World War II and Its Aftermath
Holly Johnson and Marilyn Carpenter
The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
This month we are drawn to a number of books that have been published recently that address World War II and its aftermath. The War that Saved My Life, however, gives readers not only WWII to ponder, but the resilience of a young girl who has been in conflict with her mother for her entire life. Ten-year-old Ada is capable, a caretaker, and a survivor long before the onset of WWII. Living in a squalid apartment with her mother and her younger brother, Ada suffers under her mother’s abuse and shame. Ada has a clubfoot, but poverty and ignorance kept her mother from attending to Ada’s condition as a baby, and thus, Ada never learned to walk on two feet nor has she left the apartment in which she lives. For Ada, the removal of children from London prior to the Luftwaffe bombings of England not only saves her life, but gives her the life she never thought possible.
This story is a wonder, Marilyn! I love it. Ada’s strength in the face of her mother’s cruelty and shame and her ability to persevere in order to walk far enough to get on the bus to join the other children who are being transported to the country is inspiring. But, wow! Is Ada a tough nut to crack! So uncertain, so used to abuse that she sees only cruelty and rejection, it took some work to get through to her. And then there is Susan Smith, who is “encouraged” to take Ada and her brother Jamie when she still grieves the loss of her companion. Another tough nut to crack, but this is a marvelous story of how the event of WWII brought these two people together and who, in essence, saved each other’s lives. What a great read aloud! What do you think of this book, Marilyn?
The War that Saved My Life is one of those books that makes indelible footprints on our hearts. I agree it has all the elements needed for a great read aloud. The story of Ada and her brother is a page-turner. It was hard for me to put down. I imagine that as a read aloud in a fifth grade classroom the children will be glued to the story from the first page. World War II and its impact on England are the backdrop for the story and Bradley does a good job of filling in the important facts about the War. However, the strength of the story is theme of the healing power of love that occurs between the characters.
Ada and her brother are evacuated from London to the countryside and there they are assigned to Susan Smith who would rather not have to cope with them. As you write Holly, one of Ada’s strongest characteristics is her courage to persevere. Overcoming pain and many setbacks, Ada teaches herself how to ride the pony. It is the first time she loves someone besides her brother. The relationship with the pony opens her heart to love and slowly she recognizes that the people in her new world also offer love. Susan Smith also is a courageous character in the story. She also slowly opens her heart to loving the children, even though from the first she takes better care of the children than their mother every did. As the story progresses the reader is stimulated to think about what makes a family. The dramatic and powerful ending of the story will inspire discussion of what makes a family.
Good Night Mr. Tom by Michelle Magorian is a book with many connections to The War that Saved My Life. It also features a story of an abused child, Willie, who is evacuated to the English countryside. There Willie like Ada, discovers a new world of kindness and love. It would be an enriching experience for students to read or listen to both books. The resilience that the characters in both books demonstrate is an inspiration.
In the last few months, I have been thinking about acts of kindness and courage. The War that Saved My Life and Good Night, Mr. Tom give us stories of wartime when typical citizens are under extreme stress and uncertainty about their lives, their ability to survive, and what the future will bring. The books remind me about Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit in which the two main characters must rely upon their own wits to survive, but are frequently helped by the kindness of others. Does it always take an extreme crisis for people to remember that we are all part of the human family?
Of course, the books about WWII show us how regimes do not function in relation to kindness, but rather control. Furthermore, I cannot help but note current situations around the world and how kindness seems to be missing from our rhetoric about each other, even on the individual level. I realize that we seldom learn from history, which is shocking, but apparently part of the human condition. Perhaps I am jaded, but there are many wonderful books out on WWII for adolescents right now, and while they show how individuals defy oppressive regimes, I have to wonder how those regimes might have prevented from gaining power if we, as individuals, thought more kindly of each other.
War and kindness, funny how they seem to go together when we look closely, individually, but are the antithesis of each other on the larger scale. Yet, even as I say this, I also remember acts of cruelty between individuals that create the larger scale. All of these books are wonderful for talking about these issues with young people. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so jaded.
