I don’t know if there are more novels these days set in World War II, or if I just happen to be coming across them more, but I recently finished three of them, each told from a very different perspective.
Liberation Road: A Novel of World War II and the Red Ball Express, by David Robbins, follows the experiences of two American non-combatants from when they come ashore at Omaha Beach. Joe Amos Biggs is an African-American who left college to enlist and who longs to be able to fight alongside the white men. Ben Kahn is a chaplain who had fought in the trenches in World War I, whose son is a B-17 pilot shot down over France and now MIA, and who is motivated by desire for revenge on the Germans. Occasionally there are also passages told from the point of view of “White Dog,” an American pilot shot down over France, who prefers the comfortable life he has found as a black marketeer in occupied Paris to rejoining his comrades in arms.
As most books I have read deal with combatants or spies, this was a fascinating look at the war from another perspective, especially that of the truck drivers. Their work was essential to the war effort, keeping troops supplied with food, ammunition, gasoline, clothing, and everything else needed to fight the Germans. As important as their role is, however, they are sometimes treated with disdain by the white troops heading into battle.
Chaplain Kahn also sometimes experiences prejudice, though of course his Ten Commandments pin that marks him as a Jewish rabbi is far less obvious than the truck drivers’ dark skin. He tries to comfort the wounded and dying, and writes letters to comfort the bereaved families, but he finds little comfort for himself in the faith he professes. When he learns (from a German officer, during an exchange of prisoners) about the death camps where Jews are dying by the tens of thousands, all that remains of his faith is the words he continues to speak to encourage others.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, also follows two characters, a French girl named Marie-Laure and a German boy named Werner. Marie-Laure lost her vision (to cataracts) at age six, but has learned to walk the streets of the city alone because her father, a locksmith who is a genius with crafting small wooden objects, has created a table-top model of the city and taught her to walk around their neighborhood using the mental map of the city she has built up from the model.
Werner is an orphan, a boy bursting with curiosity and with an incredible ability to understand, repair, and even make his own electric devices. He joins the German armed forces (first as a student, then forced into active duty as a 16-year-old by a professor angry at Werner’s desire to leave and go back home) to further his dreams of being a great scientist, escaping the mines that claimed his father’s life and are the destiny of every orphan boy (and most others) in his hometown. As he sees how devotion to Volk, Fatherland, and Fuehrer is destroying the humanity of those around him (both the perpetrators and the victims), he longs sometimes for the simpler days as a boy experimenting with radios at Orphan House.
The Polish Officer, by Alan Furst, tells the wartime experiences of – obviously – a Polish officer. Trained in cartography, he becomes a leader in the Polish resistance movement, carrying out missions first in Poland, then in France. The novel is divided into sections, as de Milja moves from one assignment to another, assuming different personalities to disguise his dangerous activities. I found it somewhat less difficult than the previous novel I read by Furst to maintain interest in the character, but the episodic nature of these sections made it feel as though it would have been easy to quit reading between sections.
All three novels give a unique window into a world that most of us know only from books and movies. There is suffering and heroism, hope and despair, opportunism and altruism, and the gritty, ordinary details of everyday life in a time of fear, shortages, and uncertainty about the future of Europe.