I had the pleasure of reading a pre-release version of Catherine Hokin’s The Fortunate Ones. My Goodreads review: The Fortunate Ones is a story that matters. Set in World War Two Germany and post-war Argentina, it will grab your attention from start to finish, and make you think about war, consequences, choices, and the power of love. Here’s Catherine to talk about the ongoing fascination of war.
War is hell – there’s a statement I doubt anyone would disagree with. Being caught up in a war, either as a combatant or a civilian, must be one of the worst experiences anyone can endure, and yet, since story telling began, we have filled up our firesides and our books and plays and poems with stories of conflict and the pain that comes with it.
The urge to write about war has been with us far longer than the desire to write about love. Most people’s main experience of classical literature comes through the epic adventures of the Trojan War. Beowulf, composed between 700 and 750 and the oldest surviving Germanic epic poem, tells the story of a monster-battling warrior. One of the oldest English poems in existence is The Battle of Maldon, believed to have been written in 991. More recently, the dynastic mayhem surrounding the Wars of the Roses shows no signs of losing its appeal and there can’t be a secondary school pupil in the UK who doesn’t know the name of at least one WWI poet.
I used to teach some of those pupils and, no matter their ability or level of interest, there was always a moment (usually in the middle of a discussion of something revolting like trench foot) when the age penny dropped. When somebody realised that the boys in uniform were barely older than the boys in the classroom. You could feel the change in mood every time it happened.
They all knew (or could at least regurgitate) the poetry’s key themes and functions: to encourage the heroic, to celebrate bravery and promote the sense of a communal experience; to de-mystify war and bring home its realities; to be anti-war and a propaganda tool. They were street-smart enough to spot the manipulation of words and ideals, but it was the realisation that the dead and the horribly maimed were too often 17 and 18 that brought empathy. That sent them home asking for family stories, or sent them to the newspapers and pictures of Aleppo. That brought wider themes back into the classroom: how recounting experiences can be an act of remembrance; how unimaginable trauma can be dealt with through literature and be made smaller, more relatable. Without wishing to go all Dead Poets’ Society, that moment of connection was when the cost of war became real.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not sticking The Fortunate Ones in a bracket with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I do think, however, that all war-based writing comes from a shared source: the need to make sense of the horrors people inflict on each other in the name of religion or politics or land, or whatever excuse one group can dig up for killing the ‘other’.
I was born in 1961 and grew up in the shadow of WWII. Films were obsessed with it; my parents (who were small children in Liverpool during the conflict) and their friends constantly talked about it; the shadow of rationing still dictated their attitudes to food and waste. Taking it back a generation, my grandfather fought all four years of WWI and carried the mental scars to his dying day.
One of the most common words I heard in relation to WWII in those days, was ‘monster’. Hitler was a monster, the Nazis were monsters. Then I heard about the Holocaust and what other term could you use? That word was where The Fortunate Ones started: an exploration of what monster actually means, in this context most particularly through the character of Inge.
There are universal themes and collective experiences we draw on, but there are also risks involved in writing about war, especially if what you are writing touches on the concentration camps. I was asked why I even wanted to do it, why anyone would write about something as horrific as the Holocaust, and wasn’t it an exploitative thing to do? They are fair questions and were constantly in my mind while I was writing.
Holocaust literature has never been, as odd as it feels to use the word, as popular. There are many theories as to why this is. That the number of survivors is shrinking plays a part, bringing as that does an increased need for remembrance, a need to hold onto accounts that many have only felt able to share years after the actual events took place. The Holocaust has also been described as an embodiment of some of our deepest fears, and that resonates with me. We can pretend such a horror, with its inescapable round-ups and removals and contempt for human life, can never happen again but do we believe that? When we live in a world stained by rising antisemitism and we see children being forcibly snatched from their parents at the Mexican Wall? When we have witnessed genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia and Rohingya?
Like all the generations before us then, we make sense of our world’s cruelties through reading, and telling, stories. Holocaust and WWII literature is part of this: our horror story existing still, albeit just, in living memory. We exorcise our fear of war’s pain and death and separation on the page, but we also we look for hope. The moments of bravery and sacrifice that change a life. Those acts we hope we would be capable of, an uncertainty we hope will never be tested.
Writers will never stop writing on war’s themes, they are too universal. I hope, however, we all recognise that the topic comes with responsibilities.
We cannot glorify war. We cannot romanticise it and make light of its horrors. We cannot use its realities carelessly, creating situations that cannot possibly have happened and blunting or belittling what could. We must do our research and root our characters in real events which we handle with care.
Those were my rules when writing The Fortunate Ones. If I’ve achieved nothing else, I hope in those I’ve been true.
Many thanks, Catherine. As an author who has written four novels featuring war, your words resonate for me and I am sure they will resonate with many others. In our current world of ‘proxy wars’, we should be even more mindful of the horror and obscenity war brings.
The Fortunate Ones by Catherine Hokin ~~ Every day he stood exactly where he was directed. He listened for his number, shouted his answer in the freezing cold. He was ragged and he was starving, but he was alive. He was one of the fortunate ones whom fate had left standing. And he needed to stay that way. For Hannah.
Berlin, 1941. Felix Thalberg, a printer’s apprentice, has the weight of the world on his shoulders. His beloved city is changing under Nazi rule and at home things are no better – Felix’s father hasn’t left the house since he was forced to wear a yellow star, and his mother grows thinner every day.
Then one night, Felix meets a mysterious young woman in a crowded dance hall, and his life is changed forever. Hannah is like a rush of fresh air into his gloomy, stagnant life and Felix finds himself instantly, powerfully infatuated with her. But when he tries to find her again, she’s vanished without a trace.
Was Hannah taken away by the Gestapo and held prisoner… or worse? When Felix himself is imprisoned in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, his thoughts are only for her safety. And when a life-threatening injury lands him on the ward of Dr Max Eichel – a Nazi medical officer with a sadistic reputation – his love for his lost Hannah sees him through the pain.
Until one day Dr Eichel brings his pretty young wife to tour the camp and Felix’s world is thrown off-kilter. Framed in the hospital window he sees – impossibly – the same girl he met that fateful night… her wrist in the vice-like grip of the deathly calm SS Officer. And it’s clear Hannah recognises him at once – there is no mistaking her expression, she has been dreaming of him too…
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.