Tag: World War II

We Were the Lucky Ones: Q&A with Author Georgia Hunter

February 14, 2017 Historical Fiction 21

We Were the Lucky Ones, Georgia HunterHistorical Fiction
Released February 14, 2017
416 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Author (Publisher: Viking)

I’m thrilled to welcome debut novelist, researcher, and friend, Georgia Hunter, to the blog today! We Were the Lucky Ones has been getting fantastic advance buzz from Publisher’s Weekly, Audible, Penguin Random House, Harper’s Bazaar, and Glamour Magazine and I loved it as well!

This post contains affiliate links.

My Thoughts about We Were the Lucky Ones

World War II “annihilated over 90% of Poland’s Jews and […] all but about 300 of the 30,000 Jews from Radom,” Georgia Hunter’s ancestors’ home. Yet, her entire family survived. We Were the Lucky Ones is based on the story of how they did it.

The Kurc family’s experience during World War II, beginning in Poland and stretching to Siberia, Italy, and Brazil is nothing short of a harrowing odyssey, the outcome of which defies statistics, explanation, and imagination. Despite the many horrific details of their experience, this is a story of hope, inspiration, and true grit.

I’ve historically had a tendency to get bogged down in World War II books, but I never felt that way while reading We Were the Lucky Ones. Hunter did a masterful job at keeping the story moving along, making it feel like a “quick read” in a page-turning sense, even though it’s not a short or light book. Rather than the war itself, the story is more about what life was like during the war for a Polish Jewish family and Hunter’s caring attention to detail made the backdrop come alive. We Were the Lucky Ones would be a fantastic choice for anyone who enjoyed The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.

PS – I always love Author’s Notes section in historical fiction…and this one is not to be missed!

Q&A with Georgia Hunter

We Were the Lucky Ones is based on your family’s real-life experience during WWII and you used their real names in the book. What made you decide to make the book fiction?

When I began writing We Were the Lucky Ones, I didn’t have a sense of what the finished product would look like – my goal was simply to convey the story in a way that did my family justice, and that felt less like a history lesson, and more like a novel: visceral and immersive. I wanted readers to understand, through the eyes of the Kurcs, what it meant to be Jewish and on the run during the Second World War.

I thought hard about penning the book as non-fiction, as each of my storylines is based on facts uncovered in oral histories or through outside research. (I did change a couple of names, but only for the sake of clarity.) I realized in early drafts, however, that I’d stuck so closely to what I’d been told in my interviews that my characters came across as a touch too perfect (most of my relatives were depicted to me – rightfully so – as heroes). The Kurcs were courageous, resilient, and ingenious, yes. But they were also human. They were falling in love (even making babies!), and they must have also been confused and angry and at times racked with fear.

And so, I decided in the end to write the book as fiction, in the present tense, allowing myself the creative license to dive deep into my characters’ psyches, imagining to the best of my ability what was running through the Kurcs’ hearts and minds. It’s my hope that in doing so, I was able to bring the story even closer to the truth.

Tell us a little bit about your research and writing. How long did you spend researching the Kurc family story and how long did you spend doing the actual writing?

I began researching my book nine years ago when I set off with a digital voice recorder and an empty notebook to interview a relative in Paris. From there I flew to Rio de Janeiro and across the States, meeting with cousins and friends – anyone with a story to share. My family’s narrative took shape, at first, in the form of a timeline, which I peppered with historical details and color-coded by relative to help keep track of who was where/when.

Where there were gaps in my timeline, I looked to outside resources – to archives, museums, ministries, and magistrates around the world, in hopes of tracking down relevant information.

I began actually writing my book in bits and pieces, and probably sooner than I should have! I’d come home from an interview so excited about a story I’d been told that I’d write it down and save it. By the time I put some serious thought into how the book should unfold, I had dozens of one-off scenes already crafted. Each would make it into the book eventually, but my most productive writing came when I sat down in 2011 to plot an outline and chapter summaries.

Your research involved extensive global travel. What was the most impactful destination you visited?

Great question! Of all of the places I visited in South America and in Europe, I’d have to say my trip to Radom, the city in central Poland where my grandfather was raised, was the most moving. 

My husband and I explored Radom with a guide, a young man named Jakub whom I’d contacted through the city’s Culture Center. Jakub showed us the old Jewish cemetery, which I was shocked to learn was still being restored, as the tombstones had been repurposed by the Nazis for a military airport runway. We visited the apartment building where my family lived, and I got chills running my fingers along a rusted mezuzah still adhered to the cement arched entranceway (only one of two remaining mezuzahs in the entire city, Jakub said).

