Sunday, March 27, 2022

Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves by L. M. Elliott

No sooner had the United States entered World War II than German U-boats began cruising the waters off America's eastern seaboard looking for cargo ships carrying desperately needed supplies to Europe to torpedo. And Hitler's "wolfpack" were very successful. And now, for 13-year-old Louisa June Brookes, living in Tidewater Virginia, the war has really come home.

Her older sister Katie is off to welding school in Newport News and older brothers Will joins the merchant marines and Joe joins the navy. When a crew member becomes ill, her father, a tugboat captain, suggests her brother Butler replace him on a trip pushing barges to Philadelphia. Butler is set to graduate high school and begin studying at the College of William and Mary in the fall and it's a good opportunity to earn money for food and books. Of course, this leaves Louisa June and her mother to take care of their 70 acre farm. 

Louisa's mother has always suffered from bouts of what the family calls "melancholy" which has recently become more serious now that the war has arrived in Tidewater Virginia. It's Louisa's goal to try and get her mother to smile when the melancholy hits, and since this is a literary family, a good story will often do the trick. 

But when tragedy hits the convoy of barges they are pushing, Butler is killed, but  his dad survives. Louisa's mother goes into a full on depression, grieving for Butler. Blaming her husband for his death, and despite the seriousness of his injuries, refusing to allow him back in the house, forcing him to live in the barn.  Luckily, elderly Cousin Belle Archer, who has a few of her own war stories from WWI, is aware of Mama's melancholy, and is only too happy to help Louisa out with food, books and kittens now that running the house and taking care of her parents has become her responsibility. But Louisa wants to do more to help the war effort, like her friend Emmett does, keeping an eye out for Nazis in the waters around the Tidewater. 

On what was supposed to be a fun day out, Louisa and Cousin Belle witness a U-boat attack a convoy of merchant ships out in the Chesapeake Bay while relaxing on the beach at Old Point Comfort. They both immediately spring into action to try to help save some of the men. Before long, however, it becomes a family affair, but will it bring the Brookes family some closure on Butler's death and bring them together again or will it split the family even further apart?

I have always enjoyed reading L. M. Elliott's historical novels and this is no exception. And the German submarines lurking in the waters so close to shore isn't a topic that often makes its way into middle grade novels. The story is narrated in the first person by Louisa, who has quite a way with description. And describe she does - giving the reader not just everyday details about what it was like in those early days of the war, but wonderful details about living in Tidewater Virginia. I could almost hear the cry seagulls and smell the salt water. 

I also felt that Elliott did a great job tackling the subject of Louisa's mother's depression and how it impacts the entire family. I grew up with a mother depressed over the loss of a child and I could completely empathize with Louisa's attempts to try to lift her mother's moods, not realizing (as I didn't) that she really needed professional help. 

Be sure to read the back matter which gives information about some of the topics covers in this book, including German submarines and the merchant marines, kids becoming plane spotter, woman welders like Katie, experiences like Cousin Belle's in WWI, and of course depression. 

Louisa June and the Nzies in the Waves is a wonderful companion to L. M. Elliott's earlier novel Across a War-Tossed Sea and I highly recommend both.

Thank you Edelweiss+ for granting me access to a digital version of this book.

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, 
now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle

Saturday, March 19, 2022

We Are Wolves by Katrina Nannestad

Despite the war, the Wolf family - Opa, Oma, Papa, Mama, Liesl, 11, Otto, 7, and baby Mia - had lived a relatively comfortable life in East Prussia. But now it is October 1944, the Russian army is advancing westward, and in desperation, Hitler has called up teen boys, older men, and those who are disabled to fight to save his Reich. Papa, who was injured in WWI, is drafted and by Christmas Eve, he is missing in action.

Soon after, the family learns that the Russian army has broken through German lines and are advancing in East Prussia. Everyone to told to quickly flee because it was well known that the Russians have been doing terrible things to German men, women, and children, as they advanced. Luckily, Opa manages to find an old car, but that only takes the family so far, and soon they are fleeing on foot in blizzard conditions with so many others. Soon, Opa and Oma decide they need to rest and will catch up with the family later. Opa tells them to head for the Vistula Lagoon and to try to get on a ship to Denmark.  Mama and the children get separated trying to cross the frozen lagoon on a sled, but by the time Liesl, Otto, and Mia make it to the other side, Mama has disappeared from the ice. 

Liesl had already promised Mama that no matter what, she would take care of the brother and sister. While staying in an abandoned house, they are discovered by some Russian soldiers. Luckily, one is a kind man and he takes them to a Russian army camp where they are treated with some kindness, but when Liesl realizes that the Captain has designs on taking Mia away from her and sending the baby to his wife in Russia, she knows it is time to take her siblings and run away. And the only place to run to is the forest. There, they discover they are not alone when they meet other homeless children trying to survive on their own in the woods and stay out of Russian hands. 

Life in the woods isn't easy, continually foraging for food and some measure of shelter. But long the way, they also meet Karl, who helps them learn the ropes, even if it sometimes means learning how to steal what they need to survive. Learning that there is food in Lithuania, Liesl and Karl decide they should try to get there and plan on jumping into a train as it moves out of the station. Karl and Otto make it, but Liesl, holding Mia, doesn't. Thinking she's lost Otto, Liesl is surprised when he comes running back, having jumped off the train. When they finally do make it to Lithuania, Mia is quite sick and Liesl isn't sure she will survive. But, they are taken in by a couple, Magdalena and Dovydas, who help nurse Mia back to health. And while their situation is comfortable and safe, Liesl wonders if they will ever be reunited with their family again. 

