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World War II in fact and fiction


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Mar 22, 2024
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Max in the House of Spies: A Tale of World War II by Adam Gidwitz (Dutton Books for Young Readers, 336 pages, grades 4-7). “Once there was a boy who had two immortal creatures living on his shoulders. This was the fourth most interesting thing about him.” The other things about Max are that he’s a genius, particularly in the mechanical realm, that his parents send him from Berlin to England as part of the Kindertransport in 1939, and that he falls in with some spies, even though he’s only 11. The immortal creatures, a kobold named Berg and a dybbuk named Stein are invisible and inaudible to everyone but Max, which proves both huge help and a terrific nuisance.

Max wants nothing more than to return home and save his parents. Much to his surprise, he ends up living with a Jewish family in London, giving him the chance to observe British antisemitism up close. It’s this family that brings him into contact with the spies, allowing Max to use his genius to get them to agree to send him back to Berlin as a British spy. First there’s an intense training, where it takes every bit of Max’s brains, as well as help from Berg and Stein, to pass to the next level. Finally, Max is ready to go, assigned to be carried in by a paratrooper in the dead of night. That’s as much as I can tell you now, except to assure you that the cliffhanger ending will have you praying that Adam Gidwitz is a speedy writer who can produce book 2 ASAP.

The Enigma Girls: How Ten Teenagers Broke Ciphers, Kept Secrets, and Helped Win World War II by Candace Fleming (Scholastic Focus, 384 pages, grades 5-9). If you’ve seen The Imitation Game, you’re familiar with Bletchley Park, the top-secret British facility where thousands of men and women worked day and night to crack German codes. This book focuses on ten of the young women, many still in their teens, who came to work in various jobs there. Each one had a very specialized task, whether it was translating, indexing, or keeping machines running. The work was absolutely grueling, with rotating eight-hour shifts to keep a 24-hour schedule, and it was top, top secret. Workers couldn’t even discuss what they were doing with those in a different department.

All were motivated by a desire to save lives and win the war, although at one point, one of the women reflects on the fact that saving British lives meant losing German lives. They all put their lives on hold, some for years, to do their important work. When the war ended, the girls went their separate ways, never telling anyone, including spouses and family members, what they had done. It wasn’t until the late 1970’s that some of the secrecy was lifted and stories started to be told. In the 1990’s, what was left of Bletchley Park was restored and opened as a museum. An author’s note and extensive source notes and index are a testament to the research done by Candace Fleming.

Reading these two books caused me to reflect on how World War II is still being mined for stories for all ages, more than any other time period I can think of. It seems like an era that easily lends itself to unambiguous tales of good versus evil. I appreciate how Adam Gidwitz subtly points out the racism and antisemitism that was prevalent in Britain, as well as making a point of England’s centuries of colonialism and empire building that preceded the war, with little concern for indigenous people in the conquered lands. The Enigma Girls is a more straightforward war story, with an interesting emphasis on the importance of women’s work that is often missing (e.g., Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer). Ten enigma girls were a lot for me to keep track of, especially since their stories were all woven together, and, although I would have liked to have known each one better, it did emphasize the diversity of backgrounds of those who ended up at Bletchley Park. It’s also unfortunate, although understandable, that not many photos exist of the facility, and Candace Fleming made the decision not to include any of the women’s photos, since she couldn’t find pictures of all of them.
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