The Enduring Appeal of WWII Fiction

2019-11-09T17:33:18-08:00December 1st, 2019|

Guest blog by Barbara Ridley

I was raised in England in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. The war was so recent it didn’t feel like history. Bombed out buildings still littered the streets and we had rationing for some items through the mid-fifties. People of my parents’ generation talked about the war constantly: the sound of the approaching bombers, the wail of the all-clear siren, the size of the weekly cheese ration, the shortage of soap. I almost felt like I had lived through it myself.

The first fictional representations of the war that I remember came in movies such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Battle of the River Plate, or A Bridge Too Far. They featured heroic battle scenes or dramatic prisoner of war escapes, all very male, never very appealing to me. But in the past twenty to thirty years, there has been an explosion of fiction reflecting the enormous range of the WWII experience. Through fiction, we can now read about female spies or the lives of ordinary people on the home front from London to Shanghai. A recent search on Amazon for “World War II Fiction” produced 75 pages with 22 books to a page: 1650 titles. Several are runaway bestsellers, such as All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale.

What is the appeal? The war was a watershed moment, for sure, changing the course of the twentieth century, with multi-faceted effects on social relationships and the role of women on all continents. It was also perhaps the last war in which there were clear “good guys” and “bad guys”. Heroism was not confined to the battlefield. In England, it was known as the “People’s War” as everyone had a role to play. In countries under Nazi occupation, ordinary citizens faced extraordinary decisions: whether to be complicit or confront evil. This is all great material for fiction.

It was several decades before we saw the burgeoning of Holocaust-related literature. This reflects the fact that many survivors were not ready to talk about their experiences until the 1980’s. Now, many of that generation are dying, and there is heightened interest in preserving their history. Holocaust stories are riveting, pitting heroes and heroines against quintessential evil, and have inspired blockbuster movies such as Sophie’s Choice or Schindler’s List.

My own novel, When It’s Over, was inspired by the true story of my mother’s escape from the Holocaust. I didn’t decide to write it until after her death, and my main source material was the oral history I had recorded with her in 1982, the first and only time she spoke in detail about her experience and the fate of her family who perished. There were too many gaps in the story for me to write a non-fiction account, so I chose to write a novel, which allowed me the freedom to make up what I didn’t know.

But I was committed to making it historically accurate. In the course of my research, I uncovered two little-known WWII stories: the British internment of Jewish and anti-Nazi refugees as “enemy aliens”, and the progressive political movement during the last two years of the war, which led to the dramatic defeat of Churchill in the 1945 election. These became important elements in my novel. It seems there is no end to the fascinating tales WWII has to offer.

I’ve soaked up many of the novels on that Amazon list. My favorites include Night Watch, The English Patient, The Pianist, The Book Thief and Sarah’s Key. And two of my fellow She Writes Press authors have written prize-winning WWII novels: Barbara Stark-Nemon’s Even in Darkness, about a courageous German Jewish woman’s struggle for survival, and Mary Dingee Fillmore’s portrayal of a Dutch teenager’s role in the resistance in An Address in Amsterdam. I’m always eager for more.

I belong to several book-related groups on Facebook, including one that is specifically focused on historical fiction. People actively participate in discussions and offer book recommendations. I’ve seen some members comment: “I need a break from WWII please”. I get it. There are plenty of other interesting historical topics to explore. But when I heard about Meg Waite Clayton’s new novel, Last Train to London, based on the Kindertransport efforts to rescue Jewish children from the Nazis, I couldn’t resist. It jumped to the top of my “to be read” queue. It did not disappoint. It’s a riveting account of the difference one brave woman can make. And it’s become an instant bestseller.

I don’t see WWII fiction dying out any time soon.

 

Barbara Ridley was born in England but has lived in California for over 35 years. After a successful career as a nurse practitioner, she is now focused on creative writing. Her debut novel, When It’s Over, (She Writes Press, 2017) has been recognized as a Finalist in six awards, including the IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award, the Next Generation Indie Award, and the Sarton Women’s Book Award. She is currently working on a second novel, set in contemporary California, and based on her clinical experience as a rehabilitation nurse. Visit her at www.barbararidley.com.

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