years. Zamperini competed in track in the 1936 Olympics. He went home knowing that the next Olympics would be his Olympics. He spent years training for an Olympics that was never to be. The arrival of war shifts the focus to Zamperini in the military. Much of the book focuses on the war years. I suppose there are three sections that focus on the war years: his time as a bombardier, his crash and survival in the seas--this section was INTENSE, his "rescue" and time spent as a POW in Japan--and I thought the earlier section was intense! There is so much drama, so much emotion in this one. I don't mean that in a bad way at all. It's not overly dramatic or inappropriately dramatic or manipulative. The book is straightforward in its horrors. But the description of what life was like in the prisoner of war camps is vivid. Same with the descriptions of his survival at sea. For over a month, Zamperini and two others barely survived in two small rafts with essentially little to no food and water. So as I said, this is an emotional and unforgettable story of survival. What I didn't quite expect to be as emotional was the final section which focuses on his return to the States after the war is over. Those months and years where he had to get on with his life, to return to a "normal" life, his mental and emotional struggles. Since he was famous, it was made all the more difficult perhaps? As I said, I wasn't expecting that section to be as emotional as previous sections. There are a couple of scenes in this last section that just get to me.
Love by the Morning Star. Laura L. Sullivan. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 320 pages. [Source: Review copy]
I was disappointed by Laura Sullivan's Love by the Morning Star. I wanted to love it. I did. It is a novel set in English countryside in 1938-1939. It offers an upstairs/downstairs view of life. Or supposedly so. Two young women come to Starkers. One is a gold digger spy. Her father is a Nazi-sympathizer to say the least and his gang (for lack of a better word) wants her in position at this estate. She's told she'll be a maid. The other young woman is a Jewish refugee. She is actually a relation of the family who owns the estate. She's coming to Starkers to stay with her aunt and uncle. One girl is Hannah. The other girl is Anna. One will be treated well. The other won't.
In case you haven't guessed it, mistaken identity is the name of the game. These two women also happen to fall in love with the same man.
Why was I disappointed? Well. I'm not sure if it's because of the setting or the tone. I think I might have tolerated the tone--the silliness, the lightness, the double entendres, etc. if it wasn't set during such a dark time. It's hard to make light of the Nazis gaining power and destroying the lives of the Jewish people. The subject is serious and it deserves better. If it had been set twenty-five or thirty years earlier, then, perhaps it would have worked for me.
The romance. I liked the secret meetings between the hero and the heroine. There were only a handful of these scenes, but, they kept me reading.
I just have to add that I HATED one of the characters. I disliked a few more as well. But there was one that stood out above the rest as being AWFUL.
The Dog Who Could Fly: The Incredible True Story of a WWII Airman and the Four-Legged Hero Who Flew At His Side. Damien Lewis. 2014. Simon & Schuster. 304 pages. [Source: Library]
Read this book!!! Read it now! I loved, loved, loved this nonfiction biography. Damien Lewis tells the story of a RAF pilot and his dog in this new book. It is quite a remarkable story! Robert Bozdech fled Czechoslovakia before the Nazis invaded. He first joined the French in fighting the Nazis. During one of his early missions, he and another pilot crash. They seek refuge in an abandoned house. There they find a puppy. Robert didn't exactly plan on adopting this puppy for the duration, in fact, he hoped that the puppy would stay there and allow them to try for safety once darkness came. After all they are in enemy territory or close to it. But the dog had different ideas. They were destined to be together for better or worse...
Robert and Antis (the dog) end up fleeing to England and joining the RAF. Robert was one of many Czech pilots who joined the RAF during the early years of the war. Not all Czech pilots flew with a dog, however.
The book is about his experiences as a pilot, and his experiences as a dog owner. The book is very much focused on Antis! The dog was truly something special.
The story itself is compelling and fascinating. I loved learning about the RAF pilots. I loved the behind the scenes look at some of the missions. There are places this book is very intense!!! I loved the sections that were narrated by Antis. It was a great read.
The Auschwitz Escape. Joel C. Rosenberg. 2014. Tyndale. 468 pages. [Source: Library]
The Auschwitz Escape is a compelling historical novel starring two wonderful heroes. Readers meet Jean Luc Leclerc a pastor who follows his heart and sets out to rescue as many Jews as he can. He "rescues" them by providing for the needs of refugees. He takes Jews into his home and hides them, he encourages every one in his town to do so. His rescue work continues for several years before he is arrested by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz. Readers also meet a young Jewish man named Jacob Weisz. He is part of the Resistance, Belgium Resistance, I believe? He is doing his all to help as well. He too is captured by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. However they don't learn his true name for many months. Both men learn the upsetting fate of most Jews upon arrival. Both realize that it is not a work camp, but, instead a death camp. Both men are chosen by others in the camp to be part of an underground resistance. Both are chosen to be part of an escape program. They feel very strongly that several teams of two-men need to escape from the camp and seek not only immediate refuge, but, to be messengers. They feel that if the outside world had even a small clue what was happening, they would act, they would do something, they couldn't not do something, right? So Luc and Jacob are the third or maybe fourth team over a year to attempt to escape. Will their escape succeed? Will they survive? Will they be able to find help? What will happen when they speak the truth?
The Auschwitz Escape is fiction. But there were men who did manage to escape who did carry messages and horrific proof about the camp with them to share with the outside world.
The Book Thief. Markus Zusak. 2006. Random House. 560 pages. [Source: Book I Bought]
First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try. HERE IS A SMALL FACT You are going to die. I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the A’s. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me. REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT Does this worry you? I urge you—don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair. —Of course, an introduction. A beginning. Where are my manners? I could introduce myself properly, but it’s not really necessary. You will know me well enough and soon enough, depending on a diverse range of variables. It suffices to say that at some point in time, I will be standing over you, as genially as possible. Your soul will be in my arms. A color will be perched on my shoulder. I will carry you gently away. At that moment, you will be lying there (I rarely find people standing up). You will be caked in your own body. There might be a discovery; a scream will dribble down the air. The only sound I’ll hear after that will be my own breathing, and the sound of the smell, of my footsteps. The question is, what color will everything be at that moment when I come for you? What will the sky be saying? Personally, I like a chocolate-colored sky. Dark, dark chocolate. People say it suits me. I do, however, try to enjoy every color I see—the whole spectrum. A billion or so flavors, none of them quite the same, and a sky to slowly suck on. It takes the edge off the stress. It helps me relax.
