On All Fronts: New Nonfiction of World War II

My sister, who serves at a docent at a prisoner-of-war museum in Texas, says that her most eager listeners are pre-teen and teenage boys.  When she talks about the War in Europe, they know exactly what she’s talking about because they’ve landed on Normandy or outfoxed Rommel in their video games.  The big battles and dramatic moments still grab our attention after all these years, but other facets of this huge conflict get little notice.  Three recent, well-reviewed books help fill the gaps in our knowledge about American isolationism, the Norwegian resistance, and the race to build an atomic bomb.

Home Front Girl, by Joan Wehlen Morrison.  Chicago Review, 2013, 241 pages.  Age/interest level: 12-uphomefront

Joan began her journal-writing career in 1932, at the age of 9.  The only daughter of a Swedish immigrant, she grew up in a working-class family in Chicago.  Though not at all wealthy, her parents managed to supply a comfortable life where Joan was expected to study hard and work for the extras.  During the summer she served as a camp counselor, supplementing that small income with teaching nature classes to children during the year.  After her sophomore year in a public high school her academic standing won her a place in the University of Chicago Academy, a natural stepping stone to the U of C after graduation.

“Home Front Girl” is a bit of a misnomer, since the journal entries begin five years before America entered the War–in 1937, when Joan was an exuberant 15-year-old: “I feel so glorious and uplifted and my heart is just bursting with spring and the love of the world and life.”  They end in 1943, just a few pages after Pearl Harbor.  The war is more of a background to Joan’s growing sense of angst: a pacifist, she identifies with the post-WWI  “Lost Generation”—those artists and writers who thought one last huge conflict would end war forever.  “To those of My Time: . . . Oh you, my generation! –we were a lovely lot!  Sharp minds—arguing all the time–and brittle bodies and even more brittle laughter—and all the time knowing we were growing up to die.”

That gives you a taste of Joan’s passionate nature and youthful pretension (I wrote that way too).  Her journal is a glimpse of a little-known wing of American public opinion during that time, the isolationists like Charles Lindberg who resisted entering the War until practically the last minute.  Joan dutifully attends her family’s Catholic church, but doesn’t know what she thinks about God: “I can’t agree with myself about religion . . . I think if we could understand there wouldn’t be any use of living.  Things a little beyond are so much more beautiful.”  Though she laps up the established scientific opinion of her day, it doesn’t quite answer when a good friend’s father suddenly dies: “All this I thought [at the funeral] while the men read words without meaning and the Conservation of Matter did not seem to satisfy me.”  According to the biography provided by Joan’s daughter Susan (who edited the entries), Joan evolved into a political liberal who enjoyed a happy family life and successful career but never found the answers to her deepest question.  Her journal, illustrated with sketches and news clippings, can be instructive in showing how today’s liberalism sprouted and grew in the soil of American discontent.  But mostly it’s a portrait of a gifted girl growing up in mid-century, curious and eager and fearful–kind of like today.

  • Worldview/moral value: 2.5 (out of 5)
  • Literary value: 4

mountainShadow on the Mountain, by Margi Preus.  Abrams, 2012, 304 pages.  Age/interest level: 10-14.

German tanks and armies rolled into Norway in April, 1940, six months after the war officially began.  A neutral country with no military ambitions, Norway had expected to be left alone—failing, like so many other European nations, to reckon with Hitler’s grandiose vision of the Third Reich. But the Resistance sprang up immediately, including underground military and civilian organizations, intelligence units, and a central committee to pull it all together.  That resistance is what Shadow on the Mountain is all about: the characters are fictional, but the story is fact.

The author very successfully turned fact into a compelling story with Heart of a Samurai two years ago.  This attempt may be a little less compelling because she sticks so closely to actual events the demands of fiction aren’t met—mainly a driving storyline shaped around a central conflict.  But there’s still much of value here.

The main character, Espen, is 14 when the narrative begins, shortly after the invasion.  It’s bad enough having Germans tell them what to do, but when his best friend Kjell falls for Nazi propaganda, “Espen felt as if the whole world had gotten off-kilter.  Tipped wrong . . . The uneasy sense that at any moment they might all shake off the edge of the world into the darkness of space made him weak with fear or crazy with anger.  He would do anything—anything!—to set the world right again.”  When his Aunt Marie recruits him to deliver underground newspapers he’s more than willing, and thus begins his career in the Resistance–adventures which adhere closely to the real-life experiences of Erling Storrusten of Lillehammer. Most of the story is told from Espen’s point of view, but his sister Ingrid and his natural enemy Aksen, who becomes a petty official in the occupation, provide some counterpoint.  In this life-and-death struggle, Espen longs for an ordinary existence, but can see how he’s being stretched and hammered into manhood:

He believed in what he was doing, even if it was only a small thing.  A tiny part of the whole effort was still a part—maybe even a key part.  Who could know until it was all over?  And the important thing was to do what you believed in your heart to be the right thing—no, not believed, what you knew to be the right thing.