Holly, you are making me remember that the stories of survival during wars that stick out in my mind always show that those that survive do so because someone helps them along the way, as you pointed out in Anna and the Swallow Man. Bradley shows us a person can survive a terrible beginning in life and yet thrive even in wartime because of acts of kindness and love. Love can make such a difference but it requires that the persons offering that love care more for another than themselves. The example of Susan, who puts aside her own well-being at the end of the story, comes to mind. Even though the story is about difficult subjects in a terrible historical period it is hopeful. It is a story that invites discussion and contemplation. After finishing the book, I reread inspiring parts to savor them again. Now I wonder if we will discover such hope and inspiration in the other books we are going to discuss.
Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
This book overwhelms me in several ways. First, the story is searing. The pain and ordeals that the characters go through are horrifying. At the end I was in tears because Septeys is so skillful in bringing the reader into the terrible events of the story. She weaves together the separate stories of the four characters seamlessly. As each character tells his or her story, the novel unfolds with different perspectives that meld the plot together. Three of the characters are refugees, each from a different country fleeing the Soviet advance towards Germany. The refugees are trying to escape the Russian army by reaching a port on the Baltic Sea where they hope to get a ship that will take them to safety.
Second, I thought I was knowledgeable about World War II, having read many, many books on the topic. However, I had never heard of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Clearly I missed that part of the history of the War. As Sepetys writes in her Author’s Note, it “… is the deadliest disaster in maritime history, with losses dwarfing the death tolls of the famous ships, Titanic and Lusitania. Yet, remarkably most people have never heard of it.” It is estimated that nine thousand people were killed. I was one of those who had never heard of the fate of the ship, torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. The fact that I had come to deeply care about the characters in the novel made the sinking of the ship in which only some of those characters survived even more heart wrenching. Now that I have learned about this forgotten part of the history of World War II, I want to learn more. The Research and Sources listed at the end of the book offer me a way to do so. Septetys lists many books for me to pursue this goal.
One of the elements of the book that I found most helpful are maps in the front and back of the book. As I followed the journey of the characters I was able to find the places they went through on the map. The front map shows the countries in 1945 when the story takes place. At the end another map shows the countries as they are today. What did you love about this book, Holly?
What I love about this book is the many voices that allow readers to hear multiple perspectives on this event in history. I can only imagine what the four young narrators were going through just to get on the ship and then to have disaster strike. Wasn’t war enough? That is how this book really relates for me to The War that Saved My Life. Tragedy upon tragedy, and the resilience (that word again) of those who withstood the multiple cruelties of their lives during WWII.
This book also opens a relatively unknown part of the world to readers, and gives us a peak into the devastation of the Russian Soviet regime right after WWII. That aftermath is horrendous, but matches what occurred in Russia and surrounding areas during WWII. It is shocking. Perhaps that is also what I found remarkable: an event that was so catastrophic but relatively unknown by so many of us. Really, the single greatest tragedy in maritime history and we don’t study it in school?
This book just shows me how ethnocentric our histories are and, well, we have to expand our thinking and our understandings of the effect WWII had on the world. The world! Later, when we talk about Symphony for the City of the Dead, this book will give us an even better context of WWII and what happened in another arena of that war. The research on this book as well as Symphony makes these two books interesting complements to the novels we are reading.
This book is historical fiction at its best. However, to attract young readers to it, adults need to read it aloud or give spirited book talks about it. It is a very sad book, overwhelmingly sad. I find that middle school students often ask me if a book is sad and reject the book if I answer “yes.” I have read Sepetys’ first book, Between Shades of Gray, which focuses on the Russian invasion of Lithuania in 1939. There are several connections between that book and Symphony for the City of the Dead that we will discuss later this month.
This book is devastating and yet, so well done, so enlightening. I appreciate Sepetys’ work and cannot wait for her next fascinating piece of work. I understand wanting to stay away from sadness, yet if we do not face sad historical events, how can we learn to prevent them in the future? I agree with you about reading aloud or an inspirational book talk. We can also scaffold young people’s entry into the events of WWII by talking about how events escalate as people forget that their neighbors may seem different from them–and often value different ways of being in the world–but ultimately we are all part of the human family. The themes of embracing the human family, the sadness of historical events, and how regimes often function more cruelly than individuals seem to run through these books. But other themes that run through these books are the resilience of the human spirit, the hope for goodness, and how small acts of kindness can make huge differences in the lives of others. That might be what I would say to a young person who asked me if a book is sad.