The Book Thief is one of those books that I've read again and again and again. I reviewed it in 2007, 2008, and 2012. I started the year knowing that I would have to include it among my rereads. It's just a great book, a great book that is not diminished by rereading. It stays compelling and beautiful. It was also recently filmed. I wanted to read the book around the same time I watched the movie.
I watched the movie before rereading The Book Thief. If I'd never read the Book Thief, I would not have felt right seeing the movie first. This worked well for me. I think it worked to the movie's benefit in fact. I was able to become absorbed in the story and the characters. I wasn't comparing every second of the movie to every word in the book. I wasn't seeing the movie within the framework of what has been left out and what has been changed. Watching the movie, I was reminded of why I love the characters I love, reminded of why they are so memorable to me. They are just as memorable to me as say Anne, Marilla, Matthew, and Gilbert. The Book Thief was a book that deserved a film of equal quality to be made, and, I think it was done beautifully. That doesn't mean that everything in the movie was in the book or that everything in the book was in the movie. One thing I did notice after reading the book was the fact that Hans did not take the accordion with him into the shelter raids. (Though it did make a great movie moment.)
I loved rereading The Book Thief. It is always an experience. I don't think I can improve upon my last review:
The Book Thief leaves me speechless. If humans leave Death, the narrator, feeling haunted, I can say the same of the narrator. Could a book have a better narrator? I doubt it. There is something so perfectly-perfectly-perfect about The Book Thief. It is beautiful and brilliant; absorbing and compelling. It goes ugly places, to be sure, but the language, the style, just can't be beat. I mean this is a novel that wows and amazes. The characters are so real, so vivid. I mean these characters are very real, very human, very flawed, but the connection is so intense.
I don't love it because it's an easy read. I don't love it because it's a happy, happy novel. I love it because it is beautiful, haunting, ugly, yet hopeful.
Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt—an immense leap of an attempt—to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it. Here it is. One of a handful. The Book Thief. If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. I’ll show you something.
Yes, an illustrious career. I should hasten to admit, however, that there was a considerable hiatus between the first stolen book and the second. Another noteworthy point is that the first was stolen from snow and the second from fire. Not to omit that others were also given to her. All told, she owned fourteen books, but she saw her story as being made up predominantly of ten of them. Of those ten, six were stolen, one showed up at the kitchen table, two were made for her by a hidden Jew, and one was delivered by a soft, yellow-dressed afternoon.
When she came to write her story, she would wonder exactly when the books and the words started to mean not just something, but everything. Was it when she first set eyes on the room with shelves and shelves of them? Or when Max Vandenburg arrived on Himmel Street carrying handfuls of suffering and Hitler’s Mein Kampf? Was it reading in the shelters? The last parade to Dachau? Was it The Word Shaker? Perhaps there would never be a precise answer as to when and where it occurred. In any case, that’s getting ahead of myself. Before we make it to any of that, we first need to tour Liesel Meminger’s beginnings on Himmel Street...
To most people, Hans Hubermann was barely visible. An un-special person. Certainly, his painting skills were excellent. His musical ability was better than average. Somehow, though, and I’m sure you’ve met people like this, he was able to appear as merely part of the background, even if he was standing at the front of a line. He was always just there. Not noticeable. Not important or particularly valuable. The frustration of that appearance, as you can imagine, was its complete misleadence, let’s say. There most definitely was value in him, and it did not go unnoticed by Liesel Meminger. (The human child—so much cannier at times than the stupefyingly ponderous adult.)
A DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children
Insane or not, Rudy was always destined to be Liesel’s best friend. A snowball in the face is surely the perfect beginning to a lasting friendship.
I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.
A SMALL BUT NOTE WORTHY NOTE I’ve seen so many young men over the years who think they’re running at other young men. They are not. They’re running at me.
On the ration cards of Nazi Germany, there was no listing for punishment, but everyone had to take their turn. For some it was death in a foreign country during the war. For others it was poverty and guilt when the war was over, when six million discoveries were made throughout Europe.
For some reason, dying men always ask questions they know the answer to. Perhaps it’s so they can die being right.
Soldier Doll. Jennifer Gold. 2014. Second Story Press. 256 pages. [Source: Review copy]
Soldier Doll is a message-driven novel with an interesting premise. Towards the end of World War I (1918), Margaret Merriweather, an English woman, gives her fiance a wooden doll. This is a doll that her own father made for her when she's a child. She paints a soldier's uniform on him. She gives him as a good luck charm, a way he can carry her with him wherever he goes. After he dies, Margaret is inspired to write a poem. This poem becomes famous. The doll itself is gone forever. Or so everyone thought. Soldier Doll follows the adventures of this wooden soldier with the baby-face. The framework for all the stories is his being discovered in Toronto in 2007 by a teen girl, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is buying her dad a DOLL for his birthday. Her dad is a soldier preparing to go to Afghanistan. A moping Elizabeth ventures into a used bookstore and discovers the poem-book by Merriweather. She's convinced she's found THE DOLL from the poem. She and her Dad team up to see if this is so... (view spoiler)
The chapters alternate between the 2007 story and the doll's adventures in the past beginning with World War I. The doll also heads to other wars: World War II, Vietnam, and the Iraq War. His ownership is passed along many times. I should clarify that readers don't get the perspective of the doll at any time. It remains just an object. What readers do get are glimpses of various soldiers from various countries. It captures scenes from life on the front.
War. War. War. That is the focus of Soldier Doll. Why do nations go to war? Why do men go to war? What is the point of it all? Those are the questions asked openly and honestly in Jennifer Gold's Soldier Doll. It is an anti-war novel, as you might imagine.
Lost in Shangri-La. Mitchell Zuckoff. 2011. HarperCollins. 384 pages. [Source: Library]
After reading Frozen in Time, I knew I wanted to read another by Mitchell Zuckoff. Lost In Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II did not disappoint. The two books are similar in that both books are about plane crashes, survivors, and rescue attempts. Also, obviously, both books are set during World War II.
