WWII novels

The Sunday Salon: When the Reading Is Hard

Practically everyone I know has been reading Kristin Hannah’s historical novel, The Nightingale. It’s a tale of two sisters trying to survive during the Nazi occupation and takeover of France during the years between 1939 and 1945. My Goodread’s timeline is awash with accolades.

If you read last week’s post, then you know how much I enjoy historical fiction, particularly that set in and around the two World Wars. I’ve been reading a lot of it lately - it seems that every book I pick up off the library shelf is in that genre or time period. So I got hold of a copy of The Nightingale and dug in.

First, I must add my voice to the accolades for Kristin Hannah - this book is quite a tour de force for her. It's an entirely different book from the kind she usually writes. Her novels are always well developed stories, with interesting and likable characters facing issues most women can relate to. And The Nightingale is no different in that regard. But it has a depth of feeling that is completely different than any of her other fiction.

And boy, was it hard to read. Emotionally, I mean. The stories of privation and loss and struggle and cruelty were absolutely relentless throughout the nearly 500 pages. I cannot imagine enduring the horror that the French people suffered. And I suppose my naiveté shows, but it is stall hard to imagine one group of human beings willfully wreaking such pain and suffering on another. 

To be honest, the book scared me. I grew up on stories of WWII - my father and all my uncles were American GI’s who served on both fronts during the war. All this evil happened in countries we readily and easily visit, less than 75 years later.  I should (and do) feel relieved that these countries are now peaceful and thriving, that they have recovered from such horrible devastation in such a relatively short period of historic time.

But I don’t believe we ever learn as much as we should from history. 

So it could happen again. It could happen anywhere, even here in my nice, safe backyard. 

The major question Hannah asks of her readers is this: What would you have the courage to do to protect not only the people you love, but perfect strangers? In the face of horrible evil, how far would you go to fight for the right? I admit, it made me uncomfortable to consider. Both Vianne and Isabelle, the main characters in the book, displayed remarkable courage and strength, staring death in the face every single day, a strength I know I don’t have.

I finished the book yesterday, and I was glad to finish it. I wanted out of all that horror in the worst way. 

And I was only living it in the black and white words on the page.

Sometimes, reading can take us to places we don’t really want to go. Sometimes, books are hard.

But I think that makes them all the more important to read.

How about you? Have you read books that were emotionally difficult?