A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen
These books make me wonder what I would do if I were in the same situations as the protagonists while also marveling at the ability of people to persevere in such horrific circumstances. A Night Divided is another amazing novel that chronicles the dividing of families with the construction of the Berlin Wall after WWII. (Short side note here: A part of me is incredulous that such a thing could happen–why would any government want to do this? I understand why, but it still incredible that a country would keep families divided.) And that is exactly what happens in A Night Divided. One day a father takes his youngest son to West Berlin for a visit and that is the day the wall is finished and boom! Done! A family divided by a wall! And this is not just any wall, but the most famous wall that resulted from WWII.
Twelve-year-old Gerta is in East Berlin with her older brother and mother when making ends meet becomes more and more difficult. In West Berlin is her father and younger brother, who don’t just allow the world to go on, but start a tunnel to rescue their family in East Berlin. Both sides must tunnel. It is the way in which Gerta and her brother Fritz must keep from getting caught that becomes the tension that keeps readers on the edge of their seats. I have to tell you, Marilyn, I was right there with Gerta and Fritz. I held my breath for most of the novel, and that is the kind of book I like to read. I was riveted. What about you?
Of the four books we discuss, A Night Divided is the least well researched. I missed the careful research that was evident in Salt to the Sea and Symphony for the City of the Dead. Nielsen does not mention the resources she used to find out about the period or escapes from the East to the West. There are many holes in the plot and coincidences that were hard to believe. For example, Greta and her brother dig a tunnel under the Wall to escape and miraculously their tunnel connects with that of their father and brother who are digging from West Berlin. The family was separated by the Wall for four years. They communicated through letters which were censored. Nielsen doesn’t show how they coordinated the tunnels and their digging times so they could meet. I remember reading accounts that were in the newspapers in the ’60s that told about escape attempts of people from East Berlin trying to get to West Berlin. To check my memory, I just read a report from an article in The New Yorker (1962) on the Internet about the Wall and escape attempts. The reports in the article made me wonder even more about the account in the book. This part of the story was a big problem for me.
However, I did think that the descriptions Gerta gives about the schools in East Germany, the Young Pioneers, the deprivations that the people suffered after the War, and the fear of the secret police will give today’s young people background on today’s united Germany. I also think that young readers will appreciate the primary source photographs in the front of the book and the map.
Finally, I agree with you Holly. I also wonder how I would fair in similar situations. Reading these books makes me see current, disturbing events in our country in a different light. We are not experiencing anything even remotely close to the events that the characters we read about experienced. That anyone survived such terrible historical events seems a miracle. It makes me wonder how I, or people in our society today, would do when confronted with such hardships.
Your comments make me think of the frog in warm water that doesn’t realize how hot the water has become until it is too late. I agree that this novel may not have the same impact as the first two we read, but I see a place for it, and it gave me insight into what was happening behind the wall in respect to young people fear of even appearing critical of their government. We have little idea of what it means to live in an oppressive regime.
I would bet, however, that prior to the events that preceded WWII, the citizens of Berlin, and perhaps all of Europe, would have not guessed at the horrific events they would eventually encounter during WWII and its aftermath. Today, we have those historical markers to remind us of how those events began and be vigilant against them happening again. Some of our current events and rhetoric make me wonder if we are checking our history and educating ourselves about what could result from such behaviors. That is the beauty of these stories. They can teach us, warn us, and hopefully remind us that we do not want to experience such travesty again. I don’t want young people to bear the burdens that Gerta and Fritz had to bear. I don’t want it for any person. I cannot figure out why freedom is so dangerous that governments would build walls to keep people in or, well, out.
This book has a hopeful ending like the others we read. And, the hopeful ending shows that the ties of love can surmount evil.
Symphony for the City of the Dead by M.T. Anderson
This book is remarkable. I learned so much about the events that led up to the siege of Leningrad as part of Hitler’s campaign to defeat Russia as well as the siege itself, and then its aftermath. The use of the Shostakovich’s symphony and his life was a wonderful entrée into this event. I am amazed that Shostakovich managed to stay alive given the circumstances not only of the siege, but the politics within Russia itself. The use of photographs and other media during the time only brought the story more to life for me.
The work it took to research the story is one thing, but the events that took place are shocking, truly shocking. It scares me how leadership can create the conditions in which people can find themselves so frightened that they dare not do anything for fear of retribution. What I admire, however, is the resilience of the people of Leningrad to move beyond fear toward humanity. Hitler was intent on genocide of so many groups of people that you would think people would not go along with it, but the Russians had an inside man. Stalin did a lot of Hitler’s work for him. That was just the prelude to the siege of Leningrad, which is chronicled in this book. Think about it, years of siege. Years! What frightens me is that the world watched for so long. Would we do so again? I think that question has already been answered by other events in current history. What about you, Marilyn? How did this book effect you?
