I have been struck recently by how many people have told me that they never read history or historical fiction. This is totally understandable if they had the same sort of high school experience that I had, being taught history by a coach who can’t pronounce the names and who thinks that memorizing battle dates is the most important part of the job. However, I grew up to be a homeschooling mom with access to brilliant materials that taught me that history is the story of people’s lives and thoughts down through the ages, and who doesn’t love a story?
The kids in our fantastic Mock Newbery Club were raving about a recent historical fiction novel that I had skipped because I didn’t like the cover. (Yes, I judged.) The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is a World War II novel with a difference. Like the Pevensie children of Narnia fame, these kids were sent away from their London home to the English countryside in order to spare them from the Nazi bombs. For most families of that time, this was a heart-rending decision, and most parents and children longed to be reunited at the end of the war. For Ada and Jamie, though, it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Ada was born with a club foot, and her heartless single mom never let her leave their apartment. She taught Ada to be ashamed that she had ever been born and would often lock her into a cabinet under the sink that was crawling with roaches. When Ada heard that children were being sent away, she saw a chance for escape and ran with Jamie onto the waiting train. Susan was a single woman, also, living in the country, and she had no desire for children in her life. However, the stern village leader forced her to do her part for the war effort, and so this unlikely trio started a life that changed all of them in ways they never expected or wanted.
The people in this story are all thorns in the beginning, but the character development they experience is astounding, and yet believable. Ms. Bradley has cast a spotlight on a neglected scene in history: that of an entire generation of British children growing up among strangers, and of an entire generation of British adults caring for children who were not their own. The war in Europe began in 1939 and lasted until 1945, longer than the United States was involved, so that is a significant portion of any child’s memory. There are so many discussable issues in this novel! Brilliantly and beautifully written, this story will remain with you for a long time. The Newbery Club kids were right!
I followed this novel with a nonfiction offering about another small, almost hidden drama during World War II. The Boys Who Challenged Hitler: Knud Pedersen and the Churchill Club is a slender volume about the Danish resistance movement that was started by a group of young teenage boys. Knud and his brother, Jens, were ashamed that their country had capitulated to the Germans without a struggle, when they had the inspiring example of the Norwegians next door who were raging against the Hitler’s occupation of their country. Since their father was a pastor, they lived in an enormous, old monastery with plenty of empty lofts that had fallen into disuse over the centuries. The Pedersen boys convinced a group of schoolmates to begin vandalizing the German trucks and equipment, thereby interfering with their ability to launch attacks against the Allied troops. As their efforts were successful, they tried more and more dangerous missions, stealing weapons and ammunition and stashing them in the monastery lofts, putting their own lives and those of their families at risk.
This true story recounts how children shamed the adults of Denmark into mounting a broader, more organized resistance to the Nazis that only ended when victory was declared in Europe. Phillip Hoose is the author, but there are many sections that are told directly by Knud Pedersen himself, as Hoose was able to meet with him and then carry on an extensive correspondence throughout the writing of the book. Mr. Pedersen died just shortly after its completion late last year. Although the boys’ example is thrilling and inspiring, the author does not gloss over the price they paid for their patriotic heroism.
In an age when so many people receive their news from Facebook and late-night television comedians, reading in-depth, thoughtful accounts of historical events is more essential than ever. It is not enough to learn that an event happened; we need to understand why world events take place. Why do cultures think and act as they do? What happened to them years ago that is shaping their opinions today? In the case of World War II, the people who can talk about it firsthand are disappearing. When I was young, I knew people who had fought in the war and others who had numbers tattooed on the inside of their forearms, a reminder of the concentration camps that would never disappear. Now there are whole nations that deny the existence of the Holocaust, and many young people act as if it is a relative truth. There may or may not have been a Holocaust, and does it really matter who is right? Yes, it matters very much! Truth is not relative, and Knud’s and Ada’s families were leading their everyday lives right up until the day that one powerful man from very far away decided that he wanted to run their country. American children need to learn—in age-appropriate ways—that our consumer-driven, self-satisfied lifestyle can disappear in a moment unless we are vigilant and have a government that is serious about keeping us safe. Read history—to yourself and to your children—that consists of more than 140 characters. We will all be grateful to you.
Disclaimer: I read library copies of both books in this article. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.