One of our favorite reads from 2011 was Connie Willis’ novel-in-two-parts, Blackout and All Clear, in which time-traveling historians go back to WWII to observe the contemporaries and view heroism in action – at Dunkirk, in the countryside with the children evacuated from London, as part of ambulance crews responding to V-1 attacks.
Only something happens and they all converge in London during the Blitz:
Michael Davies should have come here, not Dunkirk, if he wanted to observe heroes, Polly thought, looking after them. She’d just seen them in action. And it wasn’t only the young women and their willingness to go out on the streets in the middle of a raid. How much courage had it taken for the rector to cross the basement and open that door, knowing it might be the Germans? Or for all of them to sit here night after night, waiting for imminent invasion or a direct hit, not knowing whether they’d live till the next all clear?
Not knowing. It was the one thing historians could never understand. They could observe the contemps, live with them, try to put themselves in their place, but they couldn’t truly experience what they were experiencing. Because I know what’s going to happen. I know Hitler didn’t invade England, that he didn’t use poison gas or destroy St. Paul’s. Or London. Or the world. That he lost the war.
But they didn’t. They’d lived through the Blitz and D-Day and the V-1s and V-2s, with no guarantee of a happy ending.
Blackout, by Connie Willis
We’ve got some WWII buffs around here, but this was a new thought: how can we really understand what it was like, us safe in our 21st century, knowing the ending? We can watch all the documentaries and read all the first-hand accounts, but when you know that all is more or less right at the end, how do you feel the uncertainty … and conversely, how do you fully appreciate the incredible resilience and bravery of those who lived through this terrible war?
This is where Connie Willis comes in. Passages like the above bring home this uncertainty, and we started to really get a glimpse of the strength of those people who sat in shelters night after night, waiting for the bomb that might kill them to fall. Not just because Willis has the writing chops and the research to bring this era vividly to life, but because of this important plot point: the drops that should have taken the historians back to 2060 Oxford aren’t working. No retrieval teams have come. Something has gone terribly wrong, and all signs point to the fact that they have inadvertently changed the course of history.
Which means the war could be lost. There might be no VE Day. Hitler might win.
They might all die.
It’s fiction, sure. But for the first time, we didn’t know the outcome, and we felt a bit of the fear and terror the real-life heroes must have lived through.
For some follow-up reading about real life WWII heroes, we particularly recommend the following:
Safe Passage: the remarkable true story of two sisters who rescued Jews from the Nazis, by Ida Cook
A Train in Winter: an extraordinary story of women, friendship, and resistance in occupied France, by Caroline Moorehead
Shot At and Missed: recollections of a War War II bombardier, by Jack R. Myers
Unbroken : a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand