The Road to Liberation – commemorating WWII

It seems fitting on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two to feature an author and a collection of stories commemorating WW2. Today, Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger talks about writing WWII fiction and her contribution to The Road to Liberation.

What inspires you to write about World War II?

My family are refugees of WWII and I grew up knowing that they had barely made it out of Europe alive. I grew up in a diaspora of Ukrainian-Americans, many of whom believed they would return to the “old country” as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. Well, that did not happen right away. By that time, the first generations of Americans were deeply entrenched, married to Americans, and living a dual life between the old and the new. I, however, always knew that I would somehow return to the “old country”. That “somehow” turned into Austria, the country where my mother was born in a displaced person’s camp, and that “somehow” was by returning to war via my historical fiction.

 What is The Road to Liberation Collection about?

Author Marion Kummerow (War Girl series) is the brainchild of the project. She lives two hours from me in Munich, Germany and is a passionate champion of making sure that the lessons of WW2 are not forgotten. She approached a group of us authors in Facebook’s Second World War Club and asked whether we’d be interested in taking part in a 75th anniversary edition. At first it was supposed to be a collection of novellas. However, when you ask novelists to write a short book, you’re bound to have problems. We each wrote a full novel.

Your novel, Magda’s Mark, will debut in the collection. What is the story?

Imagine this: you are the wife of a commanding officer, who is head of a the Bohemian (Sudetenland) district. Your reputation has been built upon your selfishness, your unhidden contempt for the local “Slavs” and you are known to wield power with a strong hand; of reporting any slip of a misdeed directly to your husband. Imagine you are pregnant. You need a midwife. You give birth one night, and the midwife goes to clean up the baby. You, in the meantime, are given something to help you rest. When you awake, you find the baby has been returned to you. And he has been circumcised…at a time when Jews are being rounded up and deported to concentration camps…

That is what happened to my friend’s mother-in-law. My friend’s husband was that baby boy. And as soon as I heard that story, my jaw dropped to the floor. I needed to know who had been pushed so far and under which circumstances to take that great of a risk. Thus, the first seeds of Magda’s Mark were planted alongside those questions.

Magda’s Mark is a story about a woman who commits one courageous and rash act of rebellion. When the Nazi officer begins to hunt for her, she survives in the Underground, her plan for revenge the only thing keeping her going, and when the time comes to put her plan into action, Magda is faced with the woman she has become, and what will define her in the aftermath of the war.

Why do you think World War II fiction continues to be such a popular genre? 

WWII is also the great allegorical tale, the good vs evil was so clearly drawn and yet, and this is where it gets juicy and something I tackle in Magda’s Mark, it wasn’t really all so clear cut. We’re discovering, ever more, the three-dimensional sides to the stories. Authors are writing about different perspectives that make us stop and think, “Aha, it wasn’t all black and white. It wasn’t all about the good guys vs the bad guys.” We still have enough access to those personal stories and that’s what I think historical fiction authors of this genre try to bring to life; the individual impacts are what make these “lessons” all the more relevant.

The Road to Liberation by Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger, Marion Kummerow, Ellie Midwood, J.J. Toner, Marina Osipova, and Rachel Wesson

By 1944, the Axis powers are fiercely holding on to their quickly shrinking territories. The stakes are high—on both sides: Liberators and oppressors face off in the final battles between good and evil. Only personal bravery and self-sacrifice will tip the scales when the world needs it most.

Read about the heroic act of a long-term prisoner, an RAF squadron leader on the run in France, a Filipino family fleeing their home, a small child finding unexpected friends amidst the cruelty of the concentration camps, a shipwrecked woman captured by the enemy, and a young Jewish girl in a desperate plan to escape the Gestapo.

2020 marks 75 years since the world celebrated the end of WWII. These ten books will transport you across countries and continents during the final days, revealing the high price of freedom—and why it is still so necessary to “never forget”.

Chrystyna was on the blog two years ago with an article about her Reschen Valley Series.

Many thanks, Chrystyna, as someone who has written three novels set during the world wars, I know the challenges and the rewards of doing so. Congratulations to you and the others on producing these stories.

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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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Living Historical Fiction by Elinor Florence

Elinor Florence lives in small town British Columbia. After a long and varied career in journalism, Elinor now writes historical fiction and has a passion for WWII. With Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day less than a week ago, it’s fitting to feature her latest novel Bird’s Eye View, set during WWII.

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Historical fiction doesn’t necessarily mean ancient history. The broadest definition of the genre includes any novel written at least fifty years after the events took place.

Fifty years ago we were living in 1969, so somewhat alarmingly, even fiction set in my high school years would fall into the historical category.

