Friday, June 11, 2021

Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair: Inside the 1944 Plot to Kill Hitler and the Ghost Children of His Revenge by Ann Bausum

One of the things I've learned after reading a number of books by Ann Bausum is that you can always count on her to write a compelling, well-researched book. She really knows how to present the participants, lay out the timeline, and contextualize the meaning of each historical event she tackles. And she has done it again in this book about the  Valkyrie plot to kill Adolf Hitler, in what could otherwise be a confusing event in the history of Nazi Germany. But then, Bausum takes the story further and tells the reader what happened later to the children of the people involved in the plot.

Bausum begins her account with a detailed account of Adolf Hitler's rise in popularity and his seizure of power after the death of President Paul von Hindenburg in 1934. From the beginning, Hitler used fear and brutality to maintain control over the German people, and his predilection for retaliation meant little dissent among the people. But by 1943, some prominent Germans, among the *Count Claus von Stauffenberg, Cäsar von Hofacker and Friedrich-Wilhelm von Hase, began to realize that Hitler had to be stopped. 

A plot to kill Hitler and overthrow his regime was planned, adapting the name Valkyrie. The plan was simple enough - von Stauffenberg would carry a briefcase with a bomb in it to a July 20, 1944 meeting at Hitler's Wolf's Lair retreat. He would excuse himself, but leave the briefcase behind. Unfortunately, the planned assassination  failed and the conspirators were quickly captured, put to death and cremated.  

But what about the families of the dead conspirators? Here is where Bausum shines a light on what is probably an almost unknown part of this story. The deadly fate of the conspirators wasn't enough for Hitler, who insisted on broadly applying a policy of Sippenhaft or family arrest to their "families, including spouses, children, siblings, parents and other relatives" (pg. 70) and put SS leader Heinrich Himmler in charge if it.

Over 700 family members were arrested, and then,  children were separated from adults and taken to a former youth retreat called Borntal located in the secluded town of Bad Sachsa. There, they were traumatized even further. All family mementoes, including photographs and personal items, were removed from their suitcases, they were given new last names, and although they were marginally taken care of by staff, they were forbidden to speak to any outsiders. 

What happened to these children, nicknamed the Ghost Children by the community around them, is really the main focus of this book. Using the diary kept by one of the children, Christa von Hofsacker, interviews with a number of the detainees still living, and extensive research, Bausum gives readers a detailed window into just what these children suffered without even knowing why it was happening to them. 

As much as I know about Nazi Germany, the story of these Ghost Children was new to me. I did know about the Sippenhaft policy, but has just assumed it didn't involve children, who could have been re-educated the same way the Nazis re-educated Jewish children who looked Aryan from conquered countries. Instead, they followed a policy of erasure, isolation and harassment. 

To help readers, Bausum includes a map of Europe on July 20, 1944, copious photographs, including many of the families of the conspirators before the assassination attempt, and extensive back matter. There is a timeline of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler, a list of the Borntal's Sippenhaft Families, a Resource Guide,  A Note from the Author, and a detailed Bibliography, among other resources. Bausum also has a number of classroom suggestions to use in conjunction with this book, which you can find HERE.

Ensnared in the Wolf's Lair is a book for readers interested history, World War II, and/or Nazi Germany.

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from Karen Wadsworth at Media Masters Publicity

*Here is an interesting fact I learned when I was writing about Fliegerinnen or women pilots in Nazi Germany. As part of the Sippenhaft policy, relatives of Count Claus von Stauffenberg were also arrested, including his older twin brothers Berthold and Alexander. Alexander, who was not part of the conspiracy, was married to Melitta Schiller, a half Jewish, half Aryan aviator. She had been awarded the Iron Cross in 1943, arrested in the 1944 Sippenhalf roundup, but later released. Melitta tested dive bombers for the Luftwaffe, and was shot down by an American fighter plane in 1945. 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

A Peculiar Combination (An Electra McDonnell Novel #1) by Ashley Weaver

It's August 1940, Britain is at war with Germany, the Blitz hasn't begun yet, and so, Ellie McDonnell, 24, and her Uncle Mick thought it would be safe to break into the deserted home of some wealthy Londoners and rob their safe. Sure, they had done this plenty of times before. Uncle Mick is a locksmith by day, and cracking open people's safes at night was more like a hobby than theft, and niece Ellie is a natural. Only this time, they get caught and it isn't by the London police. Instead, they were take to a large townhouse in Belgravia, now occupied by the military under the command of the quite arrogant Major Gabriel Ramsey. After some interrogation about how they crack safes, Ellie and Uncle Mick are given a proposition - prison or help the Major break into a safe containing some stolen classified blueprints having to do with national security and retrieve them before they are given over to the enemy. 