I left Radom understanding why my great-grandparents had felt at home raising a family there – the city was quaint, livable; I appreciated its understated, small-town vibe. But I couldn’t help but also feel the presence of the 30,000 Jews who had once inhabited the city (a community that was reduced to fewer than 300 by war’s end), who had enjoyed it for what it was before their worlds were shattered.

Reading some of the more gruesome details hit me more than usual knowing they actually happened to a friend’s family. What was it like to learn some of the more horrific things your family went through?

It was tough, as it meant trying to put myself in my relatives’ shoes, imagining what it must have been like to experience the things they did (talk about putting my own “problems” in perspective!). It was also hard because the stories I uncovered in my interviews (e.g., what it was like to lose a sister, or to run through the streets of Warsaw during an uprising, or to give birth to a child in the thick of a Siberian winter) were conveyed with stoicism, the gruesome details glossed over. Even in the first-hand Shoah interviews I had access to, I was amazed at the matter-of-fact manner in which the Kurcs relayed their wartime experiences. It took a great deal of research to capture these stories on paper in a way that felt accurate to what my relatives might have been thinking/feeling at the time.

What was the most mind-blowing thing you learned about your family during the course of your research?

One of the pieces of my family’s narrative that felt the fuzziest going into my research concerned my great-uncle Genek (my grandfather’s older brother). I knew through interviews with his children that Genek had been sent to Siberia, and had ended up fighting for the Allies in the Battle of Monte Casino…but that was it – I had no idea when or why he’d been sent to Siberia, when or why he’d been released, or how he eventually ended up in uniform on Italian soil.

Through the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, I discovered a nine-page, hand-written account of Genek’s, which answered all of these questions, and then some. I was also able, through the Ministry of Defense in the U.K., to track down Genek’s detailed military records, including Medals of Honor he’d never collected. It was a real joy to hand over these discoveries to Genek’s sons.

How has your family reacted to the book?

Thankfully, those who have read an early copy of the book have loved it! I can’t tell you how great that feels. Getting feedback from the family, hearing how much the book has taught them or moved them, has been the most uplifting and gratifying feeling in the world.

What’s the best book you read in 2016?

Hmm…it would have to be a toss up between Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun or Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things (which were released before 2016, but I read them last year and adored them both).

And, your top 3 all-time favorites? I know this is a ridiculously hard question to answer! 

Yes, nearly impossible to answer! I will say, however, that the three books I recommend the most to friends are:

City of Thieves by David Benioff (a WWII survival account based on stories passed down by Benioff’s grandfather – the book unfolds like a film and was an early inspiration for my own novel)

Wonder by R. J. Palacio (a Y/A novel about a young 5th grade boy with a facial deformity, struggling to fit in)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (insightful, funny, and provocative, for writers and non-writers alike)

What’s the best WWII book you’ve ever read (other than your own, of course)?

Another tough one! But if I had to pick, the one at the very top of my WWII list would be Julie Orringer’s historical novel, The Invisible Bridge. The book is nearly 800 pages long – and for that very reason it took me a while to pick it up – but when I did, I grew so consumed with the fates of Orringer’s characters, and so lost in her gorgeous prose, that I couldn’t put it down.

I see many similarities between Orringer’s protagonist, Andras (who is based on her grandfather), and Addy, my own grandfather, who were both young Jews living in Paris, separated from their families at the start of the Second World War. 

Finally…are you doing any writing now and do you have plans for a second book?

Most of my recent writing has been devoted to interviews and essays in preparation for the launch of We Were the Lucky Ones (Viking is keeping me busy!), so I haven’t had much time to think about book #2. That said I’ve got a running list of ideas that I’ll flush out when the time comes. I’m inspired (as you may have gathered) by stories based on truth, and I love an underdog protagonist – someone faced with terrible odds, whom you can really cheer for, and whose story offers a big-picture understanding of a place or time with which you might be unfamiliar. I just saw the film Lion and left the theater teary-eyed and thinking WOW – now that’s exactly the kind of story I want to write about next.

About Georgia Hunter

Georgia Hunter, We Were the Lucky OnesFor as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to write. I penned my first “novel” when I was four years old, and titled it Charlie Walks the Beast after my father’s recently published sci-fi novel, Softly Walks the Beast. When I was eleven, I pitched an article—an Opinion piece on how I’d spend my last day if the world were about to come to an end—to the local newspaper. Since that debut in the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, my personal essays and photos have been featured in places like the New York Times “Why We Travel,” in travelgirl magazine, and on Equitrekking.com. I’ve also taken on the role of freelance copywriter in the world of adventure travel, crafting marketing materials for outfitters such as Austin Adventures and The Explorer’s Passage.

