Saturday, April 15, 2017
War, Spies and Bobby Sox - Stories About World War II at Home
by Libby Fischer Hellmann
The first part of this book was amazing, and the rest of the book ran true to its beginnings! It is very suspenseful, very well-written, and though fiction, is full of factual occurrences or persons. I don't speak of just the beginning of the book, as it is really three stories of war, so I find it easier to concentrate on each separately. Nevertheless, the whole is still wartime in terms of WWII, and how those at home cope, or often don't. These are the times I grew up in. Those of us old enough to recall what it was like growing up in the troubled times of the 1930s and 1940s, then in the mid '40s through the 1950's the beginning of the nuclear age with all the fears and the famous "duck and cover". The terror inflicted by the armed forces, FBI, CIA, and other organizations that your neighbors may be Communists and should be reported. This chapter in history turned innocent people into spies and this theme runs throughout the stories. But I digress, simply because this book is so close to home, the memories flow.
Libby Fischer Hellman has dug deeply into that dark pit where one enemy infiltration, particularly the Nazis, leaves off and another, Communism arrives. It is also the beginnings of nuclear experiments. And so we begin, following the life of one Jewish girl, Lena, whose family is among those who are seeking asylum in other countries. Sent to live with relatives in America, she never hears from her parents again. Libby starts the story fairly close to the time the United States came into the war, particularly into the 1940s of Rosie the Riveter, European countries gobbled up, women desperate for love and families, but we also find that there are spies. These covert infiltrators seek to enlist people to spy for them, report to them, give them intel, but never let their chosen know who they are really working for. Lena has been working in the Physics Dept. in the university, who better to induct? She has a young child, she is poor, she is alone, working where the early development of splitting atoms is going on. Of course she has been sworn to secrecy in her job, who better to train as a spy? The events in this section of the book are very close to reality. Especially what she is spying on. I found this book to be a very honest fiction if such can be said. Lena is trained under threat, becomes a very good spy but does have some tricks up her sleeve, too, if it weren't for an additional demand for her to spy on the spy, more or less. Who is spying for whom? A shockingly big twist near the end of this part. This first section of the book I will leave here, the reader must enjoy the suspense for themselves. I am moving into the second part.
This is what this book is about, life for those left behind whether Jews seeking asylum, families receiving letters that their loved ones have been killed, teens trying to handle blossoming sexually, living on farms where POWs come to work. The latter certainly applies to Mary-Catherine, who is at the heart of "what happens in rural America". The war has basically ended against the Nazis, though some Nazi POWs don't believe it; but the attack on Pearl Harbor has turned the world against Japan and sped up the race to splitting the atom. The world was ripe for picking. Spies and counter-spies played a huge part at this time. This section features a young farm girl and POWs who come to work under guard on the farm. Mary-Catherine's father is still fighting in the Battle of Midway. As the family, mother, two young children and a beautiful teen-age girl, hear a truck rumble in they come to see what is happening. The mother gives her assent to the guard for the prisoners to work on harvesting the crops. The prisoners are a mixed group, German soldiers, SS, Nazis, even intel; some arrogant, some friendly, some unscrupulous, at least one honest; and any of them can be enemies still, spies, especially one prisoner who is a loyal Nazi. A fight between prisoners of different factions, a lockdown, a murder, an accident; and a disgraced daughter is sent away. Another glimpse of what can and will happen when consorting with the enemy. They've had time to think and plot escape. A short story, but very honest in what could and often did happen post-war. This story was compelling and sad, taking place entirely in Illinois.
Now we come to another side on the home front. The day Miriam Hirsch disappeared. Two boys from different parts of Chicago; Jake Forman in Hyde Park, a German Jew and Barney Teitelman in Lawndale, the Jewish neighborhood on Chicago's West Side whose family was from Russia or Lithuania. The families are opposites in most ways, but the boys remain best friends. It was in Lawndale where they first see Miriam, beautiful, an actress, probably a German Jew. Next they knew, Skull, a low-level gangster, began to be seen with her. The area they were in, where Barney lived, was composed of gangs, though protective. Irish street gangs, Nazi sympathizers, and Skull, casino owner. Jake was devastated to see them together. Then comes an evening when he and Barney overhear Miriam tell Skull that she "...won't do it. Stop asking me." The conversation carries on in much the same tone, Skull wanting some information, pleading with her. Did she agree finally? He is hugging her, but they don't hear an answer. After that night they never saw her with Skull again. Her routines were different. Skull tries to hire the boys to work for him. And here we come full circle again. No trust, become an informant, murder, but the real common denominator is hatred and suspicion. All the parts of the whole. A novel that seems more like the truth. Lives lost, conspiracies grow, threats become reality. This book is truly exceptional, three parts of a whole. One of the best. Libby, you've done it again.