It sounds like a simple enough job, so Ellie and Uncle Mick accept the proposition - after all, they are patriots who want to do their bit for the war effort. In fact, Ellie's cousins Toby and Colm are already serving their country. So the deal is, Ellie and Major Ramsey will break into a house and get the documents, while Uncle Mick is help as collateral. Everything goes well except the papers are gone and the person in whose safe they were has been murdered.

Having carried out their part of the deal made with Major Ramsey, Ellie and Uncle are released with a promise to live on the straight and narrow for the duration. But then Ellie gets called back to Major Ramsey's office who needs her safecracking skills once again. Ramsey is convinced that the documents will be handed over at a party and lecture on Chinese porcelain to a potential conspirator with German ties. There are any number of possible suspects, but thanks to Ellie's pickpocketing skills, they are able to glean enough information on what appears to be a solid lead. 

Meanwhile, a prickly relationship is growing between Major Ramsey and Ellie. And the fact that an old ex-girlfriend of his may be mixed up in the conspiracy to pass documents to the Germans doesn't help matters. Ramsey is uptight, formal, and slow to trust Ellie, whereas Ellie takes her tasks seriously, but can be feisty and a real buster when she wants to be, though her teasing adds some much needed humor to their relationship and their mission. Don't get me wrong - there are also enough serious and even dangerous moments. 

On the whole, I really enjoyed this first novel in what looks to become a series. It may seem wrong for the main character to be a criminal, after all, they are usually the pursued not the pursuer. But right from the start, Ellie and Uncle Mick are forced to mend their ways (permanently? I doubt it). And although more than one person is killed, the novel inn't graphic, putting into the cozy class. 

A Peculiar Combination lives up to it ironic title and more, and will have readers wanting even more by the time they reach novel's end. 

This book is recommended for mystery fans age 14+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

Monday, May 31, 2021

A Day for Rememberin': Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper

This was originally posted on my other blog, Randomly Reading, but since it is Memorial Day today, I thought I would posted it here, too. 

A Day for Rememberin'
Inspired by the True Events of the First Memorial Day
written by Leah Henderson, illustrated by Floyd Cooper
Harry N. Abrams, 2021, 40 pages
Most of us don't really know much about Memorial Day except that it's a time when we honor those who lost their lives in combat defending United States and the democratic principles upon which it was founded. And maybe some of us know that it was originally called Decoration Day, a day when families would go to the cemetery with flags and flowers to place on the graves of their fallen loved ones. But how many of us know about the origin of Memorial Day?

Well, now Leah Henderson has explored this question and has written a picture book for older readers that tells the story of one such origin and has chosen Eli, the ten-year-old son of formerly enslaved parents, as the narrator. It's 1865 and the Civil has ended with the Confederate surrender. And for nine days, Eli has wondered where his Papa goes to so early every day. Eli imagines him doing all kinds of things, but he isn't allowed to follow Papa because he is going to school, and as his mother reminds him, " have the hard earned right to learn...Masters locked away learning 'cause knowledge is its own freedom." 
Finally, though, on day ten, Papa wakes Eli up early and they join a procession of other formerly enslaved men and boys and head to the Charleston, South Carolina racetrack, once used for the entertainment white plantation owners. During the Civil War, the racetrack had become a prison where Confederates put captured Union soldiers, who were starved and treated so badly that even the enslaved women would try to sneak the men whatever morsels they could spare. 

Eli discovers that the men have been working to create a cemetery for the 257 dead Union soldiers who had been held in the racetrack. And it's here that Eli has a paintbrush put in his hands to help whitewash a fence with the other children. 

