Tag Archives: World War II

“The Nightingale” by Kristin Hannah

  “I’ll be brave,” she said. “You just tell my sister that she needs to start being afraid.”

                                – Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

As much as The Nightingale is a story of the Second World War, it’s not about the conflict itself: the book has very little to do with soldiers, weapons, generals and presidents and leaders, battles lost and won. Instead, Kristin Hannah’s novel focuses on those trapped in the midst of war, and yet always on its periphery: the noncombatants, those left behind when the men went off to war, who must struggle for survival in a homeland that has become enemy territory. In particular, it is the story of two sisters, as different as night and day, and through them, an exploration of two opposing yet equally valid expressions of heroism. It is a novel of love and courage, sacrifice and survival, regret and redemption, and all of the myriad forms they can take.

In the summer of 1939, Viann Mauriac (nee Rossignol) has come through years of tragedy and heartbreak to build an almost idyllic life for herself out of the wreckage with her husband and daughter. She knows war and upheaval are coming (how can she not?), but she refuses to even think about it, instead clinging to what she has with both hands, paralyzed with fear and desperate to preserve her fragile joy. Nearly ten years her junior, her sister Isabelle has spent most of her nineteen years in boarding schools; their father was such in name only, utterly broken by his experiences in the previous war, and therefore completely unable to care for the girls after his wife died. Viann in turn was too young and too lost in her own grief to take on the maternal role that Isabelle needed, and withdrew deeper into herself even as Isabelle lashed out in a desperate plea for attention and affection. Their relationship is riddled with deep, yawning fissures, with a great deal of pain and hurt over the years on both sides: rarely inflicted intentionally, but there nonetheless. Now on the verge of adulthood, Isabelle is outspoken, headstrong, and utterly fearless; she is frantically searching for a purpose in life, to be wanted and needed by someone, anyone. She doesn’t exactly welcome the war, but she yearns to throw herself headlong into it, to contribute and be a part of something larger than herself.

Then war does come, and with it the German occupation of France.

As The Nightingale makes clear, resistance to the Nazis was largely the work of women, because who else was left to do the job? Who else was above (or rather, beneath) suspicion? Certainly not a young, pretty girl, flirtatious and full of life, or a quiet, obviously terrified mother, whose only seeming concern is the safety and well-being of her daughter. I spoke at length on this topic last year in my review of Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, but men in war-torn France were just as likely to overlook the women in their midst as their counterparts were during the American Civil War, and so both Viann and Isabelle, in their own individual ways, are compelled do what no one else will, what no one else can. They must walk through the crucible of war and occupation, and neither emerges unscathed.

Isabelle, all fire and lightning and rebellion as the novel opens, has cocooned herself in an almost impenetrable armor to hide a marshmallow-soft center, and a desperate craving for love, acceptance and affection. Viann is just the opposite, sweet and soft and yielding, but all of her candy-floss pliability is wrapped around a steel core, unknown even to herself. Isabelle is absolutely fearless, primarily because she feels that she has nothing to lose or hold her back; she is a young, unfocused girl, searching for purpose and meaning. The war and the necessary work of the Resistance gives her that, and so she flings herself into the cause unhesitatingly, willing to risk everything for the chance to make a difference. Viann begins the war terrified, afraid to lose her happiness, happiness she has clawed from a morass of loss and despair. As result, her initial instinct is to keep her head down and remain unnoticed, to hide and protect her daughter, and only gradually does she find the courage to subtly, covertly stand up for what is right. Separately, Viann and Isabelle discover what is worth dying for, but even more importantly, they come to decide what is worth living for: the reasons to survive and to continue surviving, no matter the costs – and the costs are devastatingly high.

It’s a brutal and heart-breaking world they find themselves in, and yet there is still the capacity for joy and compassion after and even in the midst of great pain and suffering. There is love throughout the novel, in all its many forms: love found, love denied, love blighted, love lost and love regained. It is in the little things (that are much larger than they first appear), small moments of love and kindness, that the women of France find and maintain hope that there is still something good in the world, from Viann’s daughter Sophie offering to don the Yellow Star in solidarity with her best friend, to an anonymous policeman protecting Isabelle from her own curiosity, warning her to not question events surrounding the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up to closely. Love provides the impetus for each woman to go to incredible lengths to survive, and to ensure the survival of others. It’s through love that Isabelle finally finds the meaning she has spent her life searching for, and the same allows Viann to open her heart to others beyond her immediate family circle, to become a part of something much larger than herself, and to discover her own particular brand of courage.