Since I began my wartime novel Bird’s Eye View just six decades after the Second World War ended, I was able to do “living research” — that is, I didn’t have to resort to dusty tomes in a library to find out what happened. I could simply ask the people who were there.

That, my friends, was a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, I gathered colourful details of personal experience from people who lived through the war, either as participants or observers, and wove them into my novel for authenticity.

On the other hand, it meant that I was figuratively mopping the perspiration from my forehead with a hanky while writing, because I knew that every page would be scrutinized by real live people who knew what I was writing about!

Bird’s Eye View tells the story of a fictional Saskatchewan farm girl who joins the air force in the Second World War and becomes an aerial photographic interpreter in England, searching for bomb targets on the continent. Letters from her family and friends keep her in touch with the home front back in Canada.

It is the only novel ever written featuring a Canadian woman in uniform as the main character. To gather information, I interviewed many veterans, both male and female. My lifelong career as a journalist assisted greatly during this process. I included so much genuine historical detail that I call my novel fact-based fiction.

The combat stuff was fairly easy to garner, since much has been published about battles and military strategy (all of it written by men, I might add.) However, my novel isn’t a mere recitation of dry facts.

I wanted to bring the power of human emotion into my story. I interviewed male veterans for their feelings of fear, and grief, and homesickness, and their tremendous longing for the war to end. Many readers have told me that the book moved them to tears.

The research got more difficult when I turned to women in uniform. In spite of the fact that 50,000 Canadian women served during the war, very little has been written about them.

That’s not an exaggeration — I couldn’t even find an accurate description of a Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division uniform, let alone the training they received and the jobs they performed.

So I relied heavily on personal interviews, and it is here that my living research really bore fruit — not only for the basic information, but for the wonderful anecdotes that women told me.

For example, a Canadian air force veteran named Lou Marr who trained as a photographer told me that when the weather was hot, and the darkroom was sweltering, the girls would strip down to their undies while developing their photos because nobody could enter the darkroom as long as the red light over the door was turned on. That’s exactly the sort of detail that never found its way into the written record — the men didn’t even know it was happening!

Another example: a British air force veteran named Eileen Scott who worked at RAF Medmenham, the beautiful stone mansion in England that served as the headquarters for photo interpretation and the setting for my novel, told me that although pets were strictly forbidden, the girls had a secret cat who climbed up the wisteria vines late at night and scratched at their windows. Hence the cat’s name: Wisty.

These details and many others gleaned from oral history made their way into my novel — that the new female recruits drilled so long and hard that many stopped having their periods; that servicewomen often threw away their gas masks and used the containers as handbags; that women back home on the farm had trouble controlling the horses and cattle while the men were overseas.

My mother, who lived near an air training base in Saskatchewan as a teenager and therefore had a bird’s eye view of the home front, was extremely helpful. Almost every day I phoned her to ask questions like this: “What was a post office savings account?” or “Did you ever dance The Lambeth Walk?” In gratitude, I dedicated my novel to her.

Finally, I wove a poignant true life story into my novel. My mother was engaged during the war to a young airman from Tasmania named Maxwell Cassidy, who was accidentally killed while still training in Canada. He never saw home again, never even lived long enough to see combat overseas. His body still lies in a cemetery in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, a huge air training base during the war and my hometown.

Through the internet, I tracked down the Cassidy family in Australia and asked permission to use Max’s name in my novel. They were overjoyed to learn that my mother was still alive and remembered this fine young man with great fondness — living history, indeed.

And because I wanted their stories to be preserved, I have written the true accounts of Maxwell Cassidy, plus all the other male and female veterans I interviewed, on my website here: https://www.elinorflorence.com/blog/category/wartime-wednesdays/.

Some of these veterans are still alive. I’m so thankful that I was able to record their living history, and more importantly, for the opportunity to thank them in person for their contribution to the Allied victory.

Note: I have since written a second novel, Wildwood. It’s a contemporary novel with a strong vein of 100-year-old prairie pioneer history running throughout. For this novel, I wasn’t able to interview living pioneers but instead relied heavily on dozens of personal memoirs written by homesteaders.

Many thanks, Elinor. Stories about women serving during WWII are an important reminder of those whose wartime service we honour on Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day.

PS: I love your story about the Australian Cassidy family.

Bird’s Eye View by Elinor Florence ~~ Rose Jolliffe is an idealistic young woman living on a farm with her family in Saskatchewan. After Canada declares war against Germany in World War II, she joins the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as an aerial photographic interpreter. Working with intelligence officers at RAF Medmenham in England, Rose spies on the enemy from the sky, watching the war unfold through her magnifying glass.

