Any interest I have in World War II was likely planted by my parents’ long-held fascination with the period. I’ve always thought of them as the World War II nerds of my family, but my reading list over the past year might suggest that I have joined their ranks.
It’s not that I’ve fallen in love with WWII history so much as I’ve gotten lost in exploring the vast range of WWII stories. Few countries and cultures escaped this war’s impact. My recent reading has given me insight into the wartime experiences of people in countries familiar to me, like America and Britain, as well as others of which I had little previous knowledge, such as Brazil, Poland, and Japan.
If you’re ready to delve into the countless possibilities, you can start with this short list of standout World War II books that each offer a different view on the war, the suffering it caused, and the heroism of the people who lived through it.
1. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Perspective: American prisoner in a Japanese internment camp
A true story of a gifted Olympic athlete who became a bomber pilot, Unbroken is an astounding account of how Louis Zamperini survived World War II against all odds.
In 1943, Louis’s plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean, where he and his surviving crewmates floated for over a month on a crude raft, catching rainwater and fish and birds to survive. When they finally reached land, they found themselves in hostile Japan where they were taken prisoner for two years.
Louis stood on the brink of death over and over, enduring unimaginable suffering. This book does not shy away from the brutal details of his imprisonment, the cruelty of his captors, and the horrors he endured in the war’s aftermath.
There is much for us to learn from his raw courage, resilient spirit, and his ultimate redemption in Christ. Unbroken reminds us of the real trial and suffering that so many people endured to protect the peace we enjoy today.
2. The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
Perspective: Resistance workers in Poland
This book astonished me. I knew little about Poland’s part in World War II before reading it, but The Zookeeper’s Wife paints a vivid, true account of how devastating the war was for the Polish.
The zookeeper and his wife of the title, Jan and Antonina Zabinski, were the directors of the renowned Warsaw Zoo when Poland fell to Nazi occupation. Their special status with the Nazi government gave them unique privilege and mobility throughout their city, and they used it to the lasting benefit of others.
The Zabinskis hid Jews throughout the zoo and in their house, transferred them to other places of safety, and brought needed supplies in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto, where Polish Jews were held captive. Living in perpetual danger of discovery, they had to adopt countless personas, lies, and impromptu plans, but they did it all with incredible skill.
It’s difficult to overstate what vital roles the Zabinskis played in the Polish resistance and how many lives they likely saved. This book is a poignant tribute to these hidden heroes of World War II, recognizing their bravery while also exposing the horrors that Poland suffered during the war.
3. The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Perspective: British children evacuated from London
This children’s fiction book and its sequel, The War I Finally Won, are masterful portrayals of how a developing child might have experienced World War II.
The story centers on Ada and Jamie Smith, two young siblings who are evacuated from London in anticipation of German bombs and invasion. In a surprising twist, life with their new host mother proves better than the one they left, for their biological mother has only ever been cruel and abusive, especially to Ada.
As the war intensifies in England, Ada fights her own personal war about finding identity, overcoming fear, and learning to love others freely amidst hardship. This is a touching story that demonstrates the beauty of family and the power of community in difficult circumstances.
4. Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan
Perspective: Italian teenager spying within Nazi high command
Italy’s role in World War II was also unfamiliar to me before reading this book. In a dramatized format, Beneath a Scarlet Sky recounts true events in the life of Pino Lella: a normal Italian teenager who initially wanted no part in the war but became a spy almost by total chance.
Pino became the personal chauffeur to one of Hitler’s top officials, so he had close access to many German plans and secrets that he continually passed to the Allies. His valiant contributions were lost to history until this book told his story. Read it to learn more about Italy’s little known suffering during World War II and to meet Pino Lella, a true hero of his country.
5. The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
Perspective: The French people and resistance workers in Nazi-occupied France
The French people lived through unimaginable poverty, starvation, loss, violence, and terror during the Nazi occupation of France. Kristin Hannah did not shy away from the horrors France saw during the war in this historical fiction book. Instead, the two heroines in the novel experience realistic accounts of that suffering from different perspectives.
Two sisters named Vianne and Isabella lead this story, and they are as different as they are both courageous in the way they face the war. Isabella joins the French Resistance movement and lives by code messages, hiding places, and determination to reclaim her country. Vianne desperately tries to hold onto whatever normalcy she can while preparing her home and her daughter for whatever will come.
The impossible choices that Vianne and Isabella face every day throughout this story gave remarkable insight into how exhausting it must have been to live through occupation. Isabella is required to constantly make quick decisions as a spy, and Vianne lives in perpetual fear as the Nazis’ control takes a firmer hold over her city and eventually her home and personal life. This story may be fiction, but it gives needed attention to what real suffering looked like and how ordinary people might have endured it.
Stories of Sacrifice
The stories of the people in these books vary widely, but overall, each of them tells a poignant story about heroic courage, resilience after hardship, and perseverance. Readers today will be better for reading these stories, as I know I was when I finished each of them. They enhanced my understanding of World War II from the individual perspectives of their characters and reminded me of the value of courage in unimaginable suffering.