I always admire the books authored by Anderson. This one seems to be the best of the best. It is a beautifully crafted book in all aspects–choice of paper, the use of red on each page, Table of Contents, the primary source documents and photographs, Author’s Note, source notes, bibliography, and index. The measured, scholarly approach that Anderson takes sets the standard for non-fiction writing. The book is a combination of a biography and a historical account of Russian history in the 20th Century. He provides the historical backstory occurring in Russia to Shostakovich’s life as he also unfolds how the composer’s life was affected by those events. I especially appreciate how Anderson includes in his rich narrative, poems, song lyrics and photos of art that were part of the political scene. It allows the reader to get the flavor of everything that happened in Russia during the period, not only, the political events but the cultural backdrop to those events.
Anderson’s use of voice in the narrative is also effective. For example, he describes the writing of Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony and the political risk of having it performed. Anderson writes, “It is worth pausing for a moment and asking how music speaks ideas.” Then he includes a quote from Shostakovich about meaning in music.
Anderson also makes clear the evil of the Russian rulers. “The final touch of ghastly cruelty in the midst of this bloodshed was the infantile humor of Stalin and his bandof merry psychopaths.” Throughout the book, Anderson is careful in reporting from sources that may not be accurate. He uses phrases like, “the composer supposedly said:” and then a quote. After the quote he writes, “but though the statement is very convincing, it is taken from a difficult source.” He then goes on to describe why the source is difficult. (p. 140). This careful scholarship is an excellent model for students to emulate.
The events in Russia during Shostakovich’s life are horrifying. From his youth onward, when the Tsar lost his throne, to the take-over by the Communists, then on to Stalin’s reign of terror to the tragic events of World War II. Anderson’s description of the siege of Leningrad and how Shostakovich’s fifth symphony became a turning point is riveting. I am glad I read this book and I hope that many others will too. It provides an understanding of current events in Russia today.
This book is fascinating, horrifying, inspiring, and brings all of the books we read together in an amazing textset that adolescents would love to read. Not only is it well documented, it creates an account of what life is like under madmen who somehow come to power and are often hailed as heroes prior to their oppressive and horrifying actions. These books create a conundrum for those who attempt to understand the human condition. Why do terrifying regimes come to power? What conditions create the hardness of people’s hearts that they no longer care about other people? As more and more devastating events occur within our country and around the world, I find myself thinking about the impact these events have on those whose loved ones were casualties of these terrors and folding it into my own experiences with the death of loved ones.
This book, along with the others this month, continue to remind me of how vulnerable we are as people, as members of particular ethnic or belief groups, and as citizens. I referenced the warm water and the frog as part of these readings and I cannot help wonder how quickly does the water boil? Do these events take place slowly over so much time that we don’t notice how freedoms erode or changes that can harm many of us become acceptable? Or are these challenges to peace and kindness happen overnight? We know the answers to these questions, but how often do we talk about such concepts with young people? These books can help with the important conversations that need to occur, and as I look around, they need to occur now.
I return to the concern I described about Salt to the Sea. This is an important book, yet it is overwhelmingly sad. Several times during my reading of the book, I had to put it down for a couple of days. Yet, as you write, Holly, it is an important book. So, it needs teachers, librarians and parents to advocate for it through book talks, reading aloud excerpts and writing about it. Finally, I wonder why it is marketed as a Young Adult book. It is a book that adults will also appreciate. Just before reading it I read Wild Swans by Jung Chang, an account of the 20th Century in China, especially the years of the Cultural Revolution as experienced by a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter of one family. There were many parallels in the history of Russia and China in both books. It would be interesting to discuss both books together. Although Wild Swans is marketed for adults, older high school students may also find it interesting.
To close our conversation, I am thinking of four other books about World War II that would add to this text set about World War II. Reading these titles would be an enriching for any age. They each explore the perils of war but offer the hope that exists when love and kindness are expressed. These titles are: The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig; Eyes of the Emperor by Graham Salisbury; Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers; and Upon the Head of the Goat by Aranka Siegal.