Lost In Shangri-La tells the story of Margaret Hastings, John McCollom, and Kenneth Decker. These three were the survivors of the plane crash. All three were stationed in Dutch New Guinea, all three were taking part in a little sight-seeing holiday. All hoped to see "Shangri-La" safely from above. Twenty-four were on the plane, but after the crash, after the first twenty-four hours, only three remained alive. The three are able to leave the crash site and make their way to a better place, they are hoping to get to where a passing plane, a search plane, can see them.
The book goes on to tell of the men involved in the rescuing. Hastings and Decker were suffering severe injuries and in need of immediate medical attention. A rescue could not be accomplished quickly, in just a day or two. No, it would take time and careful planning...
Survivors. Rescuers. Natives. The book is very interesting. I definitely recommend it!
In the Epilogue to his penetrating, well-documented study, Nazi Paris, Allan Mitchell writes “Parisians had endured the trying, humiliating, and essentially absurd experience of a German Occupation.” Odd as it may sound, “absurd” is exactly right. Both the word and the sense of absurdity come up again and again in the diary kept by a remarkable French intellectual during those “dark years,” as he called them. For the absurd is not only laughable: it can be dangerous. Here is a sampling of the absurdities Jean Guéhenno noted in his Diary of the Dark Years 1940-1944.
24 October 1940
French politician Pierre Laval (1883-1945) as lawyer in 1913. Agence de presse Meurisse Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Yesterday evening all the newspapers were shouting out the great news: “M. Pierre Laval has met with the Führer.” . . . For what price did he sell us down the river? As early as 9 PM, the English radio was announcing the conditions of the deal: but what can we really know about it? Did the Marshal reject them? Are we going to be forced to put all our hopes on the resistance of that old man? This tyranny is too absurd, and its absurdity is too obvious to too many people for it to last.
For we have been plunged into vileness, that much is certain, but still more into absurdity.
29 November 1940
The newspapers are lamentably empty. This morning, however, I find the speech that Alfred Rosenberg, the high priest of Nazism, delivered yesterday from the podium of our Chamber of Deputies. For it is from there that Nazism is to hold sway over France . . . The history of the 19th century, he claims, is nothing but the struggle of blood against gold. “But today, blood is victorious at last . . . which means the racist, creative strength of central Europe.” I am recopying it exactly . . . Race? Claiming to rebuild Europe on a fable like that — how absurd!
7 January 1941
. . . my deepest reason for hope: it’s just that all this is too absurd. Something as absurd as this cannot possibly last. It seems to me I can read their embarrassment on the faces of the occupying forces. Every day, they are increasingly obliged to feel like foreigners. They don’t know what to do in the streets of Paris or whom to look at. They are sad and exiled. The jailor has become the prisoner. If he were sincere and he could speak, he would apologize for being here. No doubt that pitiable revolver he carries at his side reduces us to silence.And so? For how long will he be carrying it — will he have to carry it? For, without a revolver . . . Will he be condemned to wear it forever and live in this exile, without any other justification, any other joy than that little revolver?
10 February 1941
Every evening at the Opera, I am told, German officers are extremely numerous. At the intermissions, following the custom of their country, they walk around the lobby in ranks of three or four, all in the same direction. Despite themselves, the French join the procession and march in step, unconsciously. The boots impose their rhythm.
11 March 1941
M. Darlan is proclaiming “Germany’s generosity.” It is the height of absurdity: these vanquished generals have become our masters, and because of their very defeat, they must fear England’s victory and the restoration of France above all.
17 September 1941
I went on a trip to Brittany for a change of air and to try to get supplies of food, for life here has become increasingly wretched . . . Everywhere I found the same absurdity . . . On the sea, on the moors, in the forest, . . . just when I was going to forget about him, suddenly the gray soldier was there in front of me, with his rifle and his face of an all-powerful, barbaric moron. But it is impossible that he himself cannot feel how vain is the terror he is wielding. The sailors of Camaret make fun of him openly . . . He will go away as he came; he will have gone on a long, absurd trip.
Paris Opera Palais Garnier by Smtunli, Svein-Magne Tunli. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
22 February 1943
. . . those officers one meets around the Madeleine and the Opera in their fine linen greatcoats, with their vain, high caps, that look of proud stupidity on their faces and those nickel-plated daggers joggling around their bottoms. Then there are [the] busy little females — those mailwomen or telephone operators who look like Walkyries: one can sense their vanity and emptiness. The other day on the Place de la Concorde in front of the Ministry of the Navy I stopped to watch the sentries — those unchanging puppets who have stood there on each side of the door for more than two years, without drinking, eating or sleeping, like the symbol of deadly, mechanical [German] order right in the middle of Paris. I stood looking at them for a while as they pivoted like marionettes. But one tires of the Nuremberg clock . . .
29 May 1944
A torrent of stupidity. Two movie actors had put on Racine’s Andromaquein the Édouard VII Theater. Their interpretation of the play seemed immoral. Andromaque has been banned. This morning, the newspapers are publishing the following note: “The French Militia is concerned about the intellectual protection of France as well as public morality. That is why the regional head of the for the Militia of the Paris region notified the Prefect of Police that it was going to oppose the production of the scandalous play by Messieurs Jean Marais and Alain Cuny now playing at the Édouard VII Theater. The Prefect of Police issued a decree immediately banning the play.
From the Christian History Institute comes a biography from their Heroes of the Faith line. Corrie ten Boom and her family are watchmakers in Holland. When World War II erupts, Hitler’s army takes over their country and begins rounding up their Jewish neighbors. Read the story of how one family stood strong in faith against a great evil.
Recommended for ages 8 – 12, this biography shares the life of Corrie ten Boom, her sister, Betsie, and their father who hid Jewish people from the Nazi army during World War II. They would end up arrested, some going to concentration camps, and Corrie struggled to hold onto her faith in such darkness. Her amazing story is shared in this biography that is accompanied by historical photographs, illustrations that match the artwork from the associated DVD, interesting facts about the Netherlands, a timeline and a glossary of terms.
My daughter and I watched the DVD together. In spots, I had some difficulty understanding what the characters were saying, but overall the sound quality is good. Some of the images–though animated–might be disturbing for the youngest viewers; like the scene of the Nazis banging on doors with the butts of their guns and yanking people out onto the streets. Betsie is beaten with a club by a German guard in the camp and an ill-mannered nurse informs Corrie when she comes to see her sister that she is “in there with the other dead bodies.” Female prisoners are seen being carted off in trucks to the gas chambers; but while Corrie looks upon the gas chambers, it is not made apparent to young viewers what is going on there. So there is definitely historical accuracy worked into this production.
