Book review: War across the world – part one

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When I was growing up, if someone mentioned “the war,” that always meant World War II. Any other war was given a specific name – the Korean War, the Vietnam War, etc. – mostly likely because my father was a Marine during World War II. In fact, he didn’t wait to be drafted: he signed up for the Marines because, as the family story goes, he told his mother, “They get there first.” My father didn’t glorify his war experiences and never wanted his children to go into the armed services, but that didn’t stop his fascination with novels about that time period – ones he shared with me. Perhaps that’s why I never tire of reading about those events. The books featured in this two-part review offer a glimpse of life during the war in Shanghai, Poland, France, Germany and the United States.

“Nightfall Over Shanghai”
Readers who’ve been impatiently waiting for the third book in Daniel Kalla’s trilogy about World War II in Shanghai can rejoice: “Nightfall Over Shanghai” (Forge/A Tom Doherty Associates Book) is a worthy finale to the series. Featuring a look at a little-known aspect of the war – Jews from Germany who found refuge in China – the novel offers insights into those who escaped the Nazis only to live under Japanese rule.
“Nightfall Over Shanghai” continues the story of the Adlers: Dr. Franz Adler, who runs a Jewish hospital with the few supplies available and chafes at the limitations placed on the Jewish community by the Japanese; his daughter, Hannah, now a teenager with a mind of her own; and Sunny, Franz’s Eurasian wife, who also works at the refugee hospital. Life is dangerous for the Chinese and the immigrants, and little food is available. Although Franz and Sunny rarely disagree, a crack appears in their relationship when Sunny informally adopts a baby whose Chinese mother refuses to care for her. Sunny has longed for a child, but Franz fears having to feed and worry about yet another human being when they don’t know what the future holds. Hannah has become friends with a young man who is interested in the Zionist movement and wonders whether they should move to Palestine if – or when – the war ends. Even more danger enters their lives when Sunny helps a downed U.S. pilot and Franz is sent to work at a Japanese army hospital close to the front.
Readers who are already familiar with the characters will enjoy learning how – or if – the characters manage the last years of the war. Kalla slowly fills in enough details about the action so those who haven’t read the first two books can understand what’s happening, although reading all three gives a more complete understanding of the characters’ actions and thoughts. What struck me as particularly interesting were the mixed reactions at the war’s end: happiness at it finally being over, combined with horror and sorrow as information about concentration camps and other Nazi actions slowly became available. “Nightfall Over Shanghai”is a satisfying ending to a well done series.

“The One Man”
Could one man change the direction of the war? Perhaps, if that person held the knowledge necessary for the United States to create the atomic bomb. But what if that person were imprisoned in a concentration camp? Would it be possible to rescue him – that is, if he’s still alive – by sending someone into the camp to help him escape? This idea is the starting point for the plot of “The One Man” by Andrew Gross (Minotaur Books), a first-class thriller that will keep readers guessing until its concluding pages.
Opening in contemporary times, an unnamed elderly man is finally ready to reveal his part in World War II. The narration then turns to the past and focuses on several different characters. The most important are Alfred Mendel, a physicist who waited too long to escape the Nazis and is now living in a concentration camp, and Nathan Blum, a Polish refugee in the United States who works for military intelligence. Blum feels guilty about having left his family in Poland, even though his father encouraged him to escape. He’s given a chance to assuage his guilt when he’s offered an intelligence mission: return to Poland and help Mendel escape from the camp. Although the Army refuses to tell Blum why they need Mendel, he agrees to the mission. In the meantime, Mendel tries to survive the horrors of the camp while also imparting his mathematical formulas to Leo Wolciek, a young man who plays chess with great skill and who also has an extraordinary memory. The intertwining of the two plots – and several interesting tangents – make for thrilling, page-turning reading.
“The One Man” is a morally complex work, which challenges readers to wonder what they might do under similar circumstances. At first, one secondary plot seemed unnecessary, but it not only later played an important role in the action, but created yet another moral dilemma to explore. As the plot progressed, I reread the prologue several times looking for clues about the identity of the unnamed character in the first section, but was unable to make a final decision. It was only during the novel’s heart-rending ending that his identity is revealed. This powerful work is perfect for book clubs that enjoy discussing moral dilemmas and anyone who loves a good thriller.

“Abrakapow”
Did you know that captured German soldiers were brought to the United States during World War II? Based on a real event, the tween novel “Abrakapow” by Isaiah Campbell (Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers) is set in Texas near one of the prisoner of war camps. Maxine Larousse is not happy that she and her mother moved from New York City to Abilene, although she is glad her father has returned from the front, even if only because he was wounded. To make matters worse, he’s in charge of the POW camp, which leaves him little time for Max or her mom.
Max tries to fit in at her new school, although it’s not long before she finds herself friends with the school misfits. Her real love is magic and she longs to perform, even when her only audience is her pet ferret, Houdini. Max’s life becomes more complicated when she’s given the opportunity to do a magic performance for the POWs. Unknown to her father, she receives aid from one of the German prisoners. Is he really trying to help Max and her friends, or does he have an ulterior motive?
Max is an appealing character and the plot moves quickly. It’s not apparent at first that Max is Jewish – the first meal she eats includes a ham sandwich – but her religion does play a role in the novel. Adult readers will be a step or two ahead of Max, but that’s part of the fun. Younger readers who enjoy magic will find a bonus in illustrated sections called “Houdini’s Guide,” featuring tricks they can perform.

“Tasa’s Song”
It’s obvious just how much Linda Kass loves music. The best prose in her novel “Tasa’s Song” (She Writes Press) features her main character’s thoughts about music and playing her violin. However, music is not Tasa’s first concern after her village in Poland is taken over by the Nazis. Fortunately, a family friend hides her and several other family members. The novel then moves backward in time – showing the development of her relationship with her cousin, Danik, and what occurs as the war moves closer and closer to her village. With threats from the Soviets on one side and the Nazis on the other, the family tries to survive the war and hopes to be reunited with those trapped on the other side of the new border.
Although the novel is written for adults, its prose reminded me more of works written for young adults. The writing can be stilted, but the events are well-covered and the ending feels realistic, particularly in showing the changes in Jewish life during and after the war. Kass carefully portrays how Tasa tries to distance herself from what’s occurring in the world – how music becomes her refuge – and those sections are the best part of the work. What the novel lacks on the literary front is redeemed by its moving sections about music and family.