The next day, Eli is up early again, and heads out with his parents to join the procession other Black families heading to the racetrack, now a cemetery. Eli proudly carries the American flag, and the women carry flowers with which to decorate the newly dug graves. 
While this may be a work of historical fiction, the cemetery, called the Martyrs of the Race Track that was created in Charleston, South Carolina by formerly enslaved men, women, and children, is considered by some scholars to be the first observance of Decoration Day, later renamed Memorial Day. In her Author's Note, Henderson writes that she was inspired to write to story after seeing a photograph of about "200 Black children getting ready for what looked like a parade." Curiosity sparked, research led Henderson to the cemetery in Charleston, South Carolina, where she learned that the Decoration Day parade to the former racetrack included over 10,000 newly freed enslaved people were led by about 3,000 Black children. Henderson chose the fictional Eli and his parents to tell their story.

A Day for Rememberin' is such a poignant story about how one community honored the men who they believed fought for them, but also, as Eli reminds readers, about the fear that enslaved people lived with every day, wondering if their loved one would come home at the end of the day, or be sold to someone without their knowing. 

And who better to illustrate this moving, affective story than Floyd Cooper. Using his signature method of oil erasure in earth tones of yellows and browns seems somehow so perfect for this story. The hazy effect of this method doesn't diminish the details and the closeups of people faces really captures their different emotions. 

Besides the Author's Note, back matter includes a short essay on The Roots of Decoration Day, a Timeline of Decoration Day/Memorial Day, a list of other cities claiming to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, Endnotes, and a Select Bibliography. 

David W. Blight a scholar who believes that the birthplace of Decoration Day is Charleston, South Carolina. You can read two of his interesting articles about this HERE and HERE.

Full disclosure: I read a digital watermarked ARC received from the publisher.

This book is recommended for readers age 7+

In Memoriam
FCP 1955-2001

Sunday, May 23, 2021

MMGM: The Good War by Todd Strasser

The Good War by Todd Strasser
Delacorte Press/Random House, 2021, 192 pages

I was in college taking a Propaganda course when I read Todd Strasser's The Wave. It's a story about how readily people will give up their individual rights and personal freedom to become part of a dominating peer group in a classroom experiment designed to show students how Germans were persuaded to support Nazism. It was a simplified experiment, but the part that Strasser got right was that we are all responsible for our own actions and to question a leader and never follow him blindly. Now, we have The Good War in which Strasser gives readers a somewhat updated version of The Wave, but takes it to a virtual battlefield.

Ironville Middle School has had to cancel football for lack of funds and taking advantage of that, seventh grader Caleb Arnett had worked with math teacher Ms. B on a grant that provided state of the art gaming computers to the school. Now, for the first time, there would be an eSports club, despite the Principal's skepticism about gaming. Eight students show up for the inaugural meeting, including loner Zach Cook and bully Crosby Fugard, and soon a game is chosen and teams are formed. 

The game, The Good War or TGW for short, mimics the Allied and Axis forces in World War II. Emma Lopez is chosen to be team captain for the Allies, and has Caleb, Zach and Nathan on her team, while Gavin Morgenstern is the Axis captain with Crosby, Tyler and Mackenzie on his side. The eSports Club meets once a week after school, and it doesn't take long for the players to really get into it. Soon, the Axis players are all wearing Nazi type clothing and speaking in fake German accents. Sadly, most of the students don't really have an understanding of World War II and what happened. For them, it's just a video game.

Things really get out of hand when there is a malware attack during a club meeting that features Nazi symbols, leading to a fight between two opposing players. After all Caleb's hard work to get these computers, this the end of eSports Club?

The Good War is told in the third person alternating voices of Caleb, Zach, Emma, Nathan and Crosby. Each of these students have issues and it is interesting to see how they evolve over the course of 10 weeks. Caleb is overly extended thanks to his hovering parents who want him to excel in everything; loner Zach is a fidgety boy with multiple tics, but is a great skateboarder and gamer, while quiet Emma lives in her older sisters shadow, unable to stand up for herself. Crosby, who mother has cancer and is going through chemo, is the most vulnerable of the group. He plays TGW online with a white supremacist who is slowly radicalizing him. 

