Ukrainian Canadian author Marsha Skrypuch writes–as one interview said–“War Fiction: Writing the stories that haven’t been told.” She writes about genocide and displaced persons with an eye toward well-researched historical detail often given a personal touch through interviews with survivors who lived through the very stories her fiction brings to readers who often begin each book with little or no knowledge about the stories that have been covered up, overlooked, or allowed to fall through the cracks of our baseline knowledge about man’s inhumanity to man because fictional and historical accounts often focus on politics and battles rather than on those who suffered.
In “Making Bombs for Hitler,” Skrypuch–author of twenty books for young people–focuses on the Nazi practice of rounding up Polish, Ukrainian and other children and using them as slave labor in work camps on behalf of the Reich. Those who were too young or too infirm to be productive were eliminated. Some were drained of blood that was sent to the front for use by wounded German soldiers. Others, like the novel’s protagonist, Lida, were forced into camp jobs, rented out to local farmers and others, or pressed into factory work.
While Lida is a strong character, she is a child as are the others in her cold barracks room. So, young readers will be able to identify with her fears and concerns, including her worry about the fate of her younger sister who was taken somewhere else. Those sent to the bomb making factory are caught between their will to survive and the morality of making weapons for the Nazi war machine. It’s difficult to read this without wondering “As a twelve-year-old child, what would I do under similar circumstances?”
One strength of the book is the way in which Skrypuch portrays the bonding on the characters under deplorable conditions. They come together out of an inner strength much stronger than a simple will to survive, but out of a heartfelt and very human need to help each other. This is a heroic story that will stay with its readers long after the last page has been turned.
I have read most, if not all of Skrypuch’s novels because all of them are strong, well written and dear.
Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys, (Philomel Books: February 2016), 400pp, young adult
Between January and May, 1945, Germany evacuated two million people from the advancing Soviet army in the Polish and East Prussian corridors via Operation Hannibal, the largest sea evacuation in modern history. Over 25,000 of them died in the Baltic Sea when 158 of the estimated one thousand merchant vessels were lost, many to enemy fire.
Among the lost were 9,400 of the German, East Prussian, Lithuanian, Latvian and Polish refugees on board the Wilhelm Gustloff that was sunk at 9:15 p.m. January 30th by three torpedoes from Soviet Submarine S-13 at 55°04′22″N 17°25′17″E, nineteen miles off the Polish shore.
Ruta Sepetys’ superb young adult novel traces the flight of Joana (Lithuanian), Florian (Prussian), Emilia (Polish) and Alfred (German) from the advancing Soviet army. Alfred is a sailor sent to the port of Gotenhafen for duty on board the Wilhelm Gustloff to help evacuate those escaping from the Soviet advance. Joana, Florian, and Emilia have a more difficult trek to Gotenhafen because they are also running from the German army.
The story is told in one-to-three-page chapters from the viewpoints of the four major characters. By the end of the novel, readers know each of these characters like family for they will have heard an unforgettable story of brutality, death, guilt, fate, shame and fear from every angle that matters.
Joana is a compassionate nurse, Emilia is a pregnant teenager, Florian is a young man with secrets, and Alfred wants to receive a medal for small, self-important deeds. And then there are Eva, who is tall and gruff; Heinz, a cobbler who knows people by their shoes; Ingrid, a blind girl who sees better than many, and the other seemingly doomed but hopeful souls along the way.
As they walk through the snow, Joana thinks: We trudged farther down the narrow road. Fifteen refugees. The sun had finally surrendered, and the temperature followed. A blind girl ahead of me, Ingrid, held a rope tethered to a horse-drawn cart. I had my sight, but we shared a handicap: we both walked into a dark corridor of combat, with no view of what lay ahead. Perhaps her lost vision was a gift. The blind girl could hear and smell things the rest of us couldn’t.
Sepetys’ great success with this novel comes from many factors over and above her research. The story, including the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff, is told in pointed, straightforward, often graphic language with well-chosen details and no authorial editorializing or sentimentality. If the refugees reach the ships in Gotenhafen, they may not be given a boarding pass: the Germans can easily find reasons for and against each of the characters. And, the subplot of secrets ultimately linking Joana, Florian and Alfred adds tension.
It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect story about the tragedy of civilians in wartime or a better historical introduction to the plight of the Lithuanian, Prussian, Polish and German refugees caught between the opposing, but equally brutal World War II regimes of Hitler and Stalin.
Salt to the Sea is the novel no reader will forget.
Today’s guest post is by Robert Hays (“Blood on the Roses,” “The Life and Death of Lizzie Morris”) who returns to his nonfiction roots with Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him. Since my writing career also began, like my father’s and Robert Hays’, in journalism, I wondered how Robert handled the move from fiction to nonfiction for this book.
Returning to Nonfiction
After four novels, I returned to non-fiction for my new book, Patton’s Oracle: Gen. Oscar Koch, as I Knew Him. I love writing fiction—the freedom to create settings and characters, the magic of working with different plots, the fun of trying ideas just to see if they work—but I also find great satisfaction in non-fiction. I’ve spent most of my adult life as a journalist. I loved newspaper reporting and the prospect of offering readers factual information that I consider interesting and important never wears thin.
What’s new for me in Patton’s Oracle is the addition of subjective material to the mix. The book is a biographical memoir, my effort to recount a marvelous four years of friendship and work with Oscar Koch, an unsung hero of World War II who became my personal hero as well.
