In the past few months, I’ve read several novels set in Europe during World War II. The two that stick in my mind the most are Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blume and The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman. The plot lines of these books are fairly similar, and both books have forever changed how I think about Germany during World War II. But the books are actually very different. I am glad that one is forever ingrained in my memory and I wish I could forget the other.
Both of these books are coming of age stories. The main character of each book is a German, teenage girl who is in love with a Jewish man. In The Plum Tree, Christine is smitten with her boss’s son Isaac. Anna, in Those Who Save Us, falls in love with a Jewish doctor. Both girls vow in their hearts to never love another, and both women suffer for their decision. I appreciated how both books give readers an idea of what it was like to be a German citizen during the Third Reich’s reign. Though The Plum Tree gave a broader picture of life in war torn Germany, both authors used their novels to put readers in the shoes of those people who were innocent of war crimes but still considered the enemy. Through reading these books, I set aside some preconceived ideas about Germans in this time period that I didn’t realize I had allowed to form in my head.
But that’s where the similarities end. The narrative structure of Those Who Save Us didn’t appeal to me much. The structure is popular right now in historical literature and hinges on a character in the present day unearthing the past. The very popular book Sarah’s Key is written in that way. I didn’t think it worked well in Those Who Save Us. Possibly because neither Anna nor her daughter are very personable characters from the first time we meet them, and they don’t improve much upon further acquaintance. They can’t seem to overcome their hearts’ losses. Anna, especially, lets her circumstances consume her. This book is grim, cover to cover. It is ultimately a story of a woman surviving and keeping her daughter safe at great cost to her very soul. I hope I’m not judging Anna’s character too harshly. Most of the time I was reading, I was upset with her passiveness. Another reason I didn’t enjoy this book was the many gruesome details. You’re probably thinking, “Hellooo, it’s a war narrative for grownups!” And I get that. But if you choose books based one how “clean” they are (which I do take into consideration), you probably will not like this one. I’ll admit to skipping over the scenes between two of the main characters after about a third of the book. I understand the author wanted her readers to fully grasp the horror of Anna’s war years, but the details were too much for me. I finished the book because I felt it had some important themes in it that most Americans never consider. And I know this is an area of personal preference–many people like this book, after all–but consider yourself warned. In the end, I was grateful to this book for its perspective, but I wished there was another way to achieve it.
Then I read The Plum Tree. Oh, how I wish I had read this one first! I think this book is magnificent. There was no disjointed feel to the narration; I was completely enthralled. When I put the book down, I found myself listening for bombers. The plot was fast paced but the descriptions of the setting were still detailed and beautiful. I loved Christine and wanted her story to end well. Her merit is not her willingness to suffer in order to survive, but her spirited desire to endure and thrive. Yes, she is changed by the war, but she becomes somebody I would want to know. I gained perspective not only on life for a German woman in WWII, but on what life became for a family and a community. Though sometimes heart wrenching, this book was inspiring. At the end of Those Who Save Us, I was sad for the characters. When I finished The Plum Tree, I was both sad and glad for Christine and her family.
Holocaust era stories are haunting and I sometimes wonder why I and so many others are drawn to them. It must be because we desire to understand how this atrocity happened and we hope to see good and some kind of triumph come out of even what could be the world’s largest tragedy. At least that’s my philosophy. What’s your philosophy on Holocaust/WWII literature? Do you have a favorite book set in that time period? I’d love to hear your thoughts.