Rose Justice is a pilot, a poet, a POW. Most importantly, though, she has a promise to keep — “to tell the world” about the Nazi atrocities at the infamous World War II concentration camp Ravensbruck.
Elizabeth Wein’s Rose Under Fire (Disney/Hyperion, digital galley) is a companion volume to the award-winning Code Name Verity, and while a couple of characters overlap, it tells a very different story of friendship and bravery juxtaposed with the horrors of war. Most of it is told in retrospect by Rose, a young American volunteer transport pilot, and the beginning reads like a gallant girl’s adventure story with Rose training in England and being romanced by a soldier. But the tone changes drastically after Rose is forced down over enemy territory while flying transport and is captured by the Germans. Sent to Ravensbruck as a “skilled worker,” she suffers deprivations and humiliations, but nothing like what happens when she refuses to make fuses for flying bombs. Viciously beaten, she is thrown in with the political prisoners and sheltered by “the Polish rabbits,” the secretly defiant women and girls subjected to torturous medical experiments.
Readers know that Rose survived; interspersed sections find her writing furiously from a Paris hotel room, feeling like “a flea in a jewel box.” Eventually, she is brave enough to recount the desperate details of life — and death — at the camp, plus her daring escape. A final section finds Rose several years later reporting on the Nuremburg trials. The whole is harrowing and heartbreaking, with indelible scenes: two Nazi guards fighting over the wrapper of a chocolate bar, the prisoners standing up for hours in the rain and cold, Ravensbruck as seen from the air, its lights shining from impenetrable darkness.
Everything is grey in Hamburg in 1946 — the devastated city, the dusty air, the defeated faces of the surviving population, mostly women and orphaned, feral children poking through the endless piles of rubble. This then is the bleak backdrop for Rhidian Brook’s intriguing novel The Aftermath (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), inspired by a family story. British Col. Lewis Morgan is charged with rebuilding the city even as he is reconstructing his own life in peacetime. His wife Rachael is unhappy to discover that Morgan has offered to share their requisitioned house with its owners, architect Stefan Lubert and his rebellious teenage daughter Freya, and she initially avoids the “enemy” in the upstairs apartment. But both families have suffered grievous losses in the war that provide a common ground of sorts, although Freya scorns the Morgans and takes up with a young German activist whose terrorist plotting could destroy the uneasy peace.
Col. Morgan’s efforts to reconcile the British occupation with the local citizenry is thwarted not only by pockets of resistance but also by the despicable actions of some of his own troops, who are hoarding the spoils of war. Brook invests his atmospheric story with themes of honor and forgiveness, love among the ruins, aptly painting all in shades of grey.
In Anita Shreves’ involving Stella Bain (Little, Brown, digital galley), battles are fought both in the trenches of World War I France and in fine New England houses thousands of miles away. The combatants in both are wounded in mind and spirit. In a field hospital in 1916 Marne, a woman wakes up with only fragments of memory. Her accent identifies her as an American, she thinks her name is Stella Bain and that she knows how to drive an ambulance. But she believes the clues to her past lie in London, and it is there that a doctor’s wife finds her shivering in a park. Cranial surgeon August Bridge knows shell shock when he sees it, and he and wife Lily take Stella into their home. Some preliminary sessions of psychoanalysis help Stella recover more memories, some of which she depicts in her accomplished artwork. Then someone recognizes Stella — and she is not Stella.
The rest of the book follows the woman previously known as Stella Bain to the States to claim her complicated past, including the children she left behind with her professor husband. Shreve adroitly weaves information about shell shock — just being discovered in women — into the fabric of her hopeful tale of war and remembrance.
Many coincidences and a single painting link two love stories — one in World I France, one in London 90 years later — in JoJo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind (Pamela Dorman/Viking, digital galley). In 1916, the Germans occupy a small village in northern France, home to 22-year-old Sophie LeFevre. Her husband Edouard is an artist being held in a “reprisal” camp, and Sophie makes dangerous sacrifices and compromises trying to keep her family alive and to reunite with Edouard.
In 2006 London, widowed 32-year-old Liv Halston’s most prized possession is the portrait “The Girl You Left Behind,” a gift from her late husband. But then the Lefevre family brings a restitution suit against Liv, claiming that the portrait of Sophie painted by Edouard rightfully belongs to them. To further complicate matters. Liv discovers that the new man in her life, Paul, is heading up the LeFevre’s case. The circumstances of the plot may come off as contrived, and the legal battle trifling compared to Sophie’s ordeal, but the actions and emotions of both heroines ring true to time and place.
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