This is a moving story that will remind readers/viewers of the power of forgiveness and how leaning on faith can bring you through adversity. I am glad to add this book and DVD to our home library. It would also make a fabulous addition to a church library.
Format: Multiple Formats, Animated, Color, NTSC
Region: All Regions
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
Studio: Vision Video
DVD Release Date: October 25, 2013
Run Time: 34 minutes
I received a copy of this book and DVD from the Christian History Institute. This review contains my honest opinions, which I have not been compensated for in any way.
Recommended for ages 8-12 This slim historical novel in verse packs an wallop of an emotional punch. It tells the story of Mina Tagawa, a young Japanese-American girl from Seattle who along with her family is imprisoned in an internment camp in Idaho, where they live for three years. The author sensitively portrays this shameful period in our history, and the way in which different members of Mina's family react: her stoic grandfather; her angry father, a newspaper reporter who is arrested soon after Pearl Harbor; her frustrated teenaged brother, who joins the highly decorated Japanese regiment that fought in Europe. We also see the reaction of Mina's white best friend and her family, who try to remain loyal to their Japanese American friends and neighbors during this difficult time. In a particularly moving passage, Mina's brother Nick writes of his experience liberating Dachau, drawing comparisons to the camp he lived in Idaho surrounded by barbed wire and guard towers like the ones he saw in Germany. In an afterword, the author explains that she was inspired to write Dust of Eden by her childhood doctor, a second-generation Japanese American who was interned along with his family during World War II. The afterword gives a short background on the chronology of the internment. Add a Comment
50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission Into the Heart of Nazi Germany. Steven Pressman. 2014. HarperCollins. 320 pages. [Source: Library]
50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission Into the Heart of Nazi Germany is a must-read. It is incredibly compelling and, in my opinion, unforgettable. It tells the true story of an American Jewish couple, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, and how they diligently worked to save 50 Jewish children from Nazi Germany in 1939. Why 50? Well. They faced obstacles. You might think the biggest obstacles they faced were in Nazi Germany, working with the Nazi regime/government. And no doubt the obstacles they faced when they actually traveled there themselves to do the paperwork and bring over the children were many. But. What might surprise you is how BIG the obstacles were in the United States that they faced. The truth: the United States knew about the ever-increasing risks and dangers facing Jews, they knew that it was a matter of life-and-death, but they did not care. They simply did not care. They did not want Jewish immigrants. Plain and simple. There were laws in place, and those laws were kept strictly, limiting the number of immigrants, of Jewish immigrants. And loopholes had to be found, in a way, to get even those fifty into the United States. Want to know another sad truth? The couple faced opposition from Jewish Americans, from Jewish organizations in America! The book tells how some Jews worried that by bringing MORE Jews into the country, it would increase prejudice and hatred towards them.
The book tells the remarkable story of the men and women involved in this rescue mission. It tells of their determination and stubbornness, their perseverance, how they would not stop until it was accomplished, how they would not quit and say well, we tried, but, there's nothing more we can do. No, they could not turn away from what they knew to be right and good. It's an inspiring, courageous story.
We’re taking a two week break to rest and relax on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I brought some books with me, as is my usual practice. Only one of them ended up being for the youth market.
Corrie ten Boom and her family are watchmakers in Haarlem, Holland, where they give what little they have to spread God’s love and help others. But everything changes when World War II erupts and Hitler’s army takes over their country. As the Nazis round up Corrie’s Jewish neighbors and send them to deadly concentration camps, she knows that something must be done to stop them. But what can one small family do in the face of such great evil?
Read the amazing true story of Corrie ten Boom, a Torchlighter® hero of the faith, and discover how her obedience to God saved lives and continues to inspire others today.
Paperback: 85 pages
Publisher: Christian History Institute (May 1, 2014)
My hope is to blog a few times while we’re away, so don’t go far.
Today, 17 May, is Armed Forces Day in the United States, celebrating the service of military members to their country. To mark the occasion, we present a brief excerpt from Lawrence Freedman’s Strategy: A History.
While Churchill’s approach to purely military affairs could be impetuous, he had a natural grasp of coalition warfare. Coalitions were always going to be central to British strategy. The empire contributed significantly to the war effort in terms of men and materiel, and its special needs had to be accommodated. The United States had the unequivocal potential to tip the scales when a European confrontation reached a delicate stage. Almost immediately after taking office, Churchill saw that the only way to a satisfactory conclusion of the war was “to drag the United States in,” and this was thereafter at the center of his strategy. His predecessor Neville Chamberlain had not attempted to develop any rapport with President Franklin Roosevelt. Churchill began at once what turned into a regular and intense correspondence with Roosevelt, although so long as Britain’s position looked so parlous and American opinion remained so anti-war, little could be expected from Washington. His first letter was if anything desperate, warning of the consequences for American security of a British defeat. If Britain could hang on, something might turn American opinion. Churchill was even prepared to believe that this might happen if the country was invaded.
At the time, Hitler’s choices appeared more palatable and easier. German victories had confirmed his reputation as a military genius with unquestioned authority. Yet he recognized the difficulty of following the defeat of France with an invasion of Britain. A cross-channel invasion would be complicated and risky. There were also other options for getting Britain out of the war. The first was to push it out of the Mediterranean, further affecting its prestige and influence and interfering with its source of oil. Whether or not this would have had the desire effects, Hitler was wary of his regional partners – Mussolini’s Italy, Franco’s Spain, and Vichy France. They all disagreed with each other, and none could be considered reliable. Mussolini, for example, used German victories to move a reluctant country into war. He then demonstrated his independence from Hitler by launching a foolhardy invasion of Greece. This left him weakened and Hitler furious. Germany had to rescue the Italian position in Greece and then North Africa, leading to a major diversion of attention and resources from Hitler’s main project, the invasion of the Soviet Union.
