Category Archives: Historical Fiction – World War II

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

We all know there are self centered, egotistical, SOB’s out there in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to spend time with them, even if it is only amongst the pages of a book.

Seems that’s one of the problems of At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen. Ellis Hyde and his pal Hank are privileged, silver-spoons-in-their-mouths, sons of wealthy gentlemen who spend their time in frivolous pursuits, going to parties, drinking too much, and cavalcading throughout high society, annoying the patrons and getting into trouble. The two best friends have a cohort, Madeline, a woman who enjoys their company and madcap adventures. Despite her wealthy father, Maddie has a black mark against her due to the antics of her now deceased mother, so that when she marries Ellis her welcome is anything but friendly. Then on New Years Eve in 1944, the trio are especially obnoxious, and Ellis’ parents are, shall we say, not amused with the resulting gossip, so when Ellis insults his father they are ejected from the family estate and left to fend for themselves.

Ellis, whose father (the Colonel) can’t forgive him for being rejected from the military due to a case of color blindness, decides to go to Scotland and find the Loch Ness Monster, an adventure that tainted his father’s reputation several years earlier. If Ellis could just prove the monster exists, then his now proud papa would welcome him back with open arms and reinstate his allowance.

Unfortunately there is a war going on, so they must travel overseas bunked down like commoners in a military convoy and to make matters worse, once they arrive in Scotland their welcome is less than cordial. The search for the monster is a lot more difficult than expected, and the two friend’s behavior gets more and more outrageous fueled by alcohol and the little pills prescribed to Maddie for her “nervous condition”. Maddie soon distances herself from her husband and Hank, finding more in common with the humble folks who live and work at the inn. The true personalities of each of the characters are revealed as they deal with their struggles and Maddie comes to terms with her choices in life making a decision which totally alters the fate of everyone involved leading to a twisted resolution.

While the story takes place towards the end of WWII, the war is more of a backdrop than an integral part of the story although there are black out curtains, ration books, gas masks, and several air raids. Scotland, complete with castle, is the main focus of the narrative as the inhabitants try to eke out a living in difficult times.

This was a hard book to get into, not grabbing ones’ interest until almost half way through, probably because of the despicable characters. I did borrow the audiobook, dramatically read by Justine Eyre, to get me over the hump, then finished with the written word.

I’m not sure if I buy this tale, it’s a little far fetched and I question the shift in Ellis from a spoiled brat into an evil man. Although I usually look for the good in people (in life as well as in literature), by the end of the book he had no redeeming qualities left to discuss. There was also a romance which seemed to come out of nowhere, even though there were some subtle hints of this possibility along the way.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

If you are looking for an HEA (Happily Ever After) story, then you need to look elsewhere. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys takes place towards the end of World War II in winter of 1945 and any tale involving the Holocaust and the savageness of war is not a feel good read. Yet, during the most adverse conditions, despite the despicable actions surrounding each individual’s struggle for survival, there is love, compassion, and even humor amongst the tragic events.

Salt to the Sea has four narrators who each give us rotating glimpses of their thoughts and actions as a means of advancing the plot. Three are in an incongruous entourage of refugees on their way across East Prussia to the Baltic Sea to catch a ship to Kiel in order to escape the advancing Russians and the marauding Germans, both likely to kill on sight. The fourth is a German Soldier preparing a ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff, for departure. How their lives intersect is the basis of this story. The youngest of the four is Emilia (Shame is a Hunter), a Pole who was sent to safety by her father and then betrayed. Then there is nineteen year old Joana (Guilt is a Hunter), a trained nurse from Lithuania whose guilt ridden need to help others leads her to befriend a wandering boy in search of his dead grandmother. Finally there is the young Prussian artist, Florian Beck (Fate is a Hunter), who has a secret hidden in his backpack which must be preserved no matter what the cost. Somehow Emilia attaches herself to Florian who she views as her savior after he rescues her from some savage thugs. Although Florian wants to travel alone, he finds himself tagging along with the others, all moving in the same direction. Ingrid, whose blindness allows her to hear hidden sounds, a grandfatherly cobbler they refer to as the “Shoe Poet”, and Eva, a Viking Giantess, round out the pack. The fourth narrator is Alfred Frick (Fear is a Hunter), a foolish young man who creates mental letters to a girl called Hannelore referring to himself as a war hero. Yet instead of courageous deeds, the inept German soldier is sent to scrub toilets, a job which better suits his talents. Each of the four carries a secret which is revealed as the events unfold. Their lives intersect at the Port of Gotenhofen leading to an exciting climax which is guaranteed to mesmerize the reader.

Whenever I think I have a handle on WWII, (for God’s sake I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Schindler’s List as well as a myriad of other books, both fiction and nonfiction), I realize there is always something new to learn. I’m glad that Sepetys wrote this book as it explores a subject which is not common knowledge. Truths such as these must be quickly told as time is running out. How many eyewitnesses are left to share their stories? History will soon be relegated to the distant past as we continue to forgot the lessons Iearned by our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents. Even in the US, there are still white supremacists and other radicals who wait for their chance to annihilate the enemy. The identity of this enemy depends upon the speaker, but those of us who know how easy it would be to repeat history, are terrified by the rhetoric and violence we see throughout the world.

The story of the maritime evacuation, Operation Hannibal, which despite its rescue intent resulted in the death of over 25,000 people, mainly retreating women and children, is a secret that must be revealed. Neither the Russians whose uboats torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff, nor the Germans who were facilitating the refugees escape, wanted to admit their culpability in the death of over 90% of the 10,000 fleeing passengers, so the truth remained hidden. Yet there are survivors who have a tale to tell and storytellers, such as Sepetys who had the wherewithal and connections (her father’s cousin had a ticket to board the fatal ship but miraculously missed the launching), that are willing to share these horrors from the past. Over three years of research, including interviews with eyewitnesses and their families, allowed the author to create a realistic scenario as a background for the fictional trek towards freedom. While this book is written for teens (the extremely short chapters and young main characters will be a draw for the YA crowd), adults will also be fascinated by this historical saga with a new angle about the atrocities of war.

Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.