In 2000, a family reunion opened my eyes to the astounding war stories of my grandfather and his family. Eight years later, armed with a digital voice recorder and a moleskin notebook, I set off to unearth and record my family’s story. I spent nearly a decade traversing the globe, interviewing family and digging up records from every possible source I could think of, eventually piecing together the bones of what would become my novel, We Were the Lucky Ones.

I kept a blog as my research unfolded, which you are welcome to peruse. I’ve also created a list of ancestry search tips, should you consider embarking on a journey to uncover your own roots.

Learn more about Hunter on her Author Website, FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Purchase We Were the Lucky Ones from Amazon (affiliate link)!

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Alcohol & Advil: Mudbound and Dinner with Edward

July 14, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 19

Alcohol and Advil Literary Style
Alcohol & Advil, where I pair a book likely to cause a “reading hangover” (i.e. the alcohol) with a recovery book (i.e. the Advil) is back! Chalk up the long hiatus to a lack of books that left me sufficiently hungover to warrant a post. For me, the “alcohol” is usually a book that I either absolutely loved or one that punched me in the gut in an emotionally depleting way…and, in this case, both.

The Alcohol

Mudbound, Hillary JordanMudbound by Hillary Jordan
Southern Fiction (Released March 4, 2008)
354 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Algonquin)

Plot Summary: Shortly after Laura McAllen’s husband (Henry) moves their family to an isolated farm in the Mississippi Delta, her brother-in-law (Jamie) and the son of one of their tenant families (Ronsel Jackson) return from fighting in World War II to the Jim Crow era South.

My Thoughts: This award-winning 2008 debut reminiscent of Pat Conroy (the story itself more than the writing style), begins with a city girl trying to adjust to a spartan life of backbreaking farm work and becomes unputdownable by the end. A sense of foreboding hangs over everything and I could feel the tension…in Laura and Henry’s marriage, between the McAllens and the Jacksons, between Laura and her hateful father-in-law (Pappy), and within Jamie and Ronsel upon their returns from World War II. Something was definitely going to blow. The writing is simple and down-to-earth…with a cadence that takes you right to the Deep South.

When I think of the farm, I think of mud. Lining my husband’s fingernails and encrusting the children’s knees and hair. Sucking at my feet like a greedy newborn on the breast. Marching in boot-shaped patches across the plank floors of the house. There was no defeating it. The mud coated everything. I dreamed in brown.

Mudbound is centered around the themes of racism and women’s role in a marriage. There is a keen perspective of what it was like for a black war hero, having been celebrated abroad, to return home to be treated like a lessor class of human:

Ronsel

I never thought I’d miss it so much. I don’t mean Nazi Germany, you’d have to be crazy to miss a place like that. I mean who I was when I was over there. There I was a liberator, a hero. In Mississippi I was just another nigger pushing a plow. And the longer I stayed, the more that’s all I was.

And what it was like for a wife to have little say in the direction of her life, to be expected to defer to her husband always, and to serve her father-in-law as if she were his employee. These themes lead to some barbaric events that are not for the faint of heart. Mudbound is the best piece of Southern fiction I’ve read all year and one of the best I’ve ever read and would be a great choice for fans of Pat Conroy.

The Advil

Dinner with Edward, Isabel VincentDinner with Edward by Isabel Vincent
Nonfiction – Memoir (Released May 24, 2016)
224 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased (Publisher: Algonquin)

Plot Summary: As a favor to her friend, Valerie, Isabel begins having dinner with Valerie’s elderly father, which turns into far more than just dinner and far more than just helping out Valerie.

My Thoughts: New York Post reporter Isabel Vincent’s memoir was a perfect follow-up to the brutality of Mudbound because it was completely different, it was short, it was sweet and hopeful…and because it focused on food, an innocuous and comforting topic. It’s a weird mix of food memoir and self-help book, with a splash of New York City history (particularly about Roosevelt Island, where Isabel and Edward live), but it miraculously works.

When Isabel shows up for her first dinner with Edward, she’s working herself to death and her marriage is in trouble, while Edward is trying to recover from the death of his beloved wife, Paula. One dinner turns into many, which then turn into a rescuing of the soul for both Isabel and Edward. It turns out Edward is a true gourmande, creating elaborate, multi-course feasts and imparting his culinary wisdom to Isabel (and me – I’ve already tried his trick for fluffy scrambled eggs!) in the process. Dinner with Edward combines the comforting feeling of Our Souls at Night with the delectable food focus of Sweetbitter…and is going on my 2016 Summer Reading, Cooking/Food Books, and Great Books Under 300 Pages lists.