US soldiers take cover under fire somewhere in Germany. US National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
He considered a war with the Soviet Union to be not only inevitable but also the culmination of his ambitions, allowing him to establish German dominion over continental Europe and deal once and for all with the twin—and, in his eyes, closely related – threats of the Jews and Communism. If he was going to go to war with Russia anyway, it was best to do so while the country was still weak following Josef Stalin’s mass purges of the army and communist party in the 1930’s. A quick defeat of Russia would achieve Hitler’s essential objective and leave Britain truly isolated. But Hitler also had a view about how the war was likely to develop. Britain, he assumed, only resisted out of a hope that the Russians would join the war. Of course, without a quick win, Hitler faced the dreaded prospect of a war on two fronts –something good strategists were supposed to avoid—as well as increasing strain on national resources. He needed to conquer the Soviet Union to sustain the war and to gain access to food supplies and oil. With the Soviet Union defeated, he reasoned, Britain would realize that the game was up and seek terms. If Hitler had accepted that the Soviet Union could not be defeated, his only course would have been to seek a limited peace with Britain that would have matched neither the scale of his prior military achievements nor his pending political ambition.
Another reason for acting quickly was that the Americans were likely to come into the war eventually, but not—he assumed—until 1942 at the earliest. Getting Russia out of the way quickly would limit the possibility of a grand coalition building up against him. In this Stalin helped. The Soviet leader refused to listen to all those who tried to warn him about Hitler’s plans. He assumed that the German leader would stick to the script that Stalin had worked out for him, providing clues of the imminence of attack. Churchill’s warnings were dismissed as self-serving propaganda, intended to provoke war between the two European giants to help relieve the pressure on Britain. Unlike Tsar Alexander in 1912, Stalin compounded the problem by having his armies deployed on the border, making it easier for the German army to plot a course that would cut them off before they could properly engage. The result was a military disaster from which the Soviet Union barely escaped. Yet a combination of the famous and fierce Russian winter and some critical German misjudgments about when and where to advance let Stalin recover from the blow. Once defeat was avoided, industrial strength slowly but surely revived, and the vast size of the Russian territory was too much for the invaders. The virtuoso performances of German commanders could put off defeat, but they could not overcome the formidable limits imposed by a flawed grand strategy.
Germany’s first blow against the Soviet Union depended on surprise (as did Japan’s against the United States), but it was not a knockout. The initial advantage did not guarantee a long-term victory. The stunning German victories of the spring 1940 and the bombing of British cities that began in the autumn approximated the possibilities imagined by Fuller, Liddell Hart, and the airpower theorists, but they were not decisive. They moved the war from one stage to another, and the next stage was more vicious and protracted. The tank battles became large scale and attritional, culminating in the 1943 Battle of Kursk. Populations did not crumble under air attacks but endured terrific devastation, culminating in the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—the war’s shocking finale. Our discussion of American military thought in the 1970s and 1980s will demonstrate the United States’ high regard for the German operational art and recall that this was not good enough to win the war.
Approaching Omaha Beach, Normandy Invasion. Photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection, US National Archives. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
When it came to victory, what mattered most was how coalitions were formed, came together, and were disrupted. This gave meaning to battles. The Axis was weak because Italy’s military performance was lackluster, Spain stayed neutral, and Japan fought is own war and tried to avoid conflict with the Soviet Union. Britain’s moment of greatest peril came when France was lost as an ally, but started to be eased when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Churchill’s hopes rested on the United States, sympathetic to the British cause but not in a belligerent mood.
It was eighteen months before America was in the war. As soon as America entered the fray, Churchill rejoiced. “So we had won after all!…How long the war would last or in what fashion it would end, no man could tell, nor did I at this moment care … We should not be wiped out. Our history would not come to an end.”
Lawrence Freedman has been Professor of War Studies at King’s College London since 1982, and Vice-Principal since 2003. Elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995 and awarded the CBE in 1996, he was appointed Official Historian of the Falklands Campaign in 1997. He was awarded the KCMG in 2003. In June 2009 he was appointed to serve as a member of the official inquiry into Britain and the 2003 Iraq War. Professor Freedman has written extensively on nuclear strategy and the cold war, as well as commentating regularly on contemporary security issues. He is the author of Strategy: A History. His book, A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, won the 2009 Lionel Gelber Prize and Duke of Westminster Medal for Military Literature. Follow Lawrence Freedman on Twitter @LawDavF.
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The Children of the King. Sonya Hartnett. 2014. Candlewick. 272 pages. [Source: Review copy]
The Children of the King is set during World War II. And it's set in ENGLAND during World War II. There is every reason in the world, why I should love and adore this one.
Cecily and Jeremy and their mom evacuate to the country; since London is fast becoming much too dangerous, they've evacuated to the family's country estate, Heron Hall. They will live with Uncle Peregrine. On their journey, they see hundreds of other children also evacuating. Unlike Jeremy and Cecily, these kids are going to live with strangers. Cecily resents that they're on the same train. "While she pitied the evacuees, part of her wished they had been on a different train so she wouldn't have had to see them and be weighed down by their plight. She had troubles of her own." (17) But oddly enough--unless you've cheated and read the jacket--Cecily decides by the end of the journey that she just HAS to have ONE of these children. She WANTS to choose herself. She examines the children carefully and slowly. She settles on the one that--by appearances at least--will suit her best. She chooses a girl named May.
May, Cecily, and Jeremy. Three kids that, for the most part, are so different from one another. Sometimes their worlds touch: they interact well with each other and seem to enjoy one another's company. And other times, it's selfishness times three.
Jeremy is fourteen. He is ANGRY and scared and perhaps ashamed that he's scared? He feels he has something to prove. He does NOT want to be in the country. He does not want to be stuck with Cecily and May. They may need the safety and comfort of the country. But not him. He's a man, well, almost. Surely, Jeremy is brave enough and strong enough and stubborn enough to think and act independently.
Cecily. Is she simple or complex? I just can't make up mind. On the one hand, she's selfish and bossy and inconsiderate. On the other hand, what she says may not reflect how she feels. She may be hiding how the war is effecting her. Her fears and doubts might be to blame. I did not really like her very much.
May won't be bossed around for long. Cecily may have picked her out like a pet; Cecily may think she's the boss, but, May is more than capable of standing up for herself and doing exactly what she wants. When Cecily and May accept one another as somewhat equals, there is some peace. But instant friends they are not. Still Cecily and May spend over half the novel in each other's company. It is Cecily and May who spend all their time investigating "Snow Castle;" Cecily and May who discover the two strange boys living in the castle ruins. Cecily and May who keep a secret from all the grown-ups.
