The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


January 20, 2014

Jacque Gage: Wein novels paint vivid pictures of WWII POWs

JOPLIN, Mo. — I enjoy reading historical fiction. I think it may stem from the fact that I remember almost no history education. I always thought I remembered a lot about high school, my classes and teachers. But I honestly cannot remember taking a history class -- ever.

So I enjoy reading well-researched historical fiction. It helps to fill in gaps in my knowledge. A well-written novel will send me seeking more information about the era or place in which the book is set.

I only vaguely remember hearing about the Holocaust when I was a teen. I have merely a nebulous memory of hearing how some people were gassed in rooms designed to look like showers.

When I was 20, however, I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz in person. Amazing, incredible, unbelievable, sobering, heart-wrenching and life-changing.

I recently finished reading two books by Elizabeth Wein set in the World War II era. They are companion books, not a book and sequel. They each stand on their own, although there are a couple common characters.

"Code Name Verity" tells of Verity, a secret agent arrested by the Gestapo and held as a prisoner of war. She is given the choice of revealing her mission or facing certain death.

Bit by bit on scraps of papers, Verity makes her confession, telling the story of her life and mission but also weaving in the tale of her friendship with Maddie, a young female pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary.

A review of this book in the New York Times calls it "a fiendishly plotted mind game of a novel, the kind you have to read twice." I indeed found myself going back to earlier passages in the book and finding clues I should have picked up earlier. There were several aha moments.

It was a satisfying read, one where the characters became people I cared about and cared about what happened to them. (And no, I won't spoil it for you.)

The companion book, "Rose Under Fire," deals with Rose, a young American poet but also an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot who ends up a prisoner in Ravensbruck, one of the infamous German concentration camps after trying to taran (perform an aerial ramming) a V-1 flying bomb -- also known as a buzz bomb or doodlebug.

In Ravensbruck, we meet her camp family: a French novelist and mother figure, a feisty Polish girl who teaches Rose to swear in at least six languages and an ace Soviet fighter pilot. Will the hope these people provide each other allow them to survive? (Again, no spoilers.)

I had no idea that women flew transport and support missions in WWII. I knew nothing about aerial ramming or doodlebugs. I sure never knew that some American women ended up in concentration camps. This pair of books was one that sent me off to do extra reading about these parts of WWII and the Holocaust. Each book contains a bibliography of books, articles and websites for more reading.

You can find these titles in the Teen area of Joplin Public Library. (Or, you WILL be able to find these titles just as soon as I look further at the resources in the back of the book.)

One more thing. Speaking of the Holocaust, library staff members are currently talking with Marion Blumenthal Lazan, a Holocaust survivor who spoke in Joplin earlier this year. We'd like her to do a return trip to speak at the library. We are hoping to get a date in March.

Keep watch for details.


Jacque Gage is director of the Joplin Public Library.

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