In December, 1943, five Army aviators left Alaska’s Ladd Field on a test flight in a B-24 Liberator. During the test, the plane spiraled out of control at 25,000 feet, and the crew bailed out. Co-pilot Lt. Leon Crane parachuted to safety away from the fiery crash, but without mittens or gloves. Crane, a city kid from Philadelphia, stayed near the wreck for several days, hoping to find another survivor and to be spotted by a search plane. Back at Ladd Field, many planes were sent in search, but in the wrong area. The crew was declared MIA, presumed dead. Enduring extreme conditions and intense loneliness, Crane covered his hands in the parachute and started walking, after over a week with no food in the Alaskan winter. His only supplies were a knife and some matches. Through phenomenal luck, he found a cabin with some supplies, but had to leave before the spring thaw by hiking over the frozen Charles River, with no idea where he was. Compelling and moving, this is a remarkable true story, very well told. Sure to be popular with readers of Unbroken and Frozen in Time.
Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland
This is another good choice for book discussion groups from Vreeland, author of Luncheon of the Boating Party and Clara and Mr. Tiffany. Set in Provence and Paris from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, Parisian Lisette has a rough transition to life in Provence with her husband Andre and his grandfather Pascal. Andre is a frame maker, and Lisette had hoped to work in an art gallery in Paris. Gradually, Lisette learns to appreciate the village of Roussillon and the beauty of the countryside. Elderly Pascal tells Lisette stories of the paintings he has collected and how he acquired them, and of meeting Camille Pissarro and Paul Cezanne. As a young man, Pascal had mined ochre used for pigments in the paintings. When the war begins, the paintings are hidden. Lisette learns to garden and milk a goat, and meets contemporary painter Marc Chagall. Visit the author’s website for gorgeous photos of Roussillon.
The Wind is Not a River by Brian Payton
In 1942, Helen Easley is desperate for news of her husband John, a war correspondent. He’s not on an official assignment, but may have left Seattle for Alaska. The Japanese occupy the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska, and there is a news blackout. Since his brother’s death in the war, John is obsessed with his work, and left after an argument with Helen. Working in a dress shop in Seattle, she moves in with her elderly father Joe. Helen manages to join the USO but feels guilty about leaving her father behind. She heads for Alaska and any word of John, trying to get over her stage fright and talking with pilots and anyone who’s been to the Aleutians. John, meanwhile, has crash landed on remote Attu with young airman Karl. They scavenge coal and live on seafood, often wet and always cold, and even consider surrendering to the Japanese occupying the island. Part adventure, part wartime love story with a very unusual setting, this is an excellent historical novel.
The Secret Lives of Codebreakers by Sinclair McKay
During World War II in England, every citizen was expected to do their part in the war effort. Imagine that your job was so secret that you couldn’t tell your family or friends anything about it, or why you weren’t in the armed forces. Then imagine keeping that secret for 30 years. That’s exactly what the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, 50 miles northwest of London, did. Mathematicians, linguists, historians, young aristocrats, engineers, and Wrens were all summoned to Bletchley Park, asked to sign the Official Secrets Act, and worked to break the enigma code the Nazis used in the war for their communications. It was extremely difficult to break one code, and it kept changing. Electronic machines, the Bombe and the Colossus, were developed to help with this work. Assigned rooms in private homes, working different shifts in cold huts in spartan conditions on the grounds of a stately home, eating food that was less than wonderful, several thousand workers, including some Americans, did amazing work. They probably shortened the war by two years, and kept supply convoys from being attacked at sea. The workers, mostly young, also used their creativity and energy to start a number of clubs, from sports to drama, and a number of romances led to marriage. Now a museum, visit Bletchley Park’s website for more information. For a similar book set in Tennessee, read Girls of Atomic City.
The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
This is the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, one of the Manhattan Project’s secret cities, and several of the women who lived and worked there. From 1942 until the end of World War II, several huge factories were constructed to enrich uranium to make plutonium for atomic bombs. At one point, over 75,000 people lived in a city that wasn’t on any map until 1949. Many of the workers were young women recruited from small towns across the south, and sent by train to a secret destination. The author interviewed dozens of these women, and focuses on ten of them, who worked a variety of jobs in Oak Ridge, including janitor, welder, machine operator, secretary, nurse, statistician, and chemist. Except for the chemist, the women had no idea about the nature of the project, as there was high security everywhere. Anyone who talked about their job faced eviction from the town. Housing, much of it temporary, was in high demand, from huts to trailers to dormitories. There was mud everywhere, yet there was also a sense of community. These young women worked and lived in an odd mix of freedom, away from families and home towns, and with restrictions. Some married couples couldn’t even live together, and there was racial segregation. When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the community of Oak Ridge reacted with a mixture of shock, pride, guilt, and shame. They had helped end the war, but with a high cost. The author has tied the stories of these women together in the memorable story of a little known chapter of the war.
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Recuperating from an injury, University of Illinois college student David Graham enjoys reading the poetry of Elspeth Dunn, and writes her a fan letter. This begins a correspondence of several years before and during World War I. Elspeth is married to sullen Iain, her brother Finlay’s best friend, and lives on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Afraid to leave the island, Elspeth leads a somewhat narrow life. She writes poetry, roams around the island, and worries about her husband and brother in World War I, and then about David when he volunteers as an ambulance driver in France. A parallel story is set in Edinburgh and London in 1940, where Elspeth’s daughter Margaret tries to learn about her past after her mother disappears after an air raid, and also worries about her boyfriend Paul, in the war. Told through letters, this double love story reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Burrows, although it’s not quite as memorable. A quick read, with humor, romance, and drama, recommended for fans of historical fiction or family sagas.
Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff
In November, 1942, three American military planes crashed in Greenland near the Arctic Circle. The second plane was searching for the first, and the third plane was also on a rescue mission. Several men survived two of the crashes, and men in planes, boats, motorsleds, and dogsleds tried desperately to locate, drop supplies, and then rescue the crews. Some of the men were rescued, but others remain frozen in time, under a glacier somewhere in Greenland.
In 2012, the author participated in (and helped fund) a joint private and military expedition to Greenland to find one of the planes, now covered by a glacier, and bring the missing servicemen home. Two real life adventure stories combine to make a fascinating book. Flying in whiteout conditions, survival on a glacier, tales of heroism and endurance make for a memorable, suspenseful read. I wanted to keep turning the pages to find out what happened, then and now. The author has written another World War II adventure story, Lost in Shangri-La.