Friday, May 23, 2014

Victory Book Club: The Unwitting by Ellen Feldman, 2014

Wasn't it America’s propaganda that romanticized World War II? Uncle Sam wanting you for his Army, asking women to plant victory gardens and preserve food, all while encouraging those victory bonds. The propaganda that served to increase support for the war was in magazines, books and posters. Maybe that’s why the Cold War seems so distant. With propaganda being outlawed in 1948 by the Smith-Mundt Act, what colorful advertisements do we have to remember it by?

The Unwitting is a grey novel. Although the story takes place in the 1950s and 60s, missing are the bold colors the Mid Century era is known for. Instead of character’s physical descriptions, it is who they are, what they stand for and what they believe in that is developed in a way so intimately, that what they look like, doesn't really matter. It’s my opinion that the novel was written by Ellen Feldman this way to parallel the features of the cold war; that it was not a physical fight, but a war fought with culture and psychology.  

The novel follows Nell and Charlie Benjamin, whose love story is tangled with beliefs, morals and politics. Nell, who stands for equality, is a veteran of World War II attending college on the GI Bill in 1948 New York City. After she graduates she finds herself not only Charlie’s wife, but surrounded by intellectuals sharing their beliefs and politics using art.

Nell finds her outlet through writing, publishing through Compass Magazine, which is where Charlie begins his career. When Charlie becomes the publisher of the left winged magazine, Nell has strong convictions that he will use his editorial judgment for the greater good and not keep quiet in a time when too much information may label you a traitor. When Nell discovers Charlie may have made a decision against the principals she thought they shared, she questions their marriage, shared morals, as well as who she taught their daughter Abby to look up to.

I read The Unwitting twice. The first time I read it for the story, the second time I read it for the details. The second time around I caught things I had missed the first time like subtle phrases describing what was to come, like the narrator was letting you in on a secret. There are implications from the narrator that the story she is telling isn't the complete truth. It isn't because Nell is a liar, or even unreliable, she just doesn't know the entire story yet.

In college I had professors who would say that if an author used a specific word or sentence it is because the author intended it to make a point. This is one of those novels. I loved the way it was crafted around the actual subject of the Cold War. America was fighting this war against communism, while communism was pointing out the inequalities happening within America against women and people of color. The perspective of the 1950s and 60s through the Cold War makes The Unwitting is a great novel.

Keeping it real: A copy of The Unwitting was provided by Spiegel & Grau for the purpose of reviewing the novel. All opinions are my own.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Victory Book Club: The Girl with the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason, 2011

If World War II had touched US soil, how would Americans of reacted? Would we have risked our lives to help grounded aviators? Actively resisted the occupation by helping allies escape our borders? In America, we have been fortunate that a World War has not touched our lives directly. After reading The Girl in the Blue Beret, I have to wonder, would we act so selflessly to help aviators escape or would we instead turn them in for the reward of extra food?

Punishable by execution, harboring grounded aviators is how many in France stood up to the German occupation during World War II. Some were passively involved with the resistance; their contribution was staying quiet and not informing the enemy what their neighbors, family or friends might be up to.

The Girl in the Blue Beret follows Marshall Stone’s retirement years as he tries to retrace his steps starting with a field in Belgium where he crashed his B-17G in 1944. Searching for those that helped him escape the Germans through France and into Spain, Marshall’s memories of the past are met with friendly reunions, as well as ghosts hidden in the past.

Marshall’s reunion with the girl in the blue beret, Annette, is met with excitement, as well as a truth he never knew about her past. His journey reveals the impact he had on other’s lives during the war. Although he made it home safely, those he left behind in occupied France remained in danger.

I wasn’t sure if Marshall was going to be likable mostly because of his infidelities while he was flying. As the pilot of a 747 after the war, he was often separated from his family, and saw his life in the air and life at home as separate. Even during the war when he was just dating his wife, he would spend nights out with nurses or Red Cross girls dancing and keeping each other warm. I kept thinking he was a dirty old man. When he is reunited with Annette there is a better understanding to his infidelities. Marshall was seeking a companion in life that understood what the war meant to people and he finally found it almost forty years later.

The stories of the Belgians, French and Spaniards helping grounded aviators escape the Germans is an example of how people were fighting for humanity in a time of cruelty and brutality. Reading books that remind us what strangers are willing to risk for each other in a time of intolerance can only help bring a brighter future.