My high school history teacher often voiced the sentiment (credited to George Santayana) that we learn about history so that we do not repeat it. Of all the atrocities in history that I hope are never repeated, World War II is the first. Perhaps what makes World War II such an especially terrifying event in history is the fact that it took place in very recent history. In fact, some of us even grew up learning about this war from our grandparents or relatives who lived through it themselves.
The truth is, we can only learn so much about World War II from history class. More information can be gleaned from movies, books, or documentaries—any medium that shares the stories of the millions of people who died and who survived this harrowing time in history. In order to truly understand what people endured between 1939 and 1945, we must immerse ourselves into the stories that depict what life was really like during the better part of this decade—and that includes fictional as well as historical accounts of the time.
One of the best ways to encounter any period in history is to read historical fiction, as it not only makes history real, but it makes history matter. As author Linda Kass explains, “Reading history allows us to understand what happened. Reading historical fiction allows us to be moved by what happened.” To help you be “moved by what happened” during World War II, try picking up any (or all!) of the following historical fiction novels.
01. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This page-turner is filled with mystery, suspense, and incredible bravery. Different from any other novel I’ve read from this time period, it brings together two unique characters—a blind French girl whose father works at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, and an orphaned German boy whose talent with radios will qualify him to serve in the Nazi armed forces.
Different as they are—and from warring countries, at that—they are alike in one big way: they each have a secret (which I’m holding in for your sake). And even if their respective secrets seem to have nothing to do with each other at first, their stories unfold and intersect in an enthralling manner.
Although the plot of All the Light We Cannot See is neither chronological nor elementary, it is a very easy book to read, and it tugs at your heartstrings without employing much violence, which I appreciated. It’s also a reminder that there were good people in every country, and courageous people of all ages and nationalities, in the real-life story of World War II. Above all, this book shows the role that science and early technology played during the war, something that I never considered prior to reading it; I promise you will not be able to put it down.
02. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
When I was a child first learning about World War II, this time period and this war all seemed in the distant past, far removed from the life I knew. It was honestly hard for me to comprehend that World War II had occurred merely a few decades ago. When my aunt gave me a copy of Lois Lowry’s young adult novel about two young girls living in Denmark during this time, it all finally started to sink in.
Number the Stars opened my eyes to the reality of the war without needlessly frightening me, and therefore I always recommend this book to young people learning about World War II and the Holocaust for the first time. Not only does it teach them about what other children their age had to go through, but it teaches important lessons about bravery and putting others before yourself—important lessons for adults and children alike!
The novel tells the story of young Annemarie Johansen, a Danish girl who has to grow up fast when her life is suddenly turned upside down by the Nazis. When she is asked to help save the life of her Jewish best friend, she learns just how strong and brave she is. She doesn’t even consider the dangers to herself as she does what she knows she needs to do. As her uncle reminds her, “That’s all that brave means—not thinking about the dangers. Just thinking about what you must do.” Annemarie teaches us to be brave in our own lives, even if our circumstances are less severe than hers.
03. We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
It’s not uncommon for me to finish a good book in tears; it is uncommon, however, for me to read an entire book through tear-filled eyes. This book was simultaneously a hard one to read and a hard one to put down. And yet it is not all sadness. Far from it—the Kurc family demonstrates awe-inspiring hope, familial love, and bravery throughout their story.
We Were the Lucky Ones takes the reader from a labor camp in the Siberian wilderness, to ghettos and factories across Poland, to war-torn Paris, to the middle of a critical battle in Italy. Each chapter reveals the perspective and unique situation of a different member of the Kurc family. While the book explores some of the most desolate scenes in Europe and Russia, it also depicts hopeful moments in the small “paradises” discovered by those family members who eventually make their way to Brazil and Israel.
I especially love how this novel puts everything into context, as it includes notes about many large and small events during the war—every battle, pogrom, occupation and Allied or Axis victory and defeat that contributes to this story. For me, this made the war real in a way that few other fiction World War II books have done.
Indeed, Georgia Hunter’s account is not entirely fictitious. Though classified as historical fiction, the story is based on the true story of the author’s own family. I loved reading the author’s note at the end of the story, explaining just how her family directly inspired this story, making it even more real.
04. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
It is both beautiful and heartbreaking to view the abominable fence at Auschwitz (or “Out-With”), and a small Jewish boy wearing “striped pajamas” on the other side of it, through the eyes of another innocent little boy named Bruno. And Bruno isn’t just any little boy—he is the son of the German commandant overseeing the horrors being committed behind that fence at Auschwitz.
Although written for a younger reader than myself, the book touched me in a profound way as I witnessed small Bruno, only nine years old, trying to wrap his head around the events transpiring on the other side of the fence, wondering why he can’t just “play” on the same side as his new friend, Shmuel.
He even envies his new friend, naively assuming that he is missing out on all of the “fun” and that the hundreds of children he has seen across the fence must be be playing games all day, since he has no friends of his own on his side of the fence. Feeling that he is the odd man out, he asks his older sister, “I don’t understand why we’re not allowed on the other side of it. What’s so wrong with us that we can’t go over there and play?”
While the actions alluded to in the story are the furthest thing from beautiful, what is incredibly beautiful is the friendship of two children who know no hatred nor racism and who only see the other for who he really is—someone just like himself: “It was almost (Shmuel thought) as if they were all exactly the same really.”
05. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
This captivating novel (made into a film a few years ago) tells the story of a young girl named Liesel through a most unusual narrator—Death itself. Liesel has already been through a lot in her short life when she is brought to live with foster parents at the beginning of the war. Her foster father teaches her to read, and reading drives her to become a book thief, stealing books from Nazi book burnings: her own subtle act of rebellion against the Nazis.
The Book Thief also shows the reader the dangers of the Underground (or Resistance) movement, as Liesel’s foster family hides a young Jewish man named Max in their basement. The story that unfolds will tear your heart apart and then piece it back together again as an unlikely but beautiful friendship blossoms between Liesel and Max.
Set in Germany, this historical fiction novel makes World War II all too real through its emphasis on survival and death. But through these bleak themes it unveils the power of people to be compassionate to those in need, no matter the danger.
06. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Vianne and Isabelle are two sisters living in France, separated by age, geography, and disposition. As the book unfolds, they are faced with a decision: hide from the war, or join it and play their own parts in history. Although one sister takes on a more active role in the French Resistance, both sisters play large roles in helping—and saving—the lives of others.
I loved how this wonderful story, feminist in the truest sense of the word, showed the often-overlooked yet vital roles that women played during World War II. (In fact, the character of Isabelle is inspired by a real war heroine!) People often don’t realize that women did not sit idly by, waiting for the war to end. The Nightingale also touches on delicate yet relevant issues such as miscarriage, mental health, and a woman’s essential place in society.
You will most likely end the book in tears, but you’ll also be cheering and feeling inspired. Kristin Hannah’s well-received historical novel will certainly leave you begging for more (and luckily, she has written many other novels!). This book reminded me how powerfully fictional characters are able to move us—we can truly feel connected to a character even if he or she didn’t exist in real life.
These novels gave me a very real idea of what life was like during World War II. They show that the war left nobody untouched. World War II deeply affected an entire generation of people, and it is only through reading about it that we can begin to understand the true meaning of their suffering and sacrifice.