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“Lords of the Sky” by Dan Hampton

“We do not consider that aeroplanes will be of any possible use for war purposes.”

— Richard Haldane, 1st Viscount Haldane (The British Secretary of State for War), 1910 – famous last words!


“Albert Ball was typical of the sort of man who became a pilot. He was a paradox – or perhaps he was just a young man trying to find himself during the surreal experience of war. Self-confident, highly lethal, and just a bit strange, he was a man who would unhesitatingly put fifty .303 rounds into an enemy pilot, but could beautifully sing ‘Thank God for a Garden’ to his girlfriend. A man who could have chosen and succeeded at anything in life had the war not interfered. Had he lived, Albert likely would have been a husband and a father; perhaps he would have been a musician, scholar, or a businessman.

It is certain that he was a fighter pilot.”

– Dan Hampton, Lords of the Sky

I’m not a fan of flying personally (my ears stay stopped up for days afterwards, even when the cabin pressure doesn’t cause intense pain), but the pure idea of flight has always fascinated me. I wanted an airplane to come to my second birthday party; thankfully, Fisher-Price and an appropriately shaped Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake sufficed.

Despite my childhood obsession, I don’t actually know very about much planes, or fighter pilots, or even the mechanics of flight, aside from a few bits and pieces picked up in history classes along the way, so I always want to know more. Consequently, when Dan Hampton’s Lords of the Sky: Fighter Pilots and Air Combat, from the Red Baron to the F-16 landed on our shelves, I gobbled it down.

This book is exactly what the title claims: it is all about air combat, fighter pilots, and their planes. Everything else in its pages is just context: necessary and crucial context, but context all the same. Hampton skims along the top of history until he reaches the bits relevant to aviation, whereupon he dives down deep. It’s mind-boggling, the sheer amount of information he parses, paring everything down to its bare essence, except where it pertains to fighter pilots. Each chapter (or section within a chapter) is worthy of a book in its own right … or several. He gives a clear, concise summary, but with enough detail and delicious snippets to facilitate further study into any particular aspect, should one so desire.

It begins in World War I, “the birthplace of the fighter pilot, in the skies above the trenches”, and carries the narrative all the way to 2003 and the current conflict in the Middle East. On Thursday, April 1, 1915 (there’s some irony for you, and a nasty surprise for the Germans), Roland Garros took to the skies, having rigged his plane so that he could fire a machine gun directly through his propeller; previous flights were almost all for observation purposes. This was the first time a gun was mounted directly on the plane, and not simply held by the pilot or observer. From that pivotal moment, Hampton traces the complete overhaul in how aviation was viewed, and exactly why and how the fighter pilot developed as he did. We see the progression of pilot training, from virtually none at all during the Great War to today’s rigorous and demanding standards; we also gain an appreciation for the crazy mental gymnastics necessary to be a successful fighter pilot. Interwoven with the rest is the history of the fighter aircraft, written for the interested layperson rather than an expert.

With each phase of air combat, the narrative begins in medias res, in the thick of the fighting. We see every war, every theater and phase of war first through the eyes of the men in the sky, grounding the reader and reminding us what’s really at the heart of the book: the pilots. Only then does Hampton backtrack to give us context and the larger setting. As good as Hampton is at summarizing the big picture, he is equally deft on the more personal level. Everything is described in a concise, matter-of-fact style, rendering acts of almost unimaginable courage down to their very essence, while losing none of their power.

As a twenty-year decorated veteran of the USAF and an ace himself, Lt. Colonel (Ret.) Hampton has a real love for the subject, and this shines through in every word. Everything is seen through the lens of personal experience – even the poor ergonomic design of Soviet cockpits. Although he inspired tears on several occasions, he still manages to have fun with the topic, and never fails to point out any ironic, ridiculous, or just plain amusing tidbit: from the battle cry of the Luftwaffe (Horrido!, which apparently translates loosely to mean either ‘Fear me’, or ‘I’m a horrible one and you’re going to die’), to the two mottoes of the Wild Weasels in Vietnam (“First in, last out” and “YGBSM“), to Hans Marseilles (the Star of Africa) playing banned jazz music on the piano … in front of the Fuhrer!

Hampton does more than relate history; he goes a step further and speculates, dealing almost as much in the “what ifs” as he does in the “what dids”. Instead of merely pointing out the mistakes of the past, he also considers what might have worked. Granted, he is working with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but his suppositions do make for interesting consideration of the might-have-beens, ranging from the Channel Battle of World War II, to military strategy in Vietnam, to what Saddam Hussein should have done in the First Gulf War.