Through the members of the eSports Club, Strasser explores themes of bigotry, prejudice, the misuse of social media, racism, and bullying. While it is a little hard to believe that a middle school would allow students to play a game like The Good War, which is rated Mature, I could still suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story. And what about Ms. B's lack of leadership and control over the eSports Club? In my teaching life, I have met a few Ms. Bs, which is sad to say. 
I wrote a dissertation on how novels for girls were used to indoctrinate them into NSDAP thinking, so naturally, I found The Good War and The Wave to be interesting books that tackle the theme of indoctrination and belonging. There was a reason Hitler courted German youth but you might be surprised to learn that German parents weren't quite as supportive as we have been lead to believe. Which made me wonder, where were all the parents of the kids in the eSports club? 

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an eARC gratefully received from NetGalley

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and you can see all of this week's wonderful MMGM books thanks to Greg at Always in the Middle

Sunday, May 16, 2021

MMGM: War and Millie McGonigle by Karen Cushman

It's 1941 and life has been difficult for Millie McGonigle''s family lately. First, there was the Depression. Her dad lost his job, and still hasn't found one. Younger sister Lily is sickly with lung problems and takes up all her mother's attention, while younger brother Pete, 5, wants all of Millie's attention. Then the war started in Eurpoe and Millie began worrying that the Nazis might just come over to San Diego and drop their bombs. To make matters worse, on Millie's twelfth birthday her beloved Gram Tillie suddenly passed away, but not before she gave Millie a blank notebook and told her "Things that seem lost or dead - keep them alive and safe in your book. Whatever is lost stays alive if we remember it." And so Millie turned her notebook into The Book of Dead Things, Mission Beach, San Diego, Californiz, 1941. Now, Millie combs the beach looking for all kinds of dead things to draw in her book. 

And then the news that Gram's cousin Edna would be coming to live with the McGonigle's and Millie would have to share her bed with her. Edna is a little off center, seemingly unaware of what's going on around her and that there is a war happening. One good thing that happens is the her nemesis Dicky (Icky) Fribble's aunt and cousin Rosie move in with his family. Rosie is older than Millie, but the two girls hit it off immediately.

Then Pearl Harbor is attacked and everything changes again. Her dad gets a job as a clerk in the Navy Exchange, unable to join the army because of a heart murmur, and her mom begins welding school. Now, there are air raid drills in school, heavy black curtains on the windows at night, and rationing. Soon, kids are playing war games and collecting metal, fat and newspapers for the war effort. And, of course, Japanese hatred soon rears its ugly head in none other than Icky Fribble and his mother. Through it all, Millie continues to add drawings of dead things to her notebook. 

War and Millie McGonigle is such an interesting story. It takes place between Saturday, September 20, 1941 and Sunday, February 28, 1942, mimicking Millie's diary entries, so most accountings are on Saturday and Sunday, with only a few on weekdays. 

Millie is a sensitive character, who wallows in grievances, afraid to let go and enjoy life, because what if... But, over the course of the novel, she begins to change and watching that happen at the pivotal age between childhood and being a teen is what makes her so interesting. Add a war to that time, and you have a lively, endearing character. And while Millie's obsession with her The Book of Dead Things sounds rather morbid at first, it becomes an exploration of what to value in life for her. 

Readers will find plenty of daily home front details in this character driven novel. But my favorite aspect of the book is that it is set at the beach at a time when it was not such an attraction for tourists. In that respect, it will remind readers of Jennifer L. Holms' books Turtle in Paradise and Full of Beans, even though they take place in Key West, Florida. They all share the same salty air, smelly seaweed, cawing seagulls atmosphere that is so beachy. Cushman has really nailed the setting aspect of the novel. 

Hand this to readers interested in historical fiction, WWII, tween girls, and anyone looking for a good home front story.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an eBook gratefully received from NetGalley

It's Marvelous Middle Grade Monday and you can see all of this week's wonderful MMGM books thanks to Greg at Always in the Middle