Women’s Stories from World War II

The cover is mostly in shades of grey, with a woman's face seen from behind turned to the side, smelling a rose. A plane, in a downward spiral, appears across the top. Spots of red in the smoke from the plane, the rose, and circling the name Verity provide a pop of color.

by Kristen B.

One of the current hot trends in publishing involves telling the previously overlooked stories of women during World War II, from code breakers at Bletchley Park and Arlington Hall to spies who worked with the Resistance. It seems they are everywhere right now. My all-time favorite, and one of the first in this sub-genre, is Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein (technically YA, but I have no idea why).

Two young British women become bosom friends and compatriots in supplying occupied France with intelligence. Maddie is an amateur mechanic and pilot, who works ferrying planes around the UK to various RAF bases and sometimes across the Channel. She loves flying with an undying passion. I learned more about early aircraft than I wanted, to be honest. Men were needed as combat pilots, so women flew most of the personnel and supply shuttles. Maddie has a heart of gold and a desire to make a difference despite her lack of social standing or eduction. She’s the perfect foil to Queenie (code name Verity), a member of the upper class with a wicked ability with languages and acting, who is recruited directly into intelligence work. Not to put too fine a point on it, our girl is a perfect spy. Her nom de guerre means truth, and the entire book hinges on figuring out which parts of her story are true.

The two become unlikely friends through their brief careers, including one scene where they end up lost on their bikes in the rain because all the road signs have been removed. When Queenie ends up captured behind enemy lines, everyone fears the worst. Verity is the main narrator for the book, and to say she’s unreliable doesn’t even begin to capture the reality. The plot is a breathless dash of misadventure and raw calculation, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. Sometimes friendship saves the day, and sometimes a book rips your heart from your chest and leaves you a wreck on the sofa. Maybe I’m saying too much … but really, just read it!

Code Name Verity is also available as an eBook from Libby/OverDrive and as an audiobook on CD.

All in shades of blue, the outline of a castle appears in the foggy background with a hedge in the foreground and a plane high overheard.

Equally fraught if less devastating, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck gives us an unusual and moving look at German women in the immediate aftermath of the war. Three women and their children find themselves living together in a derelict castle in Bavaria, doing their utmost simply to survive. The property belongs to Marianne von Lingenfels, member of the landed aristocracy and wife of one of Hitler’s detractors. When her husband and other conspirators in the 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler are summarily executed, she tries to fulfill her promise to save as many other wives and children as possible.

She manages to find two: Benita and Ania. Benita, a classic German beauty, flees her family’s impoverished life by marrying Marianne’s best friend from childhood. Ania and her two boys escape from the far eastern regions and trudge through much of the country, dodging Russian soldiers and American GIs, before reaching the safety of the castle. The three women and their six children band together in unlikely friendship to outlast the worst depredations and devastations. In one of the most moving scenes, everyone in the castle and the connected village attends an Advent service in the local ruined church, and the power of the sacred music and a clear, cold night brings a much-needed moment of hope.

As the book progresses, we learn each woman’s history and gain some understanding of how they come to be within the castle. Benita suffers all a beautiful woman at the mercy of an enemy can expect. Marianne, used to privilege and a life filled with intellectual rigor, maintains a moral viewpoint that allows for very few shades of grey – despite being in a time and space that demands them. And Ania, my favorite character by far, lives almost entirely within those grey spaces in the most practical manner possible. Her background of supporting the Nazi agenda until she could no longer ignore the atrocities portrays the “good German” conundrum all too well.

The book catalogs the necessary sacrifices and compromises, from the reality of marauding renegade soldiers to the plight of Displaced Persons. It’s a fascinating portrayal of how people move forward, trying to make it through today, tomorrow, this week, this month, this year. It made me think about how this is not a sexy, heroic story, nor is it a tragic tale of valiant derring-do and winning through at all costs. Shattuck gives us – gifts us – three fairly ordinary German women thrown together in dire circumstances who survive … because what else was there to do?

The Women in the Castle is also available as an eBook and an eAudiobook from Libby/OverDrive and as an audiobook on CD.

Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, and take walks in the park.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

The book depicts the next of a swan as a winding river, with flowers scattered alongside and the title, "Once Upon a River," superimposed.

By Piyali C.

There are many ancient inns on the bank of the river Thames, providing their patrons with more than just ale and cider. Patrons looking for music go to The Red Lion at Kelmscott; for deep contemplation, they go to the Green Dragon at Inglesham; the Stag at Eaton Hastings is the place for gambling. But if they are looking for stories, they go to The Swan at Radcot, the most ancient inn of them all and only a day’s walk from the source of the Thames. On a dark winter’s night, sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, a seriously injured man enters The Swan with the body of a four-year-old girl in his arms whom he found floating in the river. Before he can give any explanations, he collapses in the arms of the storytellers at the inn. The innkeeper’s son Jonathan catches the body of the girl before the man falls. The child, presumed dead, is kept in a separate room while everyone gets busy looking after the man, who is still breathing, but just barely. Rita Sunday, the resident nurse of the village, is summoned immediately. She first tends to the injuries of the man, who we learn later is a photographer named Daunt, and then goes to look at the little girl’s dead body. Rita checks her pulse and her breathing and, finding none, she holds the hands of the girl and sits with her awhile, lamenting the death of one so young in such mysterious circumstances. In her hand, however, Rita suddenly feels a flutter of life! The girl, who had no pulse, comes alive.

The thread of the story unspools at this point just like the surge of the Thames roaring outside the inn. Like tributaries that feed the powerful river, each of the characters in this tale veers off to run his or her own course, only to come together to enrich the main body of the story. The narrator takes us on the journey of life with each of her characters and explains how their actions and decisions converge to solve the mystery of the little girl. The river, with its myriad turns and crossings and innumerable tributaries, becomes a powerful character in itself within the plot, always present in the background propelling the story forward with its mighty surge. There are so many intriguing questions that the reader wants answered. Who is the mystery girl who came back from the dead? Is she the kidnapped daughter of the wealthy Vaughan family? Is she the granddaughter of the black farmer Robert Armstrong, whose wayward son Robin married a woman and then left her alone with their little daughter, Alice? Or is the four-year-old girl the sister of 44-year-old Mrs. Lily White, as she adamantly claims? How is that possible? Who does she belong to and why won’t she speak?

The storyteller of this tale, which is fortified with folklore, magic, science, and myth, is one of the best, sweeping readers in the turbulent current of her fast-paced, hypnotic plot and then delivering them safely back to their own worlds to attend to their own rivers. “And now, dear reader, the story is over. It is time for you to cross the bridge once more and return to the world you came from. This river, which is and is not the Thames, must continue flowing without you. You have haunted here long enough, and besides, you surely have rivers of your own to attend to?” (460) Before leaving us, though, she makes sure each tangle of the plot is smoothly and expertly untangled, each question satisfactorily answered. Once Upon a River is yet another testament to the power of stories and storytelling that has captivated and transformed lives through centuries. This title is also available as an ebook and eaudiobook from Howard County Library System. In my opinion, this novel is best enjoyed in your cozy reading spot on a cold winter’s night, snuggled in your favorite blanket with a cup of hot chocolate by your side.

Piyali is an instructor and research specialist at the Miller Branch of HCLS, where she co-facilitates both Global Reads and Strictly Historical Fiction.