The Current Popularity of Books about World War II

18 Feb

It’s interesting that novels about World War II continue to attract readers. I like them because the war feels pretty close to me. I was born only three years after the Japanese surrendered . My father enlisted in the Army; he was stationed at an airfield in England and he was assigned to do office work because he could type. He spent the war watching as his buddies – the pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners, and other flight personnel – flew off on their missions and all too often they never returned. Meanwhile my mother spent the war working in a Victory garden and then running a Victory chicken farm. Both of my parents played supportive roles in that war and it seemed to me that the war was always there just out of sight, a ghostly presence in our household, lurking in the corners, hovering over the bottle of whiskey. Writing Eleanor’s Wars was a way for me to commune with my late parents.

I don’t know whether that is what motivated Ian McEwan to write Atonement, though it’s interesting to note that McEwan and I were born in the same year. Margaret Wurtele is close to my age as well; she wrote a World War II novel entitled The Golden Hour. I suspect that Anthony Doerr is younger than I, but All the Light We Cannot See is certainly one of the best WWII novels I’ve ever read; it won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and it has been on the New York Times Bestseller list for 90 weeks. For WWII novels about the home front, I especially enjoyed The Postmistress by Sarah Blake, Gardenias and Good Night Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan, A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer, Leeway Cottage by Beth Gutcheon, and Private Life by Jane Smiley.

I wonder whether the current interest in WWII has something to do with the fact that the last of the men and women who served in that war are dying now. Perhaps people want to understand that period before the last survivors are gone. Right after the war it seemed that no one wanted to think about it, talk about it, or remember it – veterans and their families were anxious to put all the bloodshed and grief and losses behind them. They wanted to forget, which was certainly understandable. Now it’s crucial that we remember the horrors of that war and realize that every war involves atrocities.