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.
A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford
Does the title have you picturing Julie Andrews, the singing nanny in The Sound of Music? Try listening to the audiobook; the narrator sounds like her. Brenda Ashford, age 92, looks back at her happy childhood, her very long career as a British nanny, and her training at the famed Norland Institute, whose motto is “love never faileth” and which banned spanking. Brenda learned to love babies when her little brother David was born. Not as quick at book learning as her sister Kathleen, who became a midwife, Brenda was thrilled to be admitted to the Norland Institute in 1939. From learning nursery management, cooking, laundry, storytelling, sewing, and working in a hospital’s children’s ward, the teen received a thorough education. Then war disrupted life, with the students taking care of children evacuated from London’s East End and living on a country estate. All of her evaluations are included, along with tidbits of nanny’s wisdom, a daily schedule at each job, and several recipes for “puddings”. Her first several families are described, with the focus on the day and night nurseries and the children. Her heart is broken along the way, she learns to manage an early daycare, called a war nursery, and to care for and cuddle many, many babies. Her work schedule sounds exhausting, with very little time off. Her relief when electric irons become available is evident. Eventually she finds a family to belong to, and later even cares for their grandbabies when she’s 80! A charming read for Anglophiles.
Miss Dimple Disappears by Mignon Ballard
Life on the home front in Elderberry, Georgia, is pretty calm in Fall,1942 until Miss Dimple Kilpatrick, longtime first grade teacher, disappears, and the school custodian dies, apparently of a heart attack. Charlie Carr and her friend Annie, both teachers, decide to investigate, along with Charlie’s mother and aunt. Charlie’s boyfriend Hugh will probably enlist in the armed forces soon, and Charlie wonders how she’ll answer if he proposes. The reader learns Miss Dimple’s account of her kidnapping, a possible motive, and how she plans to get rescued. Meanwhile Thanksgiving is coming, with plans for a meal and dance for visiting service men. This is a cozy mystery with lots of quirky characters and small town charm. I enjoyed a glimpse of Charlie’s life as a teacher dealing with rationing, lunch at a boarding house, worries about her brother in North Africa, and doing her bit by writing to many of the enlisted men she meets. There are two more books already in this series. The second book is Miss Dimple Rallies to the Cause. Miss Dimple Disappears reminds me of the 1930s Darling Dahlias mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert, set in small-town Alabama.
Princess Elizabeth’s Spy by Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope, born in England but raised by her aunt in New England, is a mathematician, a typist, and is training to be a spy. After the adventures in her first mystery, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, reviewed here, Maggie is training with MI-5. The physical training is very difficult for the bookish Maggie, but her loyalty and intelligence are valued, so she is reassigned. She is sent to Windsor Castle, to be a math tutor for 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth, and also to help keep her safe. The castle is huge and chilly, and Maggie is expected to dress up for dinner with the staff. Her sweetheart is missing in action, but her handsome contact with Churchill’s Irregulars is a good friend, until he too is reassigned. A sudden death on the castle grounds, and a possible plot to kidnap or harm the princess keep Maggie very busy, along with helping stage a play for Christmas. The royal princesses are charming, as is the peek inside a castle in wartime. Maggie’s distant father, a cryptographer, continues to be an enigma. A friend’s wartime wedding, a suspicious death in London, and a possible romance enliven this mystery. Two more books about Maggie Hope are planned.
Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, by Susan Elia MacNeal
Maggie Hope has lived in New England with her aunt most of her life, but is back in London to sell her late grandmother’s house. When it won’t sell, she gets roommates, reluctantly puts off her plans to attend M.I.T., and takes a job as a typist in Prime Minister Churchill’s office. She had applied to be a private secretary, but even a math degree didn’t overcome the gender bias against women. The Battle of Britain begins, Maggie learns a secret about her father, and an IRA plot by someone close to her endangers Maggie and Churchill. The diaries of some of the prime minister’s secretaries inspired the author, and a sequel, Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, is planned. A fast-paced mystery, some of the plot twists are hard to believe, but Maggie and her friends are memorable characters. Recommended for fans of Maisie Dobbs.
The Lady in Gold, by Anne-Marie O’Connor
In June 2006, The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was sold at auction at Christie’s in New York for a record 135 million dollars. The buyer of the painting was Ron Lauder, who had coveted the gold portrait of Adele for years. He needed a destination painting for his new museum in New York City called the Neue Galerie. This painting had a lot of history behind it. He was willing to pay a lot of money for it. How this gorgeous painting was created, and how it came to the United States is the subject of a fascinating book by Anne-Marie O’ Connor.
The painter was Gustav Klimt, part of a new generation of artists in the early 1900s who refused to conform to convention and were instead in the vanguard of the nascent “Art for Art’s sake” movement. The subject of the painting was Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish socialite, who was also ahead of her time, being an avid suffragist, chain smoker, and salon intellectual. There were also rumors that she and Gustav were lovers although nothing has been proven. Klimt produced several portraits of Adele and often used real gold leaf which added to the allure of his work. However at the time most everyone was disgusted by the overt eroticism of Klimt’s pieces and thus they did not enjoy wide popularity.
The painting resided happily on the walls of the Bloch-Bauer family’s Belvedere Estate in Vienna, until the Anschluss (March 1938) when Hitler insisted that Germany and Austria be united under the Third Reich. Jews and Jewish property were fair game for the Nazis. They stole vast art collections from all the countries of Europe, but Klimt’s works were spared because “Der Fuhrer” considered modern art to be degenerate and unwholesome. However the painting was expropriated by Viennese nationals, who were not Nazis but had no love for the Jews. The name of the painting was changed to “The Lady in Gold” so as to eradicate any connection to its Jewish owners. It survived the war and ended up in a national museum.
During the last decades of the twentieth century, modern art gained in popularity and value. Most of the Viennese Jews had perished in the holocaust, but some claimants came forward and demanded restitution for their stolen property. Litigation went on for years but finally the painting was restored to its rightful owners, the heirs of Adele and her family.
“in Vienna, the impact of the Bloch-Bauer restitution rippled out of ministries and courtrooms and into cafes and dinner parties. “It was our Austrian ‘Mona Lisa’ ” lamented Werner Furnsinn, the director of the Austrian Culture Ministry’s Commission for Provenance Research.
If you like modern art and history, then this book will be perfect for you.
Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff
The library’s evening book group met recently to discuss Lost in Shangri-La. I read the book, and listened to it. Those of us who listened to the book enjoyed it the most, even without the photographs scattered throughout the print book. This is a real life adventure story that takes place on the island of New Guinea during World War II. Pilots discover a hidden valley in the unexplored mountainous interior of New Guinea, and many groups of American military personnel stationed on the coast make sightseeing flights over the valley. The entrance to the valley is very tricky, and often foggy. A flight in 1945 with several women WACs aboard crashes into a mountain, leaving few survivors. The survivors struggle to stay alive and reach an area where they can be spotted from the air. Encounters with the native villagers of New Guinea prove very interesting. The struggle to find and then rescue the survivors catches the interest of the media, and their story is followed all over the United States. We found it ironic that the valley turns out to be a very different sort of place then the fabled valley in the Himalayas. Photos and a wealth of information can be found on the author’s website, even some old documentary footage. While our book group had mixed reactions to the book, we certainly found plenty to talk about.