Historical fiction books are the closest things we have to a time machine. It is incredible to think that these ink-stained pages could transport us to another time and place, allow us to meet different people and experience events that we’ve only read about in textbooks. I especially love books set during the Second World War even though the subject is not pleasant to read about considering it’s one of the worst events in history.
I have compiled a list of some of my favourite fiction books set during WWII. What I love most about these books is that while they deal with vastly different characters and recount different stories, there is something fundamental that binds them all together, and it is non other than human courage and the fight for survival in the face of adversity.
1. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Synopsis: Trying to make sense of the horrors of World War II, Death relates the story of Liesel–a young German girl whose book-stealing and story-telling talents help sustain her family and the Jewish man they are hiding, as well as their neighbours. [Goodreads]
It’s not everyday that we come across a story narrated by Death. In addition to the beautiful prose and the precious characters, you have an opportunity to glimpse Death breathing life onto a story instead of snatching it away.
Things you need:
- Boxes of tissues
- A week off work to recover
2. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Synopsis: This is a story about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II. Marie-Laure lives in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where her father works. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, Werner Pfennig, an orphan, grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find that brings them news and stories from places they have never seen or imagined. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments and is enlisted to use his talent to track down the resistance. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, Doerr illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. [Goodreads]
A captivating novel by one of my favourite authors that is equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting. While it is slow-paced, the complex characters and beautiful writing will make up for it.
Things you need:
- Even more boxes of tissues
- A slab of chocolate to sooth your soul
3. Atonement by Ian McEwan
Synopsis: On a hot summer day in 1934, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a moment’s flirtation between her older sister, Cecilia, and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant and Cecilia’s childhood friend. But Briony’s incomplete grasp of adult motives—together with her precocious literary gifts—brings about a crime that will change all their lives. As it follows that crime’s repercussions through the chaos and carnage of World War II and into the close of the twentieth century, Atonement engages the reader on every conceivable level, with an ease and authority that mark it as a genuine masterpiece. [Goodreads]
A beautifully written novel that tackles various themes, mainly guilt, forgiveness, warfare, dreams, hopes and family. The writing is truly enchanting and makes you reflect on people’s actions and intentions.
Things you need:
- Even more tissues!
- Enough strength to throw the book across the room
- The movie to watch afterwards
4. Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys
Synopsis: Lina is just like any other fifteen-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941. She paints, she draws, she gets crushes on boys. Until one night when Soviet officers barge into her home, tearing her family from the comfortable life they’ve known. Separated from her father, forced onto a crowded and dirty train car, Lina, her mother, and her young brother slowly make their way north, crossing the Arctic Circle, to a work camp in the coldest reaches of Siberia. Here they are forced, under Stalin’s orders, to dig for beets and fight for their lives under the cruelest of conditions.
Lina finds solace in her art, meticulously–and at great risk–documenting events by drawing, hoping these messages will make their way to her father’s prison camp to let him know they are still alive. It is a long and harrowing journey, spanning years and covering 6,500 miles, but it is through incredible strength, love, and hope that Lina ultimately survives. [Goodreads]
I am so grateful for Ruta Sepetys. Reading this book made me aware of a part of history I had no idea existed and it is so important for people to read about it. The story is a journey of suffering and misery that still clings to hope in a life full of darkness.
Things you need:
- Boxes of t…ok seriously don’t bother. Just use your shirt instead
- Another edition of the book because yours will be splattered with tears
5. City of Thieves by David Benioff
Synopsis: During the Nazis’ brutal siege of Leningrad, Lev Beniov is arrested for looting and thrown into the same cell as a handsome deserter named Kolya. Instead of being executed, Lev and Kolya are given a shot at saving their own lives by complying with an outrageous directive: secure a dozen eggs for a powerful Soviet colonel to use in his daughter’s wedding cake. In a city cut off from all supplies and suffering unbelievable deprivation, Lev and Kolya embark on a hunt through the dire lawlessness of Leningrad and behind enemy lines to find the impossible. [Goodreads]
This book is a masterpiece! The story is equal parts poetic, hilarious and devastating. David Benioff manages to show the true horrors of war while still holding on to the goodness of humanity.
Things you need:
- Eggs…because the characters need them!
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Synopsis: A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of very curious photographs. It all waits to be discovered in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, an unforgettable novel that mixes fiction and photography in a thrilling reading experience. As our story opens, a horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow-impossible though it seems-they may still be alive. [Goodreads]
The story takes place on present day Cairnholm Island, Wales but also in a timeloop, repeating September 3rd, 1940 over and over again, where bombs fly overhead like clockwork and actual monsters roam the island.
Things you need:
- Keep the lights on…the story is creepy!
Here are a couple of books set during WWII that I’m really looking forward to read:
>A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell
Synopsis: It is September 8, 1943, and fourteen-year-old Claudette Blum is learning Italian with a suitcase in her hand. She and her father are among the thousands of Jewish refugees scrambling over the Alps toward Italy, where they hope to be safe at last, now that the Italians have broken with Germany and made a separate peace with the Allies. The Blums will soon discover that Italy is anything but peaceful, as it becomes overnight an open battleground among the Nazis, the Allies, resistance fighters, Jews in hiding, and ordinary Italian civilians trying to survive.
Mary Doria Russell sets her first historical novel against this dramatic background, tracing the lives of a handful of fascinating characters. Through them, she tells the little-known but true story of the network of Italian citizens who saved the lives of forty-three thousand Jews during the war’s final phase. [Goodreads]
>Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Synopsis: World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, many with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer to safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people—adults and children alike—aboard must fight for the same thing: survival. [Goodreads]
>The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Synopsis: FRANCE, 1939: In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When France is overrun, Vianne is forced to take an enemy into her house, and suddenly her every move is watched; her life and her child’s life is at constant risk. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates around her, she must make one terrible choice after another.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets the compelling and mysterious Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. When he betrays her, Isabelle races headlong into danger and joins the Resistance, never looking back or giving a thought to the real–and deadly–consequences. [Goodreads]
Do you love to read Historical Fiction books?