I have to admit, I’m not much for World War Two fiction; but when I thought harder about what I have read that features WWII, I was surprised to find that three of my favorites dovetail neatly with that terrible time in history.
They’re not on the battle front in any way, but the characters in these books are fighting hard all the same; to do the right thing, to keep the normalcy of family going during the War, and to root out some of the most dangerous traitors to their nation.
So without further ado, presented for your reading enjoyment are my picks for May.
Keep Smiling Through
Original Publication Date: 1996
Republished in 2005 by HMH Books for Young Readers (ages 8-12)
Out of Print
It’s not just the soldiers who shouldered hardship in World War II; those on the home front fought battles too. Not even the middle-class in the United States escaped unscathed.
For ten-year-old Kay Hennings, life had been a mêlée long before the war began.
1944, however, is shaping up to be the kind of year that proves the skirmishes she’d had before, are nothing to the ones advancing towards her position.
Kay’s mother died when she was very young and her father remarried a woman whose talent according to Queenie, the housekeeper/maid, is to kill any and all happiness that tries to grow in the house.
Dubbed “Amazing Grace” by Queenie, because it is amazing to everyone how furious and nasty Grace can be at all times, Kay’s stepmother is as fierce and terrible as the advancing Nazi army.
She physically beats Kay, humiliates her in public, actively seeks to embarrass her, and genuinely hates the young girl. Whether it’s making her wear dresses made out of feed bags simply to look as if she’s doing something for the war effort, sending Kay to get eggs from the butter-and-egg man woman who has a fierce dog that terrifies Kay, or punishing her by refusing to let her listen to her favorite radio programs, if there’s a way that Amazing Grace can hurt Kay, she does.
Queenie runs interference for her as best she can, and is the only one who can keep her from Amazing Grace’s violence.
At the beginning of the story, Kay’s protection is coming to an end. Queenie’s prince has finally come to whisk her away to New York City for good. Before she leaves, Queenie gives Kay one last bout of encouragement, telling her that she will grow up to be someone amazing not because she’s like her radio heroes, but because she’s Kay. She also promises that when the war is over, she will come back and visit. Or Kay can come to New York and visit her.
Queenie’s leaving soon sends shockwaves through the house and makes the family scramble to split up the chores she was taking care of during the day. Amazing Grace is too delicate to do much.
Kay responds by retreating into the afternoon radio dramas, looking to The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and Hop Harrigan, to show her how to be a hero. When she has a chance to do something truly brave and sacrificial like her radio idols, things go from horrible to unlivable.
It takes the words of a German-American woman to help Kay to “keep smiling through’’ and to know that just because she did the right thing, doesn’t mean Kay will get a happy ending.
Kay’s family stays as it is, and Amazing Grace doubles her hate for her, but Kay no longer cares. She learned that doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do, not because you’re praised, is what gives everyone the strength to “Keep Smiling Through.”
N or M?
Original Publication Date: 1941
Republished in 2012 by Harper Collins
Available from Barnes and Noble & Amazon
This Agatha Christie mystery focuses on the only detectives among her characters to marry one another, Tommy, and Tuppence Berenceford.
If you’re interested, their story starts back in the closing days of World War I with the book The Hidden Adversary written in 1922. The pair does quite a bit of sleuthing before deciding that they care deeply about one another. They show up again in Partners in Crime written in 1929; in that book Tommy and Tuppence are young newlyweds running a sham detective agency as they work on another bit of espionage for the Crown.
In this outing with the Beresfords, written in 1941, they are firmly middle-aged. Tommy is forty-six, and Tuppence slightly younger. Both are desperate to do something for the war effort, and both are being made to sit out of the action. They have twins, a boy, and a girl, and Derek is in the RAF and Deborah is doing something mysterious possibly linked to code breaking.
The story starts when Mr. Grant stops by, sent by their old handler, to offer Tommy a job filing papers and rolling out the red tape in a government agency. In reality, he has a job for Tommy to take on, a rather important one ferreting out a Fifth Columnist, sent to England to undermine the war effort and the nation’s morale. One of the Crown’s agents was mercilessly run down in the street and before he died whispered “N or M, San Souci.” This fifth columnist known by the code letters either N or M is at the hotel, but which of the guests is it? That’s what Mr. Grant wants Tommy to find out.
But he only wants Tommy working on this puzzle. Tuppence can’t know anything about it.
Torn between his heart and his duty, Tommy chooses duty and heads off to Sans Souci, a hotel in Leah Hampton to start his investigation.
When he arrives there, he is met by a curious cast of characters, any one of which might be the deadly “N or M”. There’s only one who he knows for certain cannot be the person he’s after; Mrs. Blenkinsopp.
Because Mrs. Blenkinsopp is none other than Tuppence herself.
She had overheard everything that he and Mr. Grant had discussed and decided she was not being left out of this adventure. So she came ahead to Sans Souc under a false name, beating Tommy there by several days.
Together Tommy and Tuppence, under the approval of Mr. Grant, begin to investigate their fellow lodgers, being careful not to let on to any, who they are. But which of their fellow lodgers is their enemy, the young German scientist who is a refugee? The great fat Irish Mrs. O Rourke who sits all day in the parlor and watches everything? The fiery young lady Sheila who is the daughter of the proprietor of the hotel? The elderly couple who have a pharmacy in their room? Or is it one of the other lodgers?
This book has more twists and double backs than Christie’s usual mysteries, combining the thrill of a mystery with the breathlessness of a war-time spy story. It allows readers to take a look at what life was like in Britain for the everyday folk in 1941.
Then There Were Five
Original Publication Date: 1941
Republished in 2008 by Square Fish
Available from Barnes and Noble & Amazon
Neither a fractured family, nor a book choked with secret identities and spies, Then There Were Five is the third book in the Melendy family series and a much cheerier look at life on the home front during World War II.
You don’t need to read The Saturdays or The Four Story Mistake to enjoy this one, but the whole series is delightful, and I highly recommend it.
The Melendy children consist of Mona age fifteen, Rush age fourteen, Miranda (Randy) age twelve, and Oliver age seven. Each Melendy has a passion; Mona’s is acting focused on Shakespeare, Rush is a music geek and loves to compose and play his pieces, Randy is determined to be a great ballet dancer, and Oliver loves learning things. Their mother passed away a long time ago, and their cook/housekeeper Cuffy is their substitute mom though more of an age of a grandmother. Willie, their handyman also helps keep the kids in line, as their father is at work for the government in Washington D.C. on a very secret, important project.
This book focuses on the children’s summer, and their adventures in the country, but this particular summer falls in the year 1944. The war is a subtle but constant theme throughout the book. The book begins with Rush and Randy working on a scrap metal drive, taking their horse Lorna Doone and the buggy out to see if their farmer neighbors have any metal to donate to the war effort.
The Melendys have lots of amazing adventures; they dam a stream and make a pond, befriend a young boy named Mark who has an abusive Uncle as his guardian, try their hand at canning the produce from their Victory Garden, watch shooting stars, put together a play and general faire at their house to raise money for war bonds, Mona gets a role on a radio drama and Randy finds a diamond in the last place anyone would think to look for treasure.
Throughout the book, Mark’s life is juxtaposed against the chaotic and happy life of the Melendy kids, who have their eyes opened to the fact that not all the evil is on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
When his uncle is killed in a rather gruesome way, the Melendy family has a decision to make, and their choice becomes the title of the book.
Winsome and much warmer than the other two books in this recommendation, And Then There Were Five deserves its status as a classic.