Oscar Koch was a brilliant intelligence officer who deserves great credit for his behind-the-scenes role in the success of his celebrated commander, Gen. George S. Patton Jr. My military service had been two years as a draftee enlisted man and I had just turned 31 when I met Gen. Koch, who besides having a distinguished military career of almost forty years was well beyond twice my age. Surely the likelihood of us finding things in common was slight. But we live in a world of chance and in this case the unlikely came to pass.
I discovered the general to be a modest, scholarly and charming man. He found no glory in war, and sought none for himself. He was not enthusiastic when I asked to make him the subject of a personality profile article for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. I believe he consented principally as a favor to me. He was pleased with the article, though, and invited me to collaborate with him on a book that had become his final goal in life.
Gen. Koch was a joy to work with. His book quickly became almost as important to me as it was to him. But shortly after we began, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. From that point forward I knew this was a race against time. We finished the book, G-2: Intelligence for Patton, but Oscar Koch did not survive to see it published. It came out in 1971 and still is in print.
As I summarized this experience in Patton’s Oracle: “I was granted only four years to share life with the general, a period that was far too short. In the beginning he lifted my spirits as we joined in a common purpose. In the end, I endured the anguish of watching an insidious cancer purloin the life from his body even though he never would surrender his gallant spirit. But what a remarkable four years it was, how grateful I am to have had that privilege.”
Patton’s Oracle is my tenth book. But it is the one I’ve wanted for decades to write, timid that I might not do justice to the subject. Even though the words are my own, there are passages that bring tears to my eyes. And of the ten, it is the book that is dearest to my heart.
“A Pearl Harbor attack intensified hostility towards Japanese Americans. As wartime hysteria mounted, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 making over 120,000 West Coast persons of Japanese ancestry (Nikkei) leave their homes, jobs, and lives behind and move to one of ten Relocation Centers. This single largest forced relocation in U.S. history is Minidoka’s story.” — National Park Service, Minidoka National Historic Site
“Now, therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me as President of the United States, and Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, I hereby authorize and direct the Secretary of War, and the Military Commanders whom he may from time to time designate, whenever he or any designated Commander deems such action necessary or desirable, to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion. ” — Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Excutive Order 9066, February 19, 1942, resulting in the relocation into camps of 122,ooo Japanese, many of whom were born in the U.S. and were American citizens.
“The internment of individuals of Japanese ancestry was carried out without any documented acts of espionage or sabotage, or other acts of disloyalty by any citizens or permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry on the west coast; there was no military or security reason for the internment; the internment of the individuals of Japanese ancestry was caused by racial prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” — Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, April 15, 1988.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
Had I written this powerful novel, my black sense of humor would have tempted me to weaken the story of Chinese American Henry Lee and Japanese American Keiko Okabe by including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s name in the book’s acknowledgements. Without his failure of leadership, there would be no bittersweet story to tell.
Ford knew better than that. Lee and Okabe are fictional characters living out their story between 1942 and 1986 against a backdrop of historical fact. Seattle existed in 1942 with Japanese and Chinese enclaves. Many of the residents in both sections of town were property owners, merchants, wives, school children and American Citizens. The Japanese residents of Seattle were removed and taken to Idaho where they were placed within the Minidoka Relocation Center until the end of World War II. Ford lets these facts speak for themselves.
In the author’s note he writes, “My intent was not to create a morality play, with my voice being the loudest on the stage, but rather to defer to the reader’s sense of justice, of right and wrong, and let the facts speak plainly.”
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is a universal love story. School children from diverse backgrounds meet and become friends. Their friendship isn’t supported by the prevailing social customs, the political realities of the day, or their families. In 1942, Henry Lee was sent to a white school in Seattle because his father thought it was in his son’s best interests. Born in China, Lee’s father dispises the Japanese because they have invaded his homeland. China is an ally of the United States. Since he doesn’t want young Henry to be mistaken for the enemy, he makes him wear a button that proclaims “I am Chinese.”
The other students at the white school see “Chinks” and “Japs” as subhuman and other and too alien to tolerate or befriend. While Henry grew up speaking Cantonese, his father has forbidden him from using it. Becoming a full American means speaking Enlish. When Henry meets Keiko at the school, he is surprised to discover that she’s never spoken any language other than English. Born in the U. S., she’s a full-fledged American even though the students who taunt Henry see her only as his “Jap girlfriend.”
We know before the novel begins that Keiko will be taken away. What we don’t know—actually, what we can’t know unless we have experienced it—is how Henry and Keiko will cope with the daily threats from whites, the ever-present fear of soldiers and FBI agents, the forced removal of people from the “Japantown” enclave in Seattle, or the forced separation that looms large and infinite in a person’s life. In part, the power of this story comes not only from the fact Ford lets the historical facts speak for themselves, but the thoughts and actions of his fictional characters as well. His understatement is finely tuned and carries the story well across its alternating time periods.
In 1942, Henry lives through the days of fear and friendships lost. In 1986, when the old Panama Hotel—a real Seattle Landmark—makes the news because its basement holds the stored-away belongings of many of the “evacuated Japense families,” Henry relives the old days, and wonders if he can come to terms with them and all that he lost and how he lost it. Even “now,” in the 1986 “present day” of the story, he is still wondering and still searching—for exactly what, he’s not sure—but he will know it when he finds it.
Ford has written a terrifying and poignant love story that’s as haunting as the ever-present jazz music Henry and Keiko love and as filled with hope as two young people in any time period of culture or circumstance who promise they will wait for each other forever.