Nanette Donohue | Exploring war through eyes of women

Nanette Donohue | Exploring war through eyes of women


World War II is one of the most popular eras for historical fiction, and it's the setting for numerous bestselling novels, including "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr, "Life after Life" by Kate Atkinson and "The Nightingale" by Kristin Hannah.

Two new novels, "Wunderland" by Jennifer Cody Epstein and "The Huntress" by Kate Quinn explore the war and its aftermath through the eyes of women.

Epstein is best known for her novels set in Asia, so "Wunderland," a dual-period novel set in the U.S. and in Germany before, during and after the war, is a departure.

We first meet teenage Ilse and Renate in 1933, during Hitler's rise to power. The young women are close friends who enjoy typical activities like going to the movies and talking about the boys they want to kiss.

Ilse gets involved in the BDM (the girls' version of the Hitler Youth), not because she's passionate about Nazism, but because it's what all the girls her age are doing in their free time. It all seems like wholesome entertainment — lots of camping trips, outings to rural areas and singalongs — but beneath it is an undercurrent of propaganda, which impressionable Ilsa begins to believe.

Ilsa enjoys her experiences in the BDM so much that she wants her best friend to join as well, but Renate is denied membership because her father's parents were Jewish — something she never knew because her father converted to Christianity before he married.

This revelation begins the inevitable slide toward tragedy for Renate's family, who soon find themselves ostracized, tormented and threatened by the people who used to be their friends and neighbors.

While Ilsa has ample opportunities to defend and protect Renate and her family, she lacks the courage to speak out, and the results are tragic.

Years later, in 1989, Ilsa's estranged daughter Ava receives a package, including her mother's cremains and a packet of letters addressed to Renate Bauer.

Ava knows little about her mother's past, and their relationship has never been close, so the revelation of her mother's involvement with the BDM, and her role in persecuting Jews, is a shock. As she digs through her mother's personal history, she is desperate to find a way to atone for her mother's sins.

"Wunderland" is a powerful novel that illustrates the insidiousness of Nazism and the way that toxic propaganda and hatred spread through a community.

It's a difficult read — Epstein doesn't shy away from the horrors of the era — but the story is engaging and enlightening. I particularly appreciate that Epstein didn't create a redemption story for Ilse, where she atones for her role during the war. This happens too often in World War II fiction, and the "Noble Nazi" stock character is a tiresome way to avoid addressing the complicity of everyday people in the era's atrocities.

Quinn's "The Huntress" is a post-World War II thriller focused on a small team of Nazi hunters in search of the titular character, a woman who massacred a group of children and escaped POWs on the shores of a Polish lake near the end of the war.

Their quest to bring the Huntress to justice is personal: Ian Hunter's brother was murdered by the Huntress, Nina Markova escaped from her and Tony Rodomovsky wants to avenge the senseless deaths of innocent people.

The trio receives a tip that the Huntress has relocated to Boston and that she may be involved in the antiques trade, and the search is on.

Bostonian Jordan McBride has an uneventful life. She's expected to marry her boyfriend and take over her father's antiques business, but she really wants to go to college and become a photographer.

When her father brings home a new girlfriend, Anneliese Weber, Jordan is skeptical. Widowed Anneliese is pretty and cultured, she has a young daughter in her care and she makes Dan McBride happy, but something seems off.

When Jordan notices a Nazi medal hidden in Anneliese's wedding bouquet, she confronts her new stepmother, who comes up with a reasonable explanation. Although Jordan and Anneliese become close over time, there's a lingering undercurrent of uncertainty regarding Anneliese's wartime activities.

Soon, Jordan and Tony cross paths as the search for the Huntress intensifies, and Jordan's worst fears are confirmed.

"The Huntress" alternates between three points of view: Jordan's, Ian's and Nina's.

Nina's story is told in flashback, exploring her youth in Siberia and her rise into the Soviet Union's elite corps of female bombers known as the Night Witches.

While all three narratives blend to tell the complete story, Nina's was the most exciting and the least familiar, as it explores both aviation history and women's military service during World War II through a brave, reckless, unforgettable character.

Quinn's pacing is spot-on and the characters are well-developed, which make the stakes even higher. The ending is satisfying and just open-ended enough to tease the possibility of a sequel.

Nanette Donohue is the technical services manager at the Champaign Public Library.

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