Is there anything better than the tension and tremendous heart of a rousing wartime tale, especially when it recounts the experiences of courageous heroes? Through globetrotting stories of loyalty and love, three new historical novels deliver an unforgettable look at the sacrifices of women during World War II.
In her fast-paced blend of fact and fiction, The Atomic City Girls, Janet Beard uses the viewpoints of a diffuse group of characters to create an impressively realized portrait of life in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the makeshift city where uranium for the atomic bomb was secretly generated during the war. Eighteen-year-old June Walker is excited and nervous about working at Oak Ridge, but she doesn’t know what to make of Cici Roberts, her gorgeous, flirtatious dormitory roommate. Between tedious shifts monitoring big machines and evening dances where they blow off steam, the two girls form a friendship. Like nearly everyone else in the city, they’re kept in the dark about the purpose of their work. Joe Brewer, an African-American man who’s part of a labor gang at Oak Ridge, adds another layer to the novel, as he works to send money home to his family. Providing an outsider’s perspective is Sam Cantor, a Jewish scientist from the Bronx. June—hoping to learn the secrets behind Oak Ridge—begins a romance with Sam, who has the shocking answers she needs.
A native of East Tennessee, Beard brings a sure grasp of the region’s past to the narrative and infuses her central characters with a Southern sensibility that’s pronounced but never parody. In this compelling novel, she distills the essence of an era.
A TALE OF TWO SISTERS
White Chrysanthemum, Mary Lynn Bracht’s assured, atmospheric debut, takes place in 1940s Korea during the Japanese occupation. Hana is a haenyeo, or sea woman—a female diver who catches fish in the ocean. Hana learned the trade from her mother, and she uses her earnings to help her family make ends meet. One day, during a dive, a Japanese soldier appears on the shore. When she tries to protect her younger sister, Emi, from the man, Hana is captured and taken to Manchuria, where she’s made to work as a comfort woman for the Japanese.
Decades later, Emi comes to Seoul to try to locate Hana and to join in the protests near the Japanese embassy in memory of women enslaved as prostitutes during the war. Emi has long been haunted by Hana’s disappearance and hopes to finally discover the rest of her sister’s story.
Bracht, an author of Korean descent, has produced a psychologically acute, emotionally resonant novel. She skillfully develops separate plots for the sisters and, with remarkable depth, portrays both the oppression of daily life during the occupation and the haunting aftereffects of the experience.
Rich with historical detail, White Chrysanthemum is a compelling and important account of civilian women’s lives during wartime.
RIDING THE TIDES OF WAR
Sara Ackerman delivers a dramatic saga of motherhood, loss and the possibility of renewal in Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers. In Hawaii, as the war effort ramps up, Violet Iverson struggles to make sense of her husband’s disappearance. Rumors about his fate are on the rise, and some locals believe he is working for the Japanese. The one person who might have answers is Violet’s daughter, Ella, but no amount of coaxing will make her talk about what she has seen. It seems she’s been scared into silence.
Joining forces with her female friends, Violet starts a pie stand near Camp Tarawa—an undertaking that gives the enlisted men a taste of home. When the women are accused of spying, Sergeant Stone, a bold marine, lends a helping hand. Violet soon finds herself in the grip of a strong attraction, but she faces the possibility of another loss when Stone leaves for Iwo Jima.
With a sensitive touch and an instinct for authenticity, Ackerman depicts the fraught nature of wartime relationships. The letters Violet receives from Stone are filled with a sense of yearning, and her devotion to him as he risks his life is palpable. Born and raised in Hawaii, Ackerman mixes romance, suspense and history into a bittersweet story of cinematic proportions.