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Read One, Skip One: Never Leave Your Dead and Listen to Me

July 7, 2016 Mini Book Reviews 21

I’m a bit shocked at which books ended up in which slots for this installment of Read One, Skip One. I picked up Never Leave Your Dead thinking I’d take a peek, but probably not end up reading the whole thing. And, I really expected to love Listen to Me based on my feelings about Hannah Pittard’s last book, Reunion.

Never Leave Your Dead, Diane CameronNever Leave Your Dead by Diane Cameron
Nonfiction – War (Released June 7, 2016)
176 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Central Recovery Press)

Plot Summary: The true story of Donald Watkins, a WWII veteran (and the author’s stepfather) who murdered his first wife and mother-in-law long after returning from the China theatre.

My Thoughts: I have to be honest…this book was a total surprise for me. The story sounded interesting, but I had no idea truly how interesting it would turn out to be. I could not stop reading (despite the tiny print of my PDF-formatted ARC) and I ended up taking so much away from these compact 176 pages! Though the writing and story-telling is a bit choppy, the story of Donald Watkins blew my mind. He likely suffered from PTSD 40 years before it was acknowledged by the military and received years of counter-productive treatments. In telling Donald’s story, Cameron explores the history of mental illness as it relates to the military, conditions at an infamous mental hospital (St. Elizabeth’s), and a little known part of WWII (the American pre-Pearl Harbor presence in China and POW Camp Palawan).

I was almost equally enthralled with the story of Cameron discovering and pursuing Donald’s story. The book is structured in the order in which Cameron learned each new piece of Donald’s background, giving the reader a sense of her emotional journey. Never Leave Me Dead is quite an eye-opening read if you’re at all interested in trauma and recovery, PTSD (particularly in returning soldiers), less well-known parts of WWII, and/or the history of mental illness treatment. It’s going on my 2016 Summer Reading, Great Books Under 300 Pages, and Books for Guys lists.

Listen to Me, Hannah PittardListen to Me by Hannah Pittard
Fiction (Released July 5, 2016)
192 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Amazon
Source: Publisher (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: Married couple Mark and Maggie reflect on the state of their marriage and Maggie’s recovery from a recent mugging during a cross-country road trip with their dog, Gerome.

My Thoughts: I’m surprised to be writing this type of review for a Hannah Pittard book, as I loved her last novel, Reunion. Her latest effort is one of those books with a vague (but appealing to me) publisher’s blurb headline: “A modern gothic about a marriage and road trip gone hauntingly awry.” But, I now realize the vagueness probably has more to do with the central premise being fairly unclear. 

Even after finishing the book, I’m still unsure what it was truly about. It’s somewhat about the small resentments and slights of a marriage that accumulate to become big and intolerable and somewhat about recovering from trauma within a marriage…with Mark’s odd obsessions with the environment and the Internet destroying society running through it. These last bits felt like they were included to make some broader points about the world, but they didn’t fit the story.

A meandering book like this can work for me, but the writing needs to sparkle. And this writing was good, but not sparkling. In my June 13 reading update, I said about the prospect of digging into Listen to Me: “I’m hoping she tackles marriage with the same irreverence she applied to death and family in Reunion!” Maybe this is a case of having inaccurate expectations, but I really missed that irreverent tone here.

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Read One, Skip One: Sweetland and Along the Infinite Sea

December 17, 2015 Mini Book Reviews 28

After having a bit of an unexpected hangover from Sweetland and having trouble settling into my next book, I thought a recovery book was in order. I was sure Along the Infinite Sea would hit the spot and was planning my next installment of my Alcohol & Advil feature. Alas, Alcohol & Advil will have to wait…

Sweetland, Michael CrummeySweetland by Michael Crummey
Fiction (Released January 19, 2015)
336 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: As the tiny island town of Sweetland deteriorates, the Canadian government offers the remaining residents a monetary package to “resettle” elsewhere, but Moses Sweetland doesn’t want to leave his home.

My Thoughts: Sweetland is an incredibly moving book that slowly crept under my skin before going in an unexpected and intriguing direction. It begins as a portrait of a tiny (and quirky) town before moving into a world where reality is hazy. Some reviews noted that Sweetland‘s Canadian Island dialect takes some getting used to, but it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I found much of the writing downright gorgeous:

He looked up at the hills surrounding the cove, sunlight making them ring with meltwater. He’d always loved that sound, waited for it each spring. Hearing it made him certain of the place he came from. He’d always felt it was more than enough to wake up here, to look out on these hills. As if he’d long ago been measured and made to the island’s specifications.

