Newbery Honor winner Patricia Reilly Giff explores a lesser-known side of World War II in her latest novel for middle grade readers. Set in the French border region of Alsace, which was passed between Germany and France during the 19th and 20th centuries, Genevieve’s War opens in the summer of 1939. Thirteen-year-old Genevieve has lived with various relatives since her parents’ deaths, and is about to return to the United States after a summer spent on her grandmother’s farm. Though she’s made a close friend in her chatty neighbor and has a crush on the pharmacist’s son, Genevieve hasn’t connected with the taciturn, hardworking Mémé. Nevertheless, when Mémé twists an ankle just before Genevieve’s departure, the teenager impulsively decides to stay to help her grandmother survive the occupation everyone knows is coming.
As the war drags on, Genevieve has plenty of reasons to regret her choice. The German army arrives, commandeering sleeping space in the farm and the family’s horse and cart. She fears for the lives of friends who join the resistance movement, and must question the loyalty of others. Yet over the years, Genevieve and Mémé build a grudging, mutual respect, and Genevieve gains a greater understanding of her father, who lived through a similar occupation and devastating war as a teenager.
Though the novel’s narrow focus doesn’t allow for a full view of the complex history of Alsace in WWII, it does capture small details of the way life changed for the Alsatian people under German occupation: wedding rings worn for a lifetime moved to the right hand, per German custom; children forced to speak German instead of French in school; the sudden mistrust of lifelong neighbors who might be spying for the occupiers. Genevieve’s mistakes, as well as her acts of bravery, will encourage children to imagine what they might do in a similar situation. Genevieve’s War provides an intriguing glimpse into a region’s turbulent past through the eyes of one American girl.