Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Young Women and War (May QuickLit)

Looks like I've been reading a lot about war lately... 
Linking up with Modern Mrs Darcy's QuickLit to share what we've been reading. Go there for lots of other book suggestions - not all about war.... :)

Judith Kerr: Out of the Hitler Time trilogy
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
  • The Other Way Round
  • A Small Person Far Away

Autobiographical fiction.

If you want to hear a really delightful author interview, click through to the BBC Bookclub podcast: The interview is mainly about the first novel in the trilogy, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. At 90+ years, Kerr is a bright, humorous and eloquent interviewee.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a children's novel that adults, too, can enjoy.
Anna, based on Judith Kerr herself, is nine years old and her brother Max a couple of years older, when their family has to flee from Berlin. This is in 1933, when the Nazis win the election; their father, a famous author, has been criticizing the Nazis in public. The family lives first in Switzerland, then in Paris, and at the end of the novel they move to London. The story shows how the children adapt to the new places and generally feel fairly secure as long as the family is together. For the children, refugee life can be hard but it's also an adventure.

I'm definitely going to give this to my son to read when it's time to process this period in history and/or talk about the themes of immigration and refugees. (According to the BBC interview, this book is assigned reading in German schools - one way to deal with the history.)

In the second novel, The Other Way Round, Anna and her family live through the second world war in Britain, mostly in London. Anna, 16 at the start of the novel, struggles to get a job, survives the Blitz, has her first crush/love and discovers her talents. This one is no longer a children's book, but I'd happily give it to a teen who wants to read about wartime life in London and the special challenges of being a refugee in a country at war.

The third one, A Small Person Far Away, finds Anna in her early thirties, recently married, living in London, and with an exciting new job at the BBC. But a phone call summons her to her mother's bedside - to Berlin. In Berlin, Anna faces complicated family relationships, suppressed childhood memories, ominous-sounding news from Suez and Hungary, etc. I think that adults will be more interested in the themes of this one.
(Warning: if suicide themes are a trigger for you, skip this book.)

So, all in all: I liked this trilogy. I loved the first part, which I vaguely remember reading in my childhood. The vivid descriptions of wartime London were really well done.

Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth

A young woman grows up in a provincial town in Edwardian England. She struggles to get to study at Oxford. And when she gets there, WW1 begins. Her only brother, her fiancee, and their friends who become her friends, too: all are swallowed up by the conflict. She puts her studies on hold and volunteers to nurse.

At the end, she is the sole survivor of the group. The war stole her youth and killed her friends, and her wartime experiences set her apart from all others when she goes back to Oxford to continue her studies. In a way, she has to build a completely new life for herself.

This book is partly Brittain's tribute to the young men who died, a way of keeping their memory alive. It also gives the perspective of women at war - a somewhat neglected perspective at the time, if I understand correctly. 
It's not an easy book to read - naturally, considering the subject matter. (And the length... 608 pages in this edition.) I am saddened by the way the war made Brittain into an agnostic/atheist, though I can understand her thought processes. Some parts sound especially poignant, considering that this was originally published in 1933, and a new worldwide conflict was just a few years ahead.


  1. I didn't realize Kerr had a trilogy - I've been meaning to read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, and now I need to read the other two as well.

    Still not sure if I'm going to tackle Brittain's memoir or not.

    1. If I was in your shoes, I'd put Brittain on a "maybe some day" list. It's long and it's heavy reading, and I would not have tackled it years ago when my son was small and my reading time even more limited than now.

      As for Kerr, yes, I recommend you read the whole series. :) I had bought the book (all three books in one volume) many years ago, but I have no recollection of reading the second and third book in the series. I'm glad I read them now.