Relevant Fiction Reviews: Historical Fiction from the World Wars

Relevant Fiction Reviews

I’ve read surprisingly few wartime novels outside of the Civil War era, and Ellen Gable’s latest book is the first I’ve ever read concerning World War I. Wartime is rich with possibilities for storytellers. Romance, danger, and intrigue are just a few of the elements a wartime setting lends to a novel. These books are a small sampling of the possibilities.

Julia's Gifts (Great War Great Love #1)Julia’s Gifts by Ellen Gable

As someone who is fairly ignorant of World War I history, I soaked up the details of Julia’s Gifts as Philadelphia-native Julia and Canadian-born Peter become immersed in the horrors of wartime France.

One of the things I enjoy about Ellen Gable’s writing is her treatment of the whole character – body and soul. I’ve come to expect stories illumined by the Catholic faith that never shy from the physical realities that ground us as human beings. Julia’s Gifts delivers on both counts, honestly conveying the brutality of war illness and injury yet keeping hope alive through a faith that overcomes even the most hopeless of circumstances.

I loved the premise of a young woman storing up gifts for her future “beloved.” Even today, many have created such specific and elaborate expectations for their future spouse, courtship, wedding, etc. that they risk missing what God is setting before them.

Fans of historical romance will enjoy this sweet story with its timely miracles, great and small.

Saving AmelieSaving Amelie by Cathy Gohlke

Beautifully-crafted novel written mainly from the perspective of Americans in Oberammergau, Germany before the United States’ entry into World War II. Author Cathy Gohlke takes the reader inside the lives of a pair of sisters unwittingly used by the infamous Josef Mengele in his eugenics experiments.
By interweaving elite Aryan society with simple Bavarian culture, the author allows the reader to examine the triumph of evil in Nazi Germany from various sides. The vile destruction of life and culture is personalized by the heartbreaking journey of young Amelie, the daughter of a heartless SS officer.
With subtle themes of faith woven throughout the spiritual and geographic journeys of Americans Rachel Kramer and Jason Young, the story examines Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea of “costly grace” in the sacrifices each must make for both those they love and relative strangers endangered by Hitler’s destructive rule.
Saving Amelie is a well-written, well-researched story that makes the reader wonder anew how such horrors ever happened and whether they could happen again.

Bright CandlesBright Candles by Nathaniel Benchley

My prior knowledge of the Danish resistance during WWII was zilch, but this well-written, engaging novel brought to life the slowly deteriorating conditions in Denmark during the German occupation.

I had to jump through some hoops to obtain a copy of this book, but having read it, I wish it were more readily available to teens and adults. There’s much to recommend it – a story of friendship, family, wartime romance, liberty, and self-determination.

From Sand and AshFrom Sand and Ash by Amy Harmon

From Sand and Ash made me nervous from the outset. A romance involving a Catholic priest? I feared the story would only raise my hackles. (We’ll call it Thornbirds syndrome.) Based on my love for the six other Amy Harmon novels I’ve read, I was wiling to give it a shot. My final take: Angelo and Eva’s lack of virtue tarnished their otherwise tender romance.

While the characters’ temptations, struggles, and failures built empathy, their unrepentant, deliberate breaking of vows left me disappointed. When I read a romance, I want to root for the union of the hero and heroine, and I can’t do that when vows are broken in the process.

It’s easy to recognize the injustice of such infidelity when the jilted party is a living, breathing human being. Sympathies are easily dulled when the vows broken are made to the Church, lacking an individual who feels, cries, and grieves. Nevertheless, the vows are equally binding.

From the start, it’s obvious that Angelo entered the seminary for the wrong reasons and should never have been ordained. And surely the untenable – horrific -times in which Eva and Angelo lived affected their decisions. And yet Eva and Angelo exhibited heroic behavior – routinely risking their own welfare for the sake of others’ – in every area but their romantic relationship. Ultimately, that diminished my enjoyment of the romance.

There is, however, more to From Sand and Ash than romance. And in that regard, I think Amy Harmon did a stellar job. History was interwoven seamlessly throughout, and it’s obvious care was taken not only with historical accuracy but in details of the Catholic and Jewish faiths as well. As a Catholic, I noted only one minor error in the novel’s respectful representation of the faith. I appreciated how the story brings to light the sacrifices made by many, Italian Catholic clergy and religious in particular, in hiding and shielding Jews throughout the war.

From Sand and Ash took longer to hook me than any Amy Harmon book I’ve read. At least a third of the book was behind me before I felt invested in Angelo and Eva’s fate. In part, I think that may be because of what I’ll call deep omniscient point of view (POV). I don’t know if that’s a thing or not, but it seemed like the POV was meant to bridge the competing needs for an omniscient scope created by a sprawling historical topic like WWII and the closer, more personal POV demanded by a romance.

Worth noting for those who are sensitive to it, this book contains more sexuality than Amy Harmon’s earlier books. I hesitate to call it explicit because it is never vulgar or distasteful, but it’s also not a fade-to-black intimacy. And while it is not the cleanest Amy Harmon book from a sexual standpoint, it may be in respect to proofreading. The narrative was virtually free from typos, reducing distractions and making it a pleasure to read.


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