Moses Sweetland is a lovable curmudgeon (a character type that gets me every time…see A.J. Fikry!) and the book has a Grumpy Old Men vibe as Moses and his equally eccentric neighbors rib each other day after day. I loved the way Crummey gradually revealed surprising background information about the town’s history and each of its residents…in a way that reminded me a bit of Did You Ever Have A Family. I’m thrilled to have finally been introduced to this Canadian author (thanks, Shannon and Naomi!) and been able to slide Sweetland into my Best Books of 2015 list at the last minute.

Along the Infinite Sea, Beatriz WilliamsAlong the Infinite Sea by Beatriz Williams
Historical Fiction (Released November 3, 2015)
461 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Putnam) via NetGalley

Plot Summary: In 1966, pregnant and alone Pepper Schuyler sells the Mercedes Roadster she found in a shed at her sister’s Cape Cod house to the mysterious Annabelle Dommerich, who has quite the story of her own.

My Thoughts: It literally pains me to write this review because Beatriz Williams is one of my go-to authors for light, but entertaining page turners about family drama and wealthy people behaving badly. Along the Infinite Sea is the third book in the Schuyler sister series, focusing on Pepper, and unfortunately, my least favorite of the three.

The story is told in duel perspectives and timelines: one focusing on Pepper in 1966 and one focusing on Annabelle’s experience of falling in love during the lead-up to World War II in the 1930’s. Williams has surprised me with family drama twists and turns in all her previous books, but the plot twists in Along the Infinite Sea just weren’t that eye-opening. And, while Williams usually includes some romance in her books, it felt a bit heavy-handed and drawn out here.

For anyone interested in trying Beatriz Williams (and I think you should if you like family drama page turners!),  I recommend starting with A Hundred Summers, one of my fall-time favorite beach reads.

Get Weekly Email Updates!

Must Read Before EOY Minis: Where All Light Tends to Go and The Nightingale

December 3, 2015 Mini Book Reviews 9

This is the time of year when I try to get to all the 2015 releases that I missed out on earlier in the year, but that I got excited about after reading other bloggers’ reviews. Here are my thoughts on two of them…

Where All Light Tends to Go, David JoyWhere All Light Tends to Go by David Joy
Fiction (Released March 3, 2015)
274 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: Jacob McNeely, son of his small North Carolina mountain town’s biggest outlaw, struggles to separate himself from the life of crime he was born into and to fight for the girl he loves (Maggie).

My Thoughts: I’ve read some great “Grit Lit” this year (Bull Mountain, The Shore, The Animals), so I knew I had to make time for David Joy’s debut novel. It’s a story about fathers and sons, loyalty, love, and trying to claw your way out of your given circumstances. The writing made me truly feel the poverty and hopelessness of the mountainous North Carolina setting and it reminded me of a more reflective version of Bull Mountain. Jacob is an anti-hero who it was easy to root for; though he’s a bad kid on the surface, he is a victim of circumstance who is, deep down, trying to do the right thing.

I also loved the Riggins & Lyla (from “Friday Night Lights”) vibe that Jacob and Maggie had going on – the notorious troublemaker with a good heart falling in love with the golden girl who will most certainly go on to better things. My only complaint was that I guessed the ending, which caused me to love the book less than I thought I would. Nevertheless, it’s going on my Books for Guys, Page Turners, and Great Books Under 300 Pages lists.

Nightingale, Kristin HannahThe Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Historical Fiction (Released February 3, 2015)
449 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Purchased

Plot Summary: The story of two French sisters, timid Vianne and reckless Isabelle, and their different experiences during World War II’s Nazi occupation of France.

My Thoughts: This book has been getting tons of hype all year long…and for some reason I kept not picking it up. The premise reminded me of All the Light We Cannot See…and I didn’t get past the sample of that one.

While I did enjoy The Nightingale, it wasn’t quite as out of this world as I’d been hearing. I loved the overarching question of “what are civilians caught up in the Nazi occupation willing to do to survive?” and the badass ladies that carry this story. While I was emotionally invested in the story, I didn’t find it to be particularly unique or surprising. And, though the writing was readable and engaging, it didn’t sparkle enough to separate it from the pack of other novels I’ve enjoyed this year. This being said, it is a solid historical fiction novel worth reading…it just didn’t break the “best of the best” barrier for me.

Get Weekly Email Updates!