I recently finished a trio of books that are still echoing through my mind. All three belong to my preferred category of history and focus on the era of World War II, my preferred time period. Each book provides a vividly-memorable record of a different aspect of the years 1933-1945.
I am fresh from completing Resistance Women, a historical novel by Jennifer Chiaverini. She wrote oodles of books about quilting before branching out into other timelines, including the notable Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker.
I long ago lost count of how many books, fiction and nonfiction, I have read about the Holocaust aspect of the Nazi years. And I have occasionally read about various resistance movements. However, the operations of this intelligence-based web of folks, working with the Soviet Union in dangerous secrecy to bring down Hitler and his gang, was new to me – and engrossing.
I followed the entwined lives of four women during the Nazis’ march across Europe and watched the lives of these two German and two American ladies transformed forever. Chiaverini chronicled with such authenticity and detail the lives of Mildred, Sara, Greta, and Martha – I actually believed I knew them. Through their years of school and work, love relationships, family and children, I watched them also dedicate themselves to ousting the regime bent on world domination and destruction of an entire race of people.
In tears as I finished their story, I was stunned to learn from the author’s notes that three of the female protagonists in this well-researched novel were real individuals: just one was a composite character. I felt, and still feel, proud to have known them – and regretted when my time with them had to end.
Set on a different continent but with an equally compelling story was the nonfiction account of The Train to Crystal City by Jan Jarboe Russell. Its secondary title alludes to an American wartime scheme about which I knew nothing: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp.
The comprehensive description of the Crystal City Enemy Detention Camp, operating in Texas near San Antonio from 1943 until 1948, was sadly fascinating. In the camp were housed some 3400 family members of Japanese and German nationality – rounded up and confined there based on national security concerns and just plain racism. I was particularly interested in the school structure provided by the camp commander, Joseph O’Rourke, who ran the detention site with an iron hand – and a big heart for the children, American citizens born of immigrant parents. These kids, accustomed to the American way of life and school, were able to continue their educations onsite in the American School, the German School, or the Japanese School.
Bringing this extensively-researched information to life were the families the author chose to follow, one German and one Japanese. I came to intimately know each parent and child as they entered the camp – and then horrifyingly became governmental bargaining chips in a program to trade German and Japanese nationals from the camp for American prisoners-of-war.
It was agonizing to watch the American-born children of these families forcefully repatriated to Germany and Japan along with their parents. Exacerbating the situation were the tight censorship practices that led the German and Japanese families to believe they were returning to homes and relatives in their victorious homelands, not the war-torn ruins they actually encountered. Rarely has a book shaken me so to my core.
No one could have convinced me I would hang on every word of a story about boat racing. Likewise, no one could have convinced me that Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat was a work of nonfiction rather than a novel. But it is all true, the secondary title clarifying my surprise on both fronts: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The Boys in the Boat did indeed read like a page-turner of a novel. In fact, I became a mini-expert on rowing, a sport I usually ignore during the Olympics. I followed the college rivalries during crew season, learned how the boat was built, dreaded the team’s necessarily-grueling practices.
I mostly found myself caught up in the lives of those boys, especially rower Joe Rantz, as well as the team’s coach and their boat maker. I understand now that successful rowing is a Zen-like combination of rower skill and temperament, the drive of a coach who knows how to push and push again, the skill of a dedicated builder with a vision.
Oh, I could have googled the outcome of the rowing races at Hitler’s Olympics – if it had ever even occurred to me. And yet, there I was, on the edge of my proverbial seat, breathlessly awaiting the outcome: a victory every bit as remarkable as those by Jesse Owens. And I cried when Joe Rantz, years later on his death bed, wept for the vanishing memories of the greatest days of his life – and the utter beauty of the entire experience. Tears are falling again as I recall just reading about those days.
Beyond the timelines and readability these books share, however, is the manner in which their authors present historical facts in terms of the people who lived them. I appreciate, learn from, and will continue to read HISTORY – not as chapters in a school textbook – but as STORIES of people.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.