There are magnificent examples throughout of exceptional pilots; I particularly enjoyed Lidiya “Lilya” Vladimirovna Lityvak, also known as the White Rose of Stalingrad, and a member of the Soviet 122nd Aviation Group in World War II, the first all-female combat aviation unit in history. Every pilot is described, with a very wide range in personality types, and all of their quirks are vividly captured, peeking inside their minds and hearts. Hampton captures the mentality of a fighter pilot, with all its complex contradictions, and tries to let us understand them, as fully as anyone earthbound can. There’s a very big leap between merely flying a plane, and being a fighter pilot; the latter are different, a breed apart, and Hampton waxes both philosophical and poetic in trying to makes those differences clear. In Hampton’s hands, “Lord of the Sky” becomes an epithet (in the Greek epic sense of the word, a la “swift-footed Achilles” and “grey-eyed Athena”) used to praise and honor the truly remarkable men and women who fill these pages.

Combat in the air developed almost unimaginably fast. In 1917, as Germany prepared their all-out last ditch assault to win the war, they reasoned that if the Allies were swept from the skies, they would also be unable to continue fighting on the ground: something unimaginable only two years previously. Tactics, weaponry, strategy, planes have all undergone exponential levels of change over the past century, and yet the qualities that make up a good fighter pilot remain virtually the same: physical strength and fitness, mental acumen and flexibility, the ability to hit what you shoot at, a fighting spirit, and “good hands” are all as necessary today as they were in the First World War. Even the basic principles of a dogfight today would still be familiar to an RFC pilot in a Sopwith Camel. Everything may have changed since Roland Garros, and yet in the essentials, the true heart of air combat, nothing has.


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“Frozen in Time” – Mitchell Zuckoff

Every schoolkid should know that, contrary to all logic, Greenland is not in fact green: that honor is reserved for Iceland, while over 80% of Greenland is covered in ice.  I blame Erik the Red for this conundrum, since “Greenland” sounds a lot better to any prospective resident than “frozen, barren wasteland of DEATH“.  His sales pitch worked, at least in the short term, but his nice, inviting name has created a mass of contradictory mental images about the place.  Despite the name, it’s really not an ideal location to spend 148 days in the dead of winter while huddled in makeshift shelters ranging from handmade ice caves to the fuselage of a B-17 bomber, crash-landed on a crevasse-riddled glacier.  Yes, Greenland is one of those places where Mother Nature is in fact, trying to kill you, and she will do it coldly and impersonally.

Throughout much of human history, the planet’s largest island has been an afterthought, having little impact on the rest of the world.  It’s been periodically colonized, but it still occupied little more than a footnote in any textbook.  It simply didn’t matter … or at least it didn’t until World War II, when Germany invaded Denmark (of which Greenland was a part) and set off massive panic attacks among the Allies, stemming from justified fears of Nazi invasions and aluminum shortages.

In response, the US basically occupied the place, at least, for all intents and purposes, and among other things, used Greenland as a refueling point while ferrying aircraft to Britain as part of Operation Bolero, along the so-called “Snowball Route”.  Unfortunately, once pilots began flying across Greenland, they also began crashing there – which brings us to the review!

With Frozen in Time, Mitchell Zuckoff tells two nearly unbelievable stories in one volume.  The subtitle of the book really sums it up nicely, and neatly encapsulates both plotlines: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II.  In the first, it is the tale of three particular plane crashes in Greenland and all of the subsequent rescue attempts to get the stranded men off the ice, an utterly pitiless account of survival (or not) in the Arctic, of 148 nerve-wracking and tear-jerking days on a glacier.  The second narrative, interwoven neatly with the first, is the story of the 2012 Duck Hunt, the search for the remains of one of those crashes.  Both narratives showcase an almost unbelievable faith in the national commitment to leave no man behind, with both the World War II rescues and the later search.  It’s really part of a much larger quest, part of the mission of the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Person Office – to bring every serviceman and woman home, if at all possible.

There’s a lot I could say about this harrowing, tear-jerking, heart-warming book, and a lot I want to say.  Unfortunately, most of the really incredible bits would require a spoiler alert, and I do try to avoid that on this blog.  It reads like a novel, bringing an amazing cast of characters (all real) vividly to life, and painting a portrait of a harsh, deadly, yet weirdly beautiful world.  Zuckoff draws out the suspense and the heart-break beautifully, if I can even apply that adjective to a book of this nature.  The outcome is pre-determined, and you know that not everyone in the plane will survive, but it’s truly gut-wrenching to read, as you get to know the men involved in both the crashes and their rescues.  I was quite literally reading with my heart in my throat, even holding my breath at times.  The sheer level of detail (both funny and sad) he slips in is astounding, and really lifts the two stories off the page – from men in a crashed B-17 bomber resorting to money as toilet paper to the problems of cookery at sub-zero temperatures to the last-minute purchases that become absolutely crucial to the Duck Hunt.