  • Worldview/moral value: 4
  • Literary value: 3.5

Bomb: the Race to Build—and Steal—the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon, by Steven Sheinkin.  Roaring bombBrook, 2012, 241 pages plus notes.  Age/interest level: 12-up.

In 1939, Adolf Hitler was preparing to invade Poland and the scientific community was all abuzz with the possibility of atomic fission.  If atoms could be “split” and the effects controlled, it would result in the greatest release of energy ever known to man.  The two events were not unrelated, for German physicists had discovered fission and the best intelligence suggested they were developing a bomb.  That, agreed scientists like Einstein and military officers like General Leslie Groves and statesmen like Franklin Roosevelt, could not happen.

Thus begins a sprawling, complex, multifaceted story involving four nations, many nationalities, spies and counterspies, genius and folly.  According to the author, the major impetus to America’s atomic program (the Manhattan Project) was to head off the Nazis; at the beginning there were no plans to actually use the bomb.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, a quirky, skeletal genius, was selected to head the project in spite of concerns over his communist sympathies.  A legitimate concern, as it happened, because the process was plagued with soviet spies from the beginning (though Oppenheimer was probably not one of them).  An unprecedented assembly  of geniuses gathered at project headquarters in Los Alamos: “the world’s largest collection of crackpots,” according to General Groves, military head of the operation.

Besides building a bomb that would actually work, the U.S. had to sabotage German efforts, chiefly by neutralizing the heavy water plant at Vermark, Norway (which succeeded, due to heroic work by Norwegian resistance fighters).  When the War in Europe ended, hopes that the atomic bomb could serve only as a deterrent were dashed when Japan refused surrender unconditionally.  Slowly, the realization dawned that the world’s most dangerous weapon might actually have to be used.

The efforts to keep the plans out of Soviet hands was far less successful.  In fact, not until 1949, four years after the war ended, did the American government realize that the USSR had produced a bomb identical to the Manhattan Project, based on plans and diagrams smuggled out of Los Alamos.  The Cold War had begun.

This is a very complicated story, but well worth telling since we live close to the repercussions today.  As he did with his biography of Benedict Arnold, Sheinkin demonstrates his a gift for communicating the essence of personality while keep events in line.  Be advised that the numerous quotes contain some profanity and mild vulgarity (such as son of a bitch) and an apparent incidence of adultery by Oppenheimer is reported with no comment.

  • Worldview/moral value: NA
  • Literary Value: 4.5

The novel that made a reader out of me was set during and after the War: read about it here.  For novels about the Holocaust, see our reviews of Annexed and The Book Thief, as well as Emily’s thoughts on Anne Frank Soldier Bear is about another little-known war front, and Code Name Verity takes place in the shadow world of espionage. 



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Janie Cheaney

Janie is the VERY senior staff writer for Redeemed Reader, as well as a long-time contributor to WORLD Magazine and an author of nine books for children. The rest of the time she's long-distance smooching on her four grandchildren (not an easy task). She lives with her equally senior husband of almost-fifty years in the Ozarks of Missouri.

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  1. Betsy on January 16, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Janie–we’re on the same page this month, for sure! I just picked up Bomb from a friend. I’ve been dying to read it especially since my husband works at Oak Ridge National Lab! I also have a review of Home Front Girl needing to be finished up and posted (for an ARC copy I had). I agree with you about that book–fun in the sense of seeing how timeless some of our “growing up” angst is, but not terribly deep or instructive.

    I’m also reading the second Zasha book in ARC form–another war-time scene, but for a younger audience.

  2. Connie on January 19, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    I think I’ll be reading Shadow on the Mountain simply for the quotation you cited here. For me, some of the best stories told of of the seemingly least among us doing what their truthfully tells them is right, often without a glimpse of the big picture.

    I think this is also why I like Hobbits.

    And it seems an echo of the Kingdom where there will be a lot of least among us whose deeds were amazingly big.

    Have you read/reviewed Number the Stars by Lois Lowry? A fictionalized story of “true” ordinary heroes in Denamark rescuing their Jewish countrymen. Another favorite of mine.

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