“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” ~ George R.R. Martin
Thanks, Game of Thrones. I can almost hear the TV show’s theme song playing in my head right now.
The experience of walking in another person’s shoes is one of the primary appeals of reading (or writing). You can be a circus performer, a detective, a Navy SEAL – anything at all. And in doing so, you develop empathy for those characters.
I just finished a holocaust book. That’s my broad term for historical fiction set in the 1940s and concerned with WWII. Since I read a lot of historical fiction, and WWII is one of the most popular settings for this genre, I’ve read quite a few holocaust books.
I try to limit myself to one or two a year, though I usually end up going over. I’ll pick up a book, think this looks good, then be surprised later to realize it’s set during WWII. Again. They sneak onto my bookshelf like they’re targeting me.
So why fight it?
Because these books are, inevitably, depressing. Even the more light-hearted ones, with romance and happy endings, can’t lipstick the pig. The truth of the Holocaust is ugly. And every WWII book takes me back, mentally, to the Holocaust.
Which is hard, but it’s also complex, interesting, and deeply moving. The one I just finished, The Women in the Castle, is a good example. It follows the intersecting lives of several women in post-WWII Germany and asks the question: When do you stand up for what’s right, and when do you stay silent?
One character finds the greatest regret of her life in staying silent while children are taken away to be killed. Another finds her greatest regret in speaking out against her friend’s ex-Nazi fiancee, thereby ruining her friend’s chance at happiness. In both cases, speaking out or staying silent would probably not have made a difference. But in a quote from the book: “It doesn’t matter that the outcome would have been the same. It would have made a difference to her.”
The author, Jessica Shattuck, has a hand with metaphors. I wish I had a list of every one she wrote in this book. Here’s one example: “If she had taught her boys one thing, it was silence – they could navigate its shoals and currents like born sailors. And in its open waters they met one another – three ships blinking across the darkness, communicating without language, enough to say, I know you, we come from the same country.”
Here are two other WWII novel recommendations I recently gave to a librarian (excuse me, circulation technician, and yes – I’m obnoxious enough to offer reading suggestions to librarians).
- All the Light We Cannot See – Yes yes yes to this one. It takes something so ugly and brings beauty, and music.
- The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Faster paced, with an emphasis on humanity in the midst of horror
Try walking in someone else’s shoes, such as the ones in the picture above, taken from Jewish children entering the Aushwitz concentration camp. Warning: they will be uncomfortable.
Photo by William Warby on Unsplash