There is absolutely no journalistic distance here, as Zuckoff was part of the Duck Hunt at the most intimate level possible, even funding a lot of the expedition himself – to the point that he was receiving antifraud calls from American Express, and was willing to take out a loan with his house as collateral if other funding failed to come through.  Luckily, the latter wasn’t necessary, but really, there’s Bill Buford Among the Thugs level of involvement with his material, living the story and becoming its heart.  There is unmistakable, enviable passion, and a determination to lay to rest the heroes of war, no matter the effort, cost and difficulty involved.

One member of the expedition, Robert Smith, better known as “WeeGee”, develops a routine with Zuckoff throughout their journey, after they discuss Mitch’s goal in writing this book and accompanying the Duck Hunt team to Greenland:

“So, Mitch, how does it end?”

“No idea, WeeGee.  You tell me.”

This unanswerable question gets asked many times during the course of the expedition, sometimes several times a day, and even silently.  It’s a constant theme, especially when Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head, as it invariable does in the Arctic – making it all the more thrilling at the culmination of their quest, when WeeGee can turn to Zuckoff with a grin, and ask him one final time.

“Hey, Mitch, how does it end?”

“Like this, WeeGee.  Like this.”


And so ends 2013.  Happy New Year, everyone, and see you in 2014!


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Robert Edsel – “Saving Italy”

How do you fight and win a war in an art museum?

This was the question faced by the Allied forces in World War II, as they prepared for the invasion of Europe.  When a conflict devolves into total war and everything is a potential military target, how do you avoid destroying cultural treasures in the process?  How do you strike a balance between military necessity and historic preservation?

The answer was the creation of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Division, created by President Roosevelt in 1943 and empowered by General Eisenhower: a select group of men and women in the Allied armed forces, assigned the monumental task of saving what could be saved, and preserving and restoring what was damaged or destroyed.  Of course, their efforts to protect the art were in no way helped by the fact that Nazi officials were stealing most of it!

With his 2009 book, The Monuments Men, Robert Edsel told the story of this unit on the Western Front, focusing on the period between D-Day and V-E Day in northwest Europe – and is being made into a movie starring George Clooney, due out later this year.  Now he turns backwards, looking at the early days of the Monuments Men.

In many ways, his new book, Saving Italy  is the prequel to his earlier.  Orders from General Eisenhower to protect art and monuments whenever possible were not issued until six months after the start of the Sicilian campaign, but similar orders were in the hands of all officers eleven days before the Normandy invasion.  Italy was a trial run, a proving ground for these men, setting precedent and laying foundations for their later work in the rest of Europe.

Saving Italy is not just the story of the Monuments Men, although they are the stars of the show.  There were many other groups and individuals involved in the effort to protect Italy’s cultural heritage, and each is given due credit and attention: the Vatican, the Italian government, Italian partisan fighters, and even the Nazis, at least in some cases.  The sheer number of factions (whose goals often overlapped, but rarely aligned completely) throughout is mind-boggling, yet somehow Edsel manages to weave everything into a coherent, comprehensive and heart-stopping narrative, painting brief yet vivid character sketches of those involved.   Some figures are well-known: Eisenhower, Roosevelt, Churchill, Dulles, Himmler and Hitler.  Others are less familiar, but no less crucial to the success of the effort to protect some of Western Civilization’s greatest treasures.  Eisenhower’s orders placed the responsibility for protecting Italy’s cultural treasures on everyone,  from the bottom up, but the Monuments men were really the only ones with sufficient knowledge to make the job possible.

For those (like myself) who are not experts in either art or art history, he encapsulates the beauty and history of the artistic and architectural masterpieces that lay in the path of the war.   As you read, you come to truly care about whether or not these objects survive.  When they do, you celebrate; when they tragically do not, your heart breaks.