When her commanding officer, Gideon Fowler, sets his sights on Rose, both professionally and personally, her prospects look bright. But can he be trusted? As she becomes increasingly disillusioned by the destruction of war and Gideon’s affections, tragedy strikes, and Rose’s world falls apart.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (see left hand sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Line Between Fiction and Non-fiction

Have you ever read a novel and wondered what was fact and what was fiction? Greg Johnston, author of Sweet Bitter Cane brings that perspective to today’s blog post. Welcome, Greg.

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I remember my primary school library, a large room in the middle of a railway carriage of cold classrooms.  The non-fiction was on the left-handside of the room and the fiction on the right.  The twain met on the reading mat in the middle of the room.  I think I’ve always kept this line in my head between fiction and non-fiction.

Real life is rarely a novel.  Despite all the puffed-up grandeur we ascribe to our own circumstance, it rarely follows precisely the neat structural dictates of a novel, with all its demands to satisfy the well-hewed expectations of a reader.  I liken it to making bread.  The stories are mixed, allowed to prove, punched down, re-kneaded, baked and finally eaten.

Recently, a pleased reader emailed me saying she wished she’d known Sweet Bitter Cane was based in fact.  Although she enjoyed it, this would have helped her connect more to the story.  While I was grateful for her praise, it was an odd experience, cast back to my primary school library and its division of fact and fiction.

I couldn’t have drummed up the events of Sweet Bitter Cane; a young, Italian woman fleeing physically and fiscally destroyed post-WWI Northern Italy, hoping to find a better life on the sugarcane fields in the Far North of Queensland in Australia.  But all that hope became mired in relentless racism, envy and resentment, resulting in her being accused of supporting fascism and imprisoned for a significant part of WWII.

These were the facts I’d gathered together over decades of interest, not one story but a repeated story of many Italian migrants to Australia.  But when a neighbor, Gloria, gave me a folder of archived documents about her mother, Gina, her arrest and imprisonment, the bones of the story started accruing flesh and blood.

The documents I had about the “real” woman were scant and fractured. In a way, she was unremarkable.  And, as a woman of that epoch, her accounts of life were rarely recorded.  But as a writer, I was in an incredibly privileged position – my neighborwas the “real” woman’s daughter.  How easy was it for me to pop next door and mine Gloria’s memories of the house, the farm, the town, the concentration camp and life after their release.  But even this had limits.  Gloria, so young when she was forced to go with her mother to the camp, only had one memory; of being put in a car and taken away from her mother. 

I commenced more research, found more details, corroborated other facts.  But I still didn’t have a story adhering to the genre expectations of my reader.  I began to knead what I possessed and often with surprising results.  I noticed amongst the documents, the “real” woman’s husband had written many letters. They were always in different handwriting, but the signature was the same.  I thought, he couldn’t read or write. And when I asked Gloria, she blushed and asked how I knew?  I realised she wasn’t telling me the whole “real” story and that there were private details she found either embarrassing or had forgotten.

At this point, I felt a justified sense of liberation. I had these bare bones I could perhaps bend but not break, but the story’s flesh was mine.  I had to fill the cracks between the documents with imagination.  The “un-real” woman had to have thoughts, imaginings, desires and disappointments.  These were never written, probably never spoken, perhaps embarrassing, never entirely clear to anyone but her.  And this is the stuff of a novel’s pages.

But this reader’s well-intentioned email left me in a bit of a quandary.  In the run-up to the publication of Sweet Bitter Cane, I’d considered bannering in fluorescent pink across the cover – BASED ON A TRUE STORY. And the novel is, at least in part, but then … it seemed a cheap lunge at credibility.

I swooned and still do to Byatt’s Possession, where the whole thing was made up, securely positing Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel La Motte amongst their canonical contemporaries.  But I still read Eco’s The Name of the Rose as fiction which inspired me to cross the reading mat and read some non-fiction about medieval monks.  Should we colour a novel’s text, like the original imprint of Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish, with a rainbow of colours to signify the real, the not-so-real, the un-real, and the lies? Footnotes – there’s a thought.  And a mess.  This all forces an historical fiction writer into a rather obtuse corner.

But rather than the lines between the two extremes being as demarcated as my primary school library, isn’t this reading mat between the two extremes the arena where the reader’s imagination comes into play?  Reading is far from a passive experience, and perhaps an historical novel should tweak a reader’s imagination to find more information, go to the left-hand side of the reading mat, if they so desire. 

An historical novel churns all this “real” and “un-real” to rich butter, much more than a cheap blended Rosé. But they are un-real novels and should be exalted as such.  It reminds me of a late twentieth-century popular song.

It takes courage to enjoy it

The hardcore and the gentle

Big time sensuality

Many thanks, Greg. I’ll be thinking of this dividing line and the reading mat when I read my next historical novel.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.