Nannestad's book highlights a phenomena that occurred toward the end of WWII when East Prussian children were separated from their parents for one reason or another as the Russian army advanced and took to living in the forests to survive. These homeless children became known as Wolfskinder or wolf children. Some were adopted by Lithuanians, despite harsh punishment by the Russians if they were found helping Germans, even if the Germans were only children.   

I thought We are Wolves did a great job at depicting the harsh conditions and difficulties the Wolf children faced from the moment their family decided to flee until they were finally taken in by kind Lithuanians. I liked the way Nannestad explored themes of family, courage, resilience, and identity (especially important given that the Wolf children had to have their names changed in Lithuania for safety's sake). I also like the way the name Wolf was capitalized on throughout the novel as Liesl kept reminding herself and her siblings that they were Wolfs, and each section was captioned using the word wolves, for example: Proud Wolves, Wild Wolves Vanishing Wolves.

The Wolfskinder may be a little known aspect of WWII, but given what is happening right now in the Ukraine, I believe We are Wolves will definitely resonate with today's readers, who are seeing for themselves what the ravages of war does to families. I highly recommend this book.

This book was purchased for my personal library.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

The Rose Code: A Novel by Kate Quinn

The Rose Code is one of those books I've been wanting to read ever since I first heard about it, but it just seemed like I could never find the time. Well, since I found myself with lots of time this past February, it was the first book I reached for. And I'm so glad I did.

The story revolves around three very different women who become friends after they begin working on code breaking at the Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, England during World War II. Mab (rather than Mable) Churt was born and raised in a cramped flat with a shared bathroom in Shoreditch in London's East End. Wanting more out of life than what her mother settled for, Mab worked hard to self-educate, reading the classics and she had even come in tops in typing and shorthand. Now, with war, she was ready to do her part for king and country.

Osla Kendall's upbringing couldn't be more different than Mab's. A society debutante, her mother hadn't really wanted her around, and had shipped her off to cousins in Canada. Now, Osla was back in London and dating a navy lieutenant named Philip Mountbatten (formerly Prince Philip of Greece). But once her mother cut off her allowance, Osla realizes she needs a job. Thanks to a German governess, Osla can speak fluent German and Philip suggests she use that skill to help the war effort.

After having mysterious interviews in London, Mab and Osla meet on the train the Bletchley, and instantly become friends, having received almost identical and very mysterious letters telling them where to go once they arrive. 

After another interview and signing the Official Secrets Act, the two women are taken to the Finch home where they will board while working at Bletchley. There, they meet Bethan Finch, the 23-yer-old daughter of their nosy, overbearing and overly critical landlady, Mrs. Finch. Meek and shy, Beth might have been beaten down by her mother, but she also is a whiz at crossword puzzles, able to finish the Sunday crossword in eight minutes. As Mab and Osla get settled into their respective jobs at Bletchley, they become more aware of what is going on in the Finch household, including the way Mrs. Finch abuses Beth. Thanks to Osla, Beth is soon working in Bletchley for expert cytologist Dilly Knox

Though Beth has always been shy and withdrawn, she shines at her job breaking codes at Bletchley. She even joins the book club that Mab and Osla start for the workers there. Then, on June 5th, 1944, as Beth is working on a difficult cipher file she had come to think of as Rose because the short messages reminded her of the way a rose's petals wrap it, she discovers that there was a traitor at Bletchley, but no matter what she says, no one believes her. The next day, as the Normandy Invasion was taking place, Beth finds herself committed to Clockwell Sanitarium for a supposed nervous breakdown. 

Now, it's 1947 and Beth is facing a lobotomy and desperately trying to get her former friends, Mab and Osla to come to her rescue. If they could decipher the Rose Code, they could expose the Bletchley traitor. But would they come? And if not, why not?

The Rose Code is a long, detailed, multi-layered novel and I couldn't put it down. The three main characters are so clearly defined and so deliciously flawed, as different from one another as they are united in their desire to do their part for the war effort. I loved the inclusion of real people like Dilly Knox and Prince Philip and even a mention of Alan Turing, but the other minors characters also fit the story so well. In fact, I became invested in everyone's story very quickly (even the horrible, abusing Mrs. Finch). Bletchley itself is so well depicted it felt like another character instead of just the place that brought everyone together for the sake of the story.

Beth, Mab, and Osla's stories unfold in alternating chapters, as well as in chapters where they all play a part. And the narrative covers two timelines - the war years, while the women were working at Bletchley, and 1947. Actually, 1947 covers only the weeks leading up to the royal wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip (yup, Osla's old love interest). 

The Rose Code is a sophisticated, well plotted, well researched and well written novel My only objection is that I didn't really get why the traitor did what they did. I didn't like the character, but I also didn't suspect them yet I wasn't surprised when I found out who they were. 

The Rose Code was one of ten winning titles for ALA's 2021 Alex Award - adult books that also have appeal for young adult readers ages 12-18.

This book was purchased for my personal library.

Saturday, March 5, 2022

What's been happening...

You may have noticed that I've been away from blogging for a while and it 's because of illness. No, it
wasn't COVID-19 (I'm vaccinated and boostered), or the flu (had my annual flu shot, too), or a heart attack, or a stroke, but it was serious and required hospitalization. I've always been fortunate enough to have good health, so I knew that one day something would find me and it would be bad. And it was!

Well, now I'm on the mend and I hope to get back to blogging regularly again, especially since I've had lots of time to do lots of reading. 

See you soon!