I will be honest. I didn't exactly "like" any of the children. I did enjoy, however, Uncle Peregrine! He seems to be just what these three children need. He seems to be the only adult there who understands the children deeply. Peregrine is a storyteller. He tells these three children a story. This story takes weeks to tell. He tells just a little at a time, always leaving them wanting more. He does have a way with words.
For better or worse, the story Peregrine tells is of Richard III and the princes in the tower. He does not call the man in the story, Richard III, he calls him Duke. But to adult readers especially, it is clear how his "story" fits into history. Peregine's story, unfortunately, is ambiguous in all the wrong ways. Richard III is clearly the murderer. (Boo, hiss!) In his ambiguous telling, he offers the possibility that the boys were saved, after all, that they were taken to the country to hide for the rest of their lives. And since these two princes match up oh-so-closely with May and Cecily's strange new friends living in the ruins, readers are led to believe this is where their ghosts dwell after all.
I would have much preferred Hartnett to be ambiguous with the identity of the murderer, to at least consider that others had equally strong motives. If Richard himself had hid the children away in the country, it would have been a more enjoyable ghost story.
I typically like World War II stories. I don't usually like ghost stories. Does the fact that the ghosts are the princes of the tower make me change my mind? I'm still thinking on it.
I do appreciate the juxtaposition of these two stories. How Hartnett trusts readers to reach conclusions and find common themes: how children rarely, if ever, have power or a voice; how sometimes children are caught in situations out of their control, are caught in chaos and uncertainty. That war is war, and war can be cruel and ugly.
So in many ways, I can like this one, at least from a distance, but did I love it? I'm not sure I can stretch it that far.
By My Side. Sue Reid. 2014. Scholastic. 176 pages. [Source: Review copy]
I definitely enjoyed reading Sue Reid's novel By My Side. This novel is told entirely through diary entries; it is set in the Netherlands during World War II during Nazi Occupation. The heroine of By My Side, Katrien, falls in love with a Jewish boy, Jan. Katrien, unlike some of her friends, is not boy crazy. She wasn't looking for a boyfriend; she wasn't planning on falling in love. But there was something different about Jan, setting him apart from other boys she knew. He was slightly older, true, but that wasn't really it. One thing she does learn early on, however, is the fact that he's Jewish. That is why he stopped attending school. That is why he's sometimes a bit hesitant to do the things she wants. At the very, very beginning, she does seem a bit oblivious and insensitive. Her intentions were always good, mind you, but she didn't stop to think about how his being Jewish could effect WHAT they do together: going to the park, going to the movies, etc. She'd never had reason really to stop and think about how many restrictions are placed on the Jews and the seriousness of the situation. Of course, after seeing him a few weeks, she's grown up quite a bit. That doesn't mean Katrien is mature and wise, mind you. She decides to keep Jan a complete secret from her parents; he wants her to be honest, he wants to come to her house as her boyfriend. She is reluctant.
I definitely enjoyed this romance. It was a quick read. By the end, it had gotten quite intense as well.
If you were a fifty-year-old intellectual, a well-known writer of left-wing articles and literary essays, and your country was occupied by the Nazis and its more-or-less legal government collaborated with them — and now the editor of the leading literary magazine of the time pressed you to contribute an essay to his review, would you do so? Just an essay on Voltaire for the Nouvelle Revue Française, mind you, nothing subversive. Anything at all suspect would be censored anyway.
The answer, for the overwhelming majority of French intellectuals in 1940-44, was “Write the article, of course!” And keep writing, whatever happened to France. Not about the war, of course, or the Occupation—you couldn’t do that—but novels about personal relationships, plays, literary articles and criticism, why not? André Gide kept on publishing his Journal; Sartre finished Being and Nothingness, wrote No Exit and saw it produced on the Paris stage; Simone de Beauvoir published a novel and a philosophical essay; utterly non-fascist writers like Colette, Jean Anouilh, and Marcel Aymé contributed to actively pro-fascist journals. In short, judging from what they wrote at the time, most French writers seem to have lived through four years of Nazi occupation without noticing it. You would think they had never seen the swastika floating from the Eiffel Tower, nor the huge banner hanging over the front of the Chamber of Deputies which housed the French parliament before the war: DEUTSCHLAND SIEGT AN ALLEN FRONTEN (“Germany is winning on all fronts”), nor the booted German soldiers who paraded down the Champs-Ėlysées every day. And apparently never read about the execution of hostages or Résistants reported in the daily papers or on posters in the Paris Metro, and never heard about friends and acquaintances arrested and deported “to the East.”
Paris, deutsche Parole am Bourbon-Palast. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2004-0216-500 / CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons
Jean Guéhenno, whose portrait I have sketched in the first paragraph, was a notable exception. His answer to Drieu La Rochelle, a literary acquaintance of his and the ardently fascistic writer who edited the Nouvelle Revue Française from 1940 to 1943, was silence — and inner rage, which he noted in his diary: “We have no means of telling these gentlemen what we think of their activity. At least they might leave us in peace.” (24 January 1941)
He had resolved to remain silent, not to write a word for a publishing industry under Nazi control, not to “play our jailors’ game,” as he later put it, “to appear as if we were still living and enjoying ourselves as we used to, in the time when we were free.” He remained silent, but he wrote. He kept his diary, where he noted details of ordinary Paris life under occupation (some extraordinary ones, such as the first round-up of Jews in Paris), his thoughts on French literature (especially the great texts he was teaching), and above all his anger at the stupidity, cowardice, and vanity of those of his fellow countrymen who played along with the Nazis, the politicians (Pétain, Laval and company) and “the species of men of letters, [which is] not one of the greatest species in the human race. The man of letters is unable to live out of public view for any length of time; he would sell his soul to see his name ‘appear.’” (30 November 1940) Guéhenno also worked away at his two-volume biography of Rousseau, “the exemplary life of a man who does not surrender,” he notes (17 July 1940) — the very image of Jean Guéhenno himself. He would publish his diary and the Rousseau biography when the war was over and France was free.
