Although I’m a big fan of a heart-wrenching romance between a man on the battlelines and a woman left behind, there are some fantastic WWII novels and short-stories out there that focus on atypical settings and subject matter. Here are some of my favourites.
For Such a Time by Kate Breslin (Bethany House, 2014)
A Jewess who has the complexion (and the documentation) that allows her to hide her true identity finds herself pressed into service as a SS secretary at a transit camp in Czechoslovakia. Can she stand by and watch as her own people are sent to Auschwitz, if it means protecting her own life? Or can she play on her employer’s sympathies and appeal to him on behalf of her friends and family? This poignant retelling of the story of Esther will have you reaching for tissues and frantically turning the pages.
I’ll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes & Loretta Nyhan (Mira, 2013)
Two women for very different backgrounds are linked together through a pen-pal system, and their unlikely friendship grows as America is sucked deeper into the battles of WWII. It’s hard to write a compelling novel just through letters, but this duo pulls if off fantastically. Initially this novel felt pretty light-hearted, with Rita and Glory sharing recipes and gardening tips, but the pace picks up when family members are sent off to fight, and their families are touched by much heavier issues while they wait for their men to return. I became really attached to these two women, and was sad to see this story end.
While We’re Far Apart by Lynn Austin (Bethany House, 2010)
Detailing the experiences of the inhabitants of an apartment building, this novel is a fantastic portrayal of those left behind. A child who feels lost after her father enlists following the death of her mother; the woman caring for the child and hoping to win the heart of the widowed father; the elderly Jewish landlord who longs to hear from his son who is trapped in war-torn Hungary. Forced to bind together to get through this difficult time, these characters grow in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and come out of the war stronger than ever before.
Tell it to a Stranger by Elizabeth Berridge (originally published 1947; newest edition Persephone, 2000)
I discovered Berridge’s short stories during one of my university courses and it’s a real pity that more people haven’t heard of her. Her writing is surprisingly sparse compared to other authors of short fiction from this time, but each of her stories touched me in an entirely unexpected way. Detailing the difficulties faced by female doctors, WWI veterans, German prisoners of war, and new parents, Berridge draws the reader into the lives of her characters and makes them care about the oft forgotten issues of those left back at home in Britain during the war.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows (Bloomsbury, 2004)
Realities of life on German-occupied Guernsey are detailed through a series of letters from a London novelist and a native who formed a spur of the moment book club when his friends were caught breaking curfew on the island during its occupation. The book is about as eccentric as that description makes it sound, but it’s a book-lover’s dream, and you’ll be sad when it’s short 250 pages are over. Guernsey’s occupation is often overlooked, but this book will make it impossible to forget.
Dancing with Eva by Alan Judd (Simon & Schuster, 2007)
Alan Judd imagines what the final days in Hitler’s bunker may have looked like, through the eyes of his mistress’s secretary. Edith miraculously survives and makes a new life for herself in England, hoping to forget her experiences in the bunker. But sixty years after the war has ended, a soldier she once knew gets in contact with her, desperate to revisit their shared past. This book definitely takes some artistic licenses with his history (including the fact that Eva Braun never had a secretary), but it presents some fantastic insight into the madness of Hitler’s final days.
Waiting for Anya by Michael Morpurgo (Mammoth, 1990)
Don’t let the fact that this is a children’s novel put you off—Michael Murpurgo is a fantastic writer, and this book is no exception. Murpurgo details life in a Nazi-occupied village on the border of France and Spain through the eyes of a young boy, who stumbles upon a widow on the edge of the village who is hiding her Jewish son-in-law and his children and attempting to get them over the border to Spain. Murpurgo doesn’t brush over the horrors of wartime, while also detailing the humanity of the German soldiers occupying the village.
Fireweed by Jill Paton Walsh (Penguin, 1969)
A short but stirring children’s novel about two teenage runaways who refuse to be evacuated from London and attempt to survive the Blitz of 1940. Bill and Julie are from incredibly different backgrounds, but they bond over their shared desire to remain in London, hiding out in abandoned buildings and attempting to survive off pilfered ration books. In spite of their efforts to create a home and look after themselves, they are eventually overcome with the realities of war. Not wanting to spoil this book too much for potential readers, I will say that this book has a surprisingly sad, but reasonable ending, given the subject matter.
Disclaimer: Some of the books listed are from the mainstream market, and may contain content that some Christian readers object to. If you are easily offended by profanity, sexual references or violent descriptions, please research the titles further.