It’s clearly not true that everything fictional that can be said about the Depression and World War II has been said. Four new books here at the Field Library take new looks, from different perspectives, at those well-known historical periods and each, in its own way, shows us more of the human side of great historical events.
First, let’s consider life in the Great Depression, in The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill. Both a love story and a show-business story, with characters almost fairy-tale like in some respects and Dickensian in others, The Lonely Hearts Hotel stars Pierrot and Rose, two orphans abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in 1910, who discover each other and their talents more or less at the same time. Pierrot is a piano prodigy, and Rose is a brilliant dancer. As they perform around the city, falling in love with each other in the process, Pierrot and Rose hatch plans for the greatest circus the world will ever know. Unfortunately for them, in their teens they’re separated, sent off to work as servants, and to discover the depths of the underworld, where they will do whatever it takes to survive. When they find each other again (of course they find each other again; what kind of book do you think this is?), they remember and reignite their old dreams of a circus, and when they and their troupe of clowns and chorus girls and other extraordinary performances reach New York City, neither the entertainment world nor the underworld will ever be the same again. If you loved The Night Circus, then you’ll enjoy The Lonely Hearts Hotel.
Then let’s turn to a debut novel* that follows the fortunes of a Jewish family during World War II and afterwards. The book is We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, and it’s based on the true story of her family’s actions and reactions to the Nazi invasion of Poland and subsequent horrors in World War II. The Kurc family starts out together in the town of Radom in Poland, in spring, 1939, noticing the increasing deprivations Jews were beginning to suffer, aware of the movements of Hitler’s armies and Europe’s response to those moves, but, like most of us, they try to live normal lives in the presence of such disturbing storm clouds, until it becomes impossible for them to do so any longer. As war comes to Poland and the Nazis take over, the family is scattered, as all of the members try to find their own way to safety in very uncertain times. Some are exiled, to different countries, to different continents, while some try to keep their heads down and work endless hours in ghetto factories. Others hide in plain sight, disguising themselves as gentiles and living in the midst of their would-be enemies. None of them knows when or even if he or she will see any of the other members of the family, but all of them, from the jazz clubs of Paris to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro to the farthest reaches of Siberia, will find ways to survive, to persevere and even, in a triumph of the human spirit in the midst of terrible darkness, to find each other again.
In Pam Jenoff’s book, The Orphan’s Tale, the protagonist, Noa, is a 16 year old girl who’s forced to give up her baby when she becomes pregnant by a Nazi soldier, cast out of her home in disgrace and living above a railway station. One day she sees a boxcar filled with Jewish babies on their way to the concentration camp and, thinking of her own lost child, she takes one of those babies and flees, finding refuge, oddly enough, in a German circus, where she needs to learn how to perform on the flying trapeze in order to fit in. This brings her first into rivalry with Astrid, the current lead aerialist, and then into a firm bond of friendship with her. But both women are keeping secrets and in this period secrets are extremely dangerous. Is their friendship strong enough to protect them from the dangers around them?
A small village in England during the war is the scene of Jennifer Ryan’s book, The Chilbury Women’s Choir. The well-meaning but misguided vicar of the village church decides that in these dangerous times, a church choir is a luxury the village cannot afford. When a new music professor arrives in the village, he gives the women the spark they need to defy the vicar and set up their own choir, the Chilbury Women’s Choir. The book interweaves the stories of the women, very different in character and circumstances, from the widow with a son at the front to the young Jewish refugee to the midwife trying to outrun her past to the town beauty falling for a rakish artist, allowing their stories (told through letters and diary entries) to join together and strengthen each other as their voices do in their new choir, revealing the powerful lives of the women on the home front in the early stages of a terrible war.
*Which qualifies for the Debut Novel category of the 2017 Reading Challenge, for those of us who are working on that, just so you know.