Paris, Parade deutscher Soldaten . Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-751-0067-34 / Kropf / CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons
Guéhenno was too well known as an anti-fascist intellectual ever to join one of the Resistance networks which soon sprang up in occupied France. It would have meant his arrest and that of his comrades. He was under surveillance, and he knew it. He taught in some of the elite schools of France, but just being who he was and teaching French literature as he always had was enough to get him “demoted” by the Ministry of Education of the Vichy government. In the last year of the Occupation, he did meet with other writers (his friend François Mauriac, for example) and discuss what they could do, as writers, to keep the spirit of freedom alive in France. They distributed underground literature in Paris. In 1944, Ėditions de Minuit, the remarkable underground publishing house which managed to print so much free-spirited French prose and poetry clandestinely during the last three years of Nazi occupation, put out part of Guéhenno’s diary under the title “In the Prison.” He signed it “Cévennes,” the name of the mountain range in central France where Protestants had hid to resist persecution four centuries earlier. (It also echoed “Vercors,” the name of the mountains where the Resistance had concentrated thousands of armed men, and the pseudonym of Jean Bruller, who founded the house; his novella “The Silence of the Sea” was the first work it published.)
It was a pleasure to live with this honorable, stubborn, cultivated and passionate man for a few years, translating, annotating and presenting his Diary of the Dark Years: 1940-1944 so that today’s English-speaking readers could understand this unique piece of testimony to the inner and outer life of a French intellectual under Nazi Occupation.
On 6 June 2014 at Normandy, President Barack Obama spoke movingly of the day that “blood soaked the water, bombs broke the sky,” and “entire companies’ worth of men fell in minutes.” The 70th anniversary of D-Day was a moment to remember the heroes and commemorate the fallen. The nation’s claim “written in the blood on these beaches” was to liberty, equality, freedom, and human dignity. Honoring both the veterans of D-Day and a new generation of soldiers, Obama emphasized: “people cannot live in freedom unless free people are prepared to die for it.”
Death is seen as the price of liberty in war. But war deaths are more than a trade-off or a price, shaping soldiers, communities, and the state itself. Drew Gilpin Faust wrote that during the Civil War the “work of death” was the nation’s “most fundamental and enduring undertaking.” Proximity to the dead, dying and injured transformed the United States, creating “a veritable ‘republic of suffering’ in the words [of] Frederick Law Olmsted.”
President Lincoln stood on American soil when he remembered the losses at Gettysburg. Does it matter that the site of carnage in World War II commemorated by President Obama was a transcontinental flight away? Americans were deeply affected by that war’s losses, even though the “work of death” would not so deeply permeate the national experience simply because the dying happened far away.
President Barack Obama marks the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion with veterans Clyde Combs and Ben Franklin as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Prince Charles on 6 June 2009. Official White House photo by Pete Souza via The White House Flickr.
Since World War II, war’s carnage has become more distant. The Korean War did not generate a republic of suffering in the United States. Instead, as Susan Brewer has shown, Americans had to be persuaded that Korea should matter to them. During the war in Vietnam, division and conflict were central to American culture and politics. A shared experience of death and dying was not.
If war and suffering played a role in constituting American identity during the Civil War, it has moved to the margins of American life in the 21st century. War losses are a defining experience for the families and communities of those deployed. Much effort is placed on minimizing even that direct experience with war deaths through the use of high-tech warfare, like drones piloted far from the battlefield.
Over time, the United States has exported its suffering, enabling the nation to kill with less risk of American casualties. Whatever the benefits of these developments, it is worth reflecting upon the opposite of Faust’s conception of Civil War culture: how American identity is constituted through isolation from the work of war death, through an export of suffering. With a protected “homeland” and exported violence, perhaps what was once a republic has become instead, in war, an empire of suffering.
Mary L. Dudziak is Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law, Emory Law School. Her books include Exporting American Dreams: Thurgood Marshall’s African Journey and Cold War Civil Rights. Her most recent book is War Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences. She will be on the panel “Scholars as Teachers: Authors Discuss Using Their Books in the Classroom” at the SHAFR 2014 Annual Meeting on Saturday, 21 June 2014. Follow her on Twitter @marydudziak.
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Issues concerning Imperial Japan’s wartime “comfort women” have ignited international debates in the past two decades, and a number of personal accounts of “comfort women” have been published in English since the 1990s. Until recently, however, there has been a notable lack of information about the women drafted from Mainland China. Chinese Comfort Women is the first book in English to record the first-hand experiences of twelve Chinese women who were forced into sexual slavery by Japanese Imperial forces during the Asia-Pacific War (1931-1945). Here, author and translator Peipei Qiu (who wrote the book in collaboration with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei), answers some questions about her new book.
What is one of the most surprising facts about “comfort women” that you found during your research?
One of the shocking facts revealed in this book is that the scope of military sexual slavery in the war was much larger than previously known. Korean and Japanese researchers, based on the information available to them, had estimated that the Japanese military had detained between 30,000 and 200,000 women to be sex slaves during the war. These early estimations, however, don’t accurately reflect the large number of Chinese women enslaved. Investigations conducted by Chinese researchers suggest a much higher number. My collaborating researcher Su Zhiliang, for example, estimates that between 1931 and 1945 approximately 400,000 women were forced to become military “comfort women,” and that at least half of them were drafted from Mainland China.
Although it is not possible to obtain accurate statistics on the total number of kidnappings, documented cases suggest shockingly large numbers. For instance, around the time of the Nanjing Massacre, the Japanese army abducted tens of thousands of women from Nanjing and the surrounding areas, including over 2,000 women from Suzhou, 3,000 from Wuxi, and 20,000 from Hangzhou. These blatant kidnappings continued throughout the entire war, the youngest abductee’s being only nine years old.
Chinese and Malayan girls forcibly taken from Penang by the Japanese to work as ‘comfort girls’ for the troops. The Allied Reoccupation of the Andaman Islands, 1945. Lemon A E (Sergeant), No 9 Army Film & Photographic Unit. War Office, Central Office of Information and American Second World War Official Collection. IWM Non Commercial Licence. Imperial War Museums.
What impressed you most deeply when you heard the stories of these women?
What struck me most deeply were the “comfort women’s” horrendous sufferings. I felt strongly that their stories must be told to the world. Many of the women were teenagers when the Japanese Imperial Forces kidnapped them. They were given the minimum amount of food necessary to keep them alive and were subjected to multiple rapes each day. Those who resisted were beaten or killed, and those who attempted to escape would be punished with anything from torture to decapitation, and the punishment often included not only the woman but also her family members.
