If you’ve been with me on this blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I love a good World War Two novel. Many of my favorite books from the past three years have been WWII historical fiction: Code Name Verity, To Say Nothing of the Dog, Life After Life, and Blackout and All Clear. Schindler’s List was a fascinating example of nonfiction about this era, and I very much enjoyed it as well.
I grew up reading books like The Book Thief, Number the Stars, The Upstairs Room, and The Hiding Place, but it wasn’t until I saw the 2016 Newbery books that I started to question the number of WWII books that have flooded my bookshelves. Two of the four books (Echo and The War that Saved My Life) are set, at least partly, during the time period of World War Two. As best I can figure, only seven of the previous Newbery books have been set during WWII, and with the popularity of recent books such as All the Light We Cannot See and The Nightingale (both of which are, I believe, currently on the NYT bestseller list), I’ve started wondering–do we have too many World War Two books?
I’ve often thought about the pull that we feel toward WWII and Holocaust stories. I think part of the draw is the very clear distinction between good and evil. It’s rare in real life to have a person or group of people that almost all readers will agree were in the wrong, and not just misguided but truly evil. WWII books make it easy to know who to root for, and this makes the reversal–books written from the perspective of Nazis–even more effective.
Another reason, I think, that these books are so popular is that World War Two is still very recent. It is fresh in our collective memory; there are still many people alive who witnessed the events of this time period firsthand. We are still making sense of something that was totally senseless, and our books are an important part of that. And maybe, to some extent, we are trying to discover how we can avoid another war like this. With the threat of war constantly looming around the world, maybe we’re looking for clues from the past to help us avoid repeating these events in the future.
But then again, maybe we’re just looking for a good story. The dramatic backdrop of worldwide war and horrific concentration camps offers a compelling setting for almost any type of story, whether it’s a thriller, mystery, coming of age story, time travel, or literary narrative. Even books that I found enjoyable but forgettable, such as The Sweetness or The Mine, are more memorable just because of their setting. It’s an easy way to catch our attention as readers, to signal that there is something important in this story, higher stakes than your average [fill in the blank] story.
Will I ever give up on WWII books? It’s not likely. Flygirl, A God in Ruins, and The Men with the Pink Triangle are still on my TBR list, and I am looking forward to reading the newest set of Newbery books. I sometimes wonder if writers have plumbed the depths of World War Two and Holocaust events so deeply that there is nothing new to say about them, and I have in fact read some WWII books that were derivative and boring. But then I pick up a book like Code Name Verity or Life After Life, and I realize that there are still fresh ways to look at this horrifying time period, something that will make me laugh and cry and feel more connected to humanity. And maybe that’s the best way to redeem such horrible events–to never forget them, but to use them as a catalyst for creating bonds with the rest of humanity.
Do you think authors have written too many WWII books lately? Let’s discuss!