Before now, I knew the outcome of the war, at least in the broadest of strokes, being something of a WWII nut.  What I didn’t know was the fate of the art and monuments – this was an aspect of the conflict that had never occurred to me, even in light of the havoc and destruction wrought by the.  At least from my perspective, this allowed Edsel to maintain suspense throughout his narrative, even with the foregone conclusion of Allied victory.  Of course, part of the tension came from my profound ignorance of the Italian theater.  More well-informed readers may not find themselves in my shoes, and may therefore be able to finish the book with their fingernails intact.  Still, while the destruction of the war is well-known, the work of those who sought to preserve irreplaceable monuments and art is not.  It is a fascinating read, almost too unbelievable to be real.

As the cherry on top of an already marvelous cake, Robert Edsel will be speaking about Saving Italy at the Birmingham Museum of Art at 7:00 pm on June 6: D-Day, appropriately enough.  I can’t wait.  See you there!


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“The Girls of Atomic City” – Denise Kiernan

While reading The Girls of Atomic City by Denise Kiernan, I surprised even myself with the strength of my response to the book: part anger at the way the world used to work, part appreciation at how much has changed.  I had to constantly remind myself that it was a different era, and that it isn’t fair to apply modern standards to past events.  Beautifully written, and an absolutely fantastic read, but it still was unsettling to see what my life could have been like, not too long ago.

Kiernan tells the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee during World War II, and more specifically, the story of the women who lived and worked there, making the atomic bomb possible.  Thousands of civilians (most of them female) worked in secrecy for over two years, hidden from the outside world, and told nothing about the jobs they were doing.  Workers knew enough to perform their assigned tasks, and no more.  Questions were forbidden; curiosity frowned upon.  Even those who did manage to piece together a few suspicions didn’t talk about their conclusions.  The simplest social cues became fraught with unintended meaning: asking a friend or spouse “How was your day?” could cause serious problems.  All of this secrecy and silence, on top of the pressures and difficulties of war that the rest of the country dealt with on a daily basis.

As I read, I couldn’t help but wonder how well I would have fared in such an environment; could I have done what these women (and men, too) did?  I honestly don’t know.  We live in such a different age, a more cynical one, less inclined to take things at face value and more inclined to question everything we’re told.  In a society accustomed to information overload, I don’t know that I could have stood having such a sudden paucity.  Constrained silence isn’t my style, either; I love to talk, and very often speak before I think – another facet of life at Oak Ridge which only increases my admiration for these remarkable women.

The anger I described in my first paragraph comes purely from the fact that this is an accurate snapshot of the period – and all the casual and ingrained sexism that comes with it.  To take one of the more egregious examples, Jane Greer, one of the statisticians who tracked production at the Y-12 plant, initially wanted to be an engineer.  However, while registering for courses at the University of Tennessee, she was yanked out of line and told that females weren’t allowed to matriculate in engineering.  Instead, she could study statistics.  This was just one example among many in the book – situations where these ladies handled themselves with incredible grace and poise, whereas I doubt I could have managed such sangfroid in their shoes.

Okay, rant over; I’m going to step down off my soapbox, because this really isn’t what the book is about.  The treatment of women as second-class citizens, pervasive as that attitude is throughout the era, was only one aspect of life at Oak Ridge.  For the most part, Kiernan’s cast of characters persevere, working around or through this mindset as best they can, and ignoring what they cannot change.  It’s the fault of the historical setting, nothing more.  Moving on.

I loved this book.

It’s a fascinating read, peering behind the veil of secrecy and classified information, but at times a frustrating one.  Kiernan has deliberately constructed her narrative to reflect (at least partially) the same sense of compartmentalization that dictated every aspect of life at Oak Ridge during the war.  Code names are everywhere, and even uranium and plutonium are never described by their proper names, at least until the “Girls” discover (to some degree, anyway) exactly what they were doing for over two years – which doesn’t occur until the bombs are dropped on Japan.  In between narrating the lives of individual women, Kiernan places the work at Oak Ridge in the larger context of both the scientific discoveries that led up to the bomb, and World War II making the bomb a necessity.  Again, the focus is on the female contributions, and the story is usually told through their eyes.  Men aren’t ignored­, far from it – they make vital contributions and are important characters, but this just isn’t their book.

Overall, it’s a remarkable story, one not really told until now; a more nuanced look at the “Rosie the Riveter” image.  By the end, you really care about the women – their stories are occasionally sad, often hilarious, but always entertaining.  After the war, some left Oak Ridge; other stayed and made their lives in what was supposed to be a temporary installation.  Amazingly, most of the “Girls” mentioned by name are still alive, and Kiernan was lucky enough to interview them in writing her book.  As with other World War II veterans, however, they are growing older, and their experiences will vanish with them.  This is a story that needed to be told, now, before it’s too late.


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