The brutal torture was not only physical. These women confined in the so-called “comfort stations” lived in constant fear and agony, not knowing how long they would have to endure and what would happen to them the following day, worrying what their families went through trying to save them, and witnessing other women being tortured and killed. During research and writing I often could not hold back tears, and their stories always remain heavily and vividly in my mind.
I was also deeply impressed by their resilience and faith in humanity. These women were brutally tortured and exploited by the Japanese imperial forces during the war, and when the war ended, members of their own patriarchal society discarded them as defiled and useless. Many of them were ignored, treated as collaborators with the enemy, or even persecuted. Yet what the survivors remember and recount is not only suffering and anger but also acts of humanity – no matter how little they themselves have witnessed. Wan Aihua, though gang-raped multiple times and nearly beaten to death by Japanese troops, never forgot an army interpreter who saved her from a Japanese officer’s sword. She told us, “I didn’t know if the interpreter was Japanese, but I believe there were kind people in the Japanese troops, just as there are today, when many Japanese people support our fight for justice.”
What motivated you to write this book?
In part, I was shocked by the lack of information available. In this day and age, it feels like every fact or story to be known is easily at our fingertips. However, in this instance, it was not the case. Even after the rise of the “comfort women” redress movement, most of the focus was on the “comfort women” of Japan and its colonies, and little was known about Chinese “comfort women” outside of China. This created a serious issue in understanding the history of the Asia-Pacific war and to the study of the entire “comfort women” issue. Without a thorough understanding of Chinese “comfort women’s” experiences, an accurate explication of the scope and nature of that system cannot be achieved.
In the past two decades, how to understand what happened to “comfort women” has become an international controversy. Some Japanese politicians and activists insist that “comfort women” were prostitutes making money at frontlines, that there was not evidence of direct involvements of Japanese military and government. And they say telling the stories of “comfort women” disgraces the Japanese people.
One of the main purposes for me to write about Chinese “comfort women” is to help achieve a transnational understanding of their sufferings. To understand what happened to the “comfort women,” we must transcend the boundaries of nation-state. I hope to demonstrate that fundamentally confronting the tragedy of “comfort women” is not about politics, nor is it about national interests; it is about human life. Dismissing individual sufferings in the name of national honor is not only wrong but also dangerous, it is a ploy that nation-states have used, and continue to use, to drag people into war, to deprive them of their basic rights, and to abuse them.
Peipei Qiu is the author and translator of Chinese Comfort Women: Testimonies from Imperial Japan’s Sex Slaves, which she wrote in collaboration with Su Zhiliang and Chen Lifei. She is currently professor of Chinese and Japanese on the Louise Boyd Dale and Alfred Lichtenstein Chair and director of the Asian Studies Program at Vassar College.
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I absolutely loved Mitchell Zuckoff's Frozen in Time. Nonfiction can be compelling and fascinating and oh-so-intense. True, most people when looking for an engaging, emotional read might tend to think of fiction, but, nonfiction can prove just as addictive, just as satisfying. Such was the case with Frozen In Time. I found this nonfiction book IMPOSSIBLE to put down!
In the first chapter, readers learn how 'obscure' Greenland became suddenly important to the world:
All of that changed on April 9, 1940, when Nazi Germany invaded Denmark. American leaders suddenly looked with fear upon the big island so close to North America. They shuddered at the thought of Hitler building air bases and ports in Greenland, from which they imagined he might strike at Allied planes and ships in the North Atlantic. Even more frightening, Greenland was then six hours by air from New York, well within the range of German bombers. Worst of all was a doomsday scenario under which the island would be used as a Nazi staging area and springboard for a blitzkrieg, or 'lightning war,' with a ground invasion of the United States and Canada. More immediately, American officials worried that Germany would establish elaborate weather stations in Greenland. The weather in Europe is "made" in Greenland; winds and currents that flow eastward over the island give birth to storms heading toward Great Britain, Norway, and beyond. Whoever knows today's weather in Greenland knows tomorrow's weather in Europe. Allied planners feared that German weather stations in Greenland could guide Luftwaffe bombing runs over Great Britain and the Continent. The battle to control Greenland wasn't a war for territory, one American official said--it was 'a war for weather.' Concern about Greenland also reflected the fact that some wars are lost not in the field but in the factory. If the Nazis ruled Greenland, Germany would gain control of a rare and unique resource that could help determine the outcome of the war. A mine at Greenland's southwestern coast, in a place called Ivigtut, was the world's only reliable natural source of a milky white mineral called cryolite. Cryolite, a name derived from Greek words meaning "frost stone," was essential to the production of aluminum, and aluminum was essential to the production of warplanes...At less than a mile from the water, the Ivigtut mine was vulnerable to sabotage or attack...(19-20)
That one chapter gives the reader some context for appreciating the whole. The book itself focuses on several plane crashes on Greenland in November 1942. The first plane crash was a C-53 Skytrooper. There were survivors. Radio contact was made. Other planes were sent to search for this missing plane. Unfortunately, one of the planes that went to search for the C-53 also crashed. This second plane crash was a B-17. All nine aboard survived--initially. But their continued survival was always a big question mark. After they finally make radio contact, and after several failed attempts at rescue by other means, another plane is sent to search for the B-17. The good news? They find the B-17! They are able to take two men aboard their plane and take them to safety. They plan to return the next day to rescue more of the men. The bad news? When they return the next day, it's a whole other story. They were not able to rescue more men. On their return flight, this rescue plane crashes. There are no survivors.
The whole book is about survivors and saviors and would-be saviors: lives lost and saved. Just telling the story simply makes for a harsh, intense read. The intensity of the cold and hunger and the physical pain make it so. Not to mention the emotional and psychological effects of being stranded in a very very harsh environment in the middle of winter! These men weren't arctic explorers out for glory and fame, these were soldiers and pilots who were unprepared for this kind of danger.
Half the book focuses on the past, set during the winter of 1942-1943. The other half focuses on the present, a team of men and women searching for the "Grumman Duck" the rescue plane that crashed around Thanksgiving 1942. Their hope was to find it and recover the bodies of the three aboard. Two of the men were from the Coast Guard.
While I found this one to be essentially fascinating from cover to cover, I won't lie and say that the past and present narratives were equally captivating at all times. Part of the present story was chronicling the raising awareness and raising funds, searching for big sponsors, pleading their case to anyone who would listen.
This was a wonderful read! It is not as bleak as you might expect. I would definitely recommend it!!!