Life in wartime: Women dominate a quartet of World War II novels

The 4 best recent novels set during World War II show the ingenuity of women who put everything on the line to defeat the Nazis.  

Gallery Books, Park Row, William Morrow, and Forever

The fortitude and ingenuity of humans when pushed to the limit is an enduring theme in literature. What are we capable of? What hidden reserves can we tap? 

Also familiar: authors confronting these questions against the backdrop of World War II. Its oppressive threats, heinous actors, and vast footprint offer innumerable settings and situations for compelling storytelling.  

A recent crop of novels, all set during the conflict, places women at center stage, exploring their contributions to the war effort as well as their resilience and sacrifices. Each well-researched book (all inspired by true events) gives readers an opportunity to learn and to think, while paging through a bracing, richly painted tale.   

“The Rose Code” by bestselling author Kate Quinn zooms in on Bletchley Park, the top-secret British campus of Allied code-breakers, dubbed by one character “the biggest bloody lunatic asylum in Britain.” It’s both an apt description for the colorful characters streaming between the decoding huts in 1940, and a foreshadowing of a key plot point unspooling in the parallel storyline eight years in the future. 

Three complex heroines form the heart of Quinn’s engrossing tale. There’s quick-witted socialite Osla out to prove she’s anything but a “silly deb”; brilliant Beth battling lifelong doubts and a stifling mother; and driven, working-class Mab whose droll defenses obscure painful secrets. Around the trio swirls a saga’s worth of plot – betrayals, traitors, breakthroughs, and losses, victories, growth, and great love. 

The code-breaking work is impressive; Bletchley Park’s denizens put in exhausting hours and push the bounds of their mental capacities. But at times, the story bogs down in descriptions of intricate machines and processes, leaving the less crypto-inclined a bit, well, puzzled. 

The madness of war – its flashes of searing violence, shifting alliances, and unthinkable barbarism – infuses the story. So, too, does the burden of secrecy that Bletchley Park demanded. The women and men who entered the facility’s gates were forbidden to talk about their work, thus suffering the vitriol – and worse – of those convinced they were shirking their patriotic duties.

“The Rose Code” delivers a smart, well-crafted story that builds to a heart-pounding and solid conclusion.

Duty or conscience?

Pulse-racing accompanies the next two novels as well, both of which take place in Poland. 

“The Forest of Vanishing Stars” by Kristin Harmel follows Yona, a 2-year-old girl kidnapped from her home in Berlin by a mysterious Jewish woman, who brings her to the forest and teaches her to survive. Two decades later, these skills are tested when, under the shadow of war and all alone, Yona encounters Jews hiding from the Nazis. At first fearful and reluctant, she agrees to teach the terrified group how to survive in the wild as the violence against their community intensifies. 

Harmel asks big questions about purpose, morality, and identity. How much can, and should, we deviate from a path set by others? Is duty or conscience calling when we act? As her characters make difficult decisions, the answers differ for each. 

A fast-paced survival tale in awe of its characters’ courage and resilience, “The Forest of Vanishing Stars” rewards readers with an afterword about the real people who inspired the story. 

Pam Jenoff’s “The Woman With the Blue Star” offers another portrait of survival, this time in – and below – the German-occupied city of Kraków. 

In alternating chapters, readers meet two young women who are a study in contrasts: Sadie, a Jewish working-class 18-year-old who loves books; and Ella, a lonely Roman Catholic 19-year-old living in loveless luxury with her stepmother, a Nazi collaborator.  

When Sadie and her parents escape the liquidation of the ghetto, it’s not to the forest they flee, but to the last unguarded hideout in Kraków: the labyrinthine sewers. In the dark stinking wet, they set up housekeeping in a windowless concrete shelter with another family. Rats scuttle. Hunger gnaws. Danger and death are never far.

After the girls spy each other through a street grate, a friendship forms as Ella, horrified by Sadie’s plight, vows to help. The kindness isn’t one-sided; Sadie soon realizes Ella also needs care. As the story unfolds, Jenoff shows the many ways her protagonists mirror the other: Both have big dreams, impulsive tendencies, and a longing for connection – commonalities that shrink the divide of wealth and religion. 

In many ways the star of the novel is Sadie’s mother. Initially a gracious, fragile woman, she draws upon seemingly unlimited courage and resourcefulness to bolster Sadie, their fellow escapees, and the new life growing inside her.

“The Woman With the Blue Star” is a rough read with its dire setting and increasingly desperate situations. Yet the tale is alight with compassion. The questions it poses about our responsibility to others are critical and ever relevant; so, too, are the book’s insights on the topic of confinement.

Brave saboteurs

France provides the canvas for Natasha Lester’s “The Riviera House.” The story alternates between 1940s Paris, as Éliane, a young employee at the Louvre, secretly catalogs artworks stolen by the Nazis, and 2015 on the Riviera, where fashion blogger Remy tries to rebuild her life following the deaths of her husband and young daughter. 

Desperate to earn money to help feed her four younger sisters, Éliane agrees to spy on the Nazis’ activities at the Jeu de Paume, a gallery serving as the transit station for plundered masterpieces. Sharp, multilingual, and passionate about art, she poses as a naive waif to operate unnoticed alongside other brave saboteurs. It’s perilous work.

As with some books weaving starkly different plotlines, one-half of Lester’s story is more effective than the other. The modern-
day plot feels sludgy – burdened by Remy’s uninterrupted mourning and heavy on fashion details. There’s also a fair amount of whiplash as readers get pulled from the deprivation of the 1940s into the blazing sunlight of privileged Riviera life. That said, Lester’s story casts its spell, particularly as the romantic (and sometimes steamy) subplots of both eras develop and connections between past and present come into focus. 

“Civilization was more than a mass of people,” realizes Éliane. “It was also the beautiful things that came from minds and hands and that touched hearts.” Art, too, must be saved.

Women, long underestimated then as now, prove their mettle in these four novels. The books are part of a growing segment of the World War II historical fiction genre, one that focuses on stories about women and other marginalized groups. An example of the latter is “Sisters in Arms” by Kaia Alderson, which tells of the first Black female officers to serve in the U.S. Army. 

Immersive and heartfelt, these novels offer opportunities to ponder courage, compassion, and persistence.

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