Coming from a military family, Memorial Day never goes unnoticed in my family. Last year we recognized Memorial Day with a visit to the Fort Snelling National Cemetery where several family members are buried. This year I am considering a trip to the Minnesota History Center where they currently have an exhibit that focuses on WWI.
One of the best ways to recognize those who gave their lives in service to our country as well as to get a better understanding of how war has shaped the lives of the people who lived through them is to read a book of historical nonfiction – especially one set during the war years.
Below are two of my favorites.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. Set during the WWII era, Unbroken, really isn’t about the war. This is the story of a young, talented runner, Louie Zamperini, and how the war shaped his life.
Today we would call Louie an “at risk youth” with an amazing talent for fast running and getting into trouble. He was on pace to break the 4-minute mile well before Roger Bannister hit the scene in the 1950’s. At the age of 19, he competed in the 5,000-meter event at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He finished 8th, but delivered a comeback in the fourth lap that was among the fastest in history – less than one minute for the final quarter mile.
Like many young men of his time, Louie was drafted into the Army when the U.S. entered WWII. His dream of taking gold in the 1500 meters at the 1940 Olympics was put on hold.
While in the army Louie continued to run, but was lost at sea when his plane was shot down, only to be captured by the Japanese navy 47 days later. He spent the next two years as an American POW in Japan where he survived starvation, disease, daily beatings and even the dropping of atomic bombs by the U.S.
His problems didn’t end when the war was over. For many years he struggled with depression, addiction issues and problems that today we would probably call “post traumatic stress”. After a chance meeting with Billy Graham, he turned his life around and dedicated his remaining years to serving others.
If you have ever been tempted to think that you are going through a hard time or that things will never get better, read this book.
Avenue of Spies, by Alex Kershaw. Unbroken is a story about persistence, forgiveness and redemption. Avenue of Spies is about fearless courage and a selfless desire to resist evil and help others.
Sumner Jackson, an American doctor and WWI veteran, living with his family in Nazi-occupied Paris helped countless Allied troops and members of the French Resistance escape to freedom via the American Hospital in Paris.
Living in Paris prior to the U.S. involvement in the war, Jackson was free to leave the country with his family. Instead, he and his wife, Toquette, chose to stay behind as Paris fell to the Germans. At great risk to themselves and their family, they falsified records, hid patients, and took heroic steps to support the French Resistance.
Avenue of Spies stands on its own as a true story of espionage and the ugliness of life in occupied France during WWII. But it’s also a thrilling historical account of what the people of Paris, and France in general, including many ex-pat Americans, experienced as the Germans took over.
Most people expected the German occupation to last only a few months. When it stretched into years, thousands of people starved, betrayed their closest friends and families, and lived in constant fear that every day would be their last.
How will you commemorate this important day? Let me know your ideas by emailing me directly by clicking the envelope icon below. If you have a book recommendation, I would love to hear it.