My Book World
This book ostensibly is about the United Kingdom and its role in World War II, but its story is so inextricably woven with the war on the continent, as well as U.S. involvement, that it becomes a much larger tale. Author Olson writes history in an absorbing fashion by doing two things. She, of course, follows and reports the facts (spending ten years writing this book), but she also unfurls the story with a narrative flair sometimes missing from history books. She achieves the latter by developing major and minor characters so that they are three-dimensional. For example, with regard to some major players—Belgium, Holland, France, and Norway—she helps readers become acquainted with both the strengths and weaknesses of its leaders: Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, Leopold III of Belgium, de Gaulle of France—as they take refuge in London for the duration.
While relating the story of Nazi cruelty and the utter depravity of war, Olson stops to tell “little” stories: that one Czech citizen, Madlenka Korbel, one day grows up to be Madeleine Albright. That fifteen-year-old Audrey Kathleen Ruston, living with her mother in Arnhem, Holland, the site of a major conflict, is so emaciated at the end of World War II that she barely weighs ninety pounds. Nutrition will always be a problem for the girl who is to become actor Audrey Hepburn. Olson quotes Hepburn: “I still feel sick when I remember the scenes . . . . It was human misery at its starkest—masses of refugees on the move, some carrying their dead, babies born on the roadside, hundreds collapsing with hunger” (387). These are the sorts of details that make this book a pleasure to read.
One other thread is particularly poignant, that of Brigadier General John Hackett, “Shan,” originally from Australia but serving the UK. He is paratrooper who is shot down and injured as part of the Arnhem conflict. He is taken in by three Dutch unmarried sisters—Ann, Mien, and Cor de Nooij—and nursed back to health for many months until he can return to England. He is so moved by their love and care and their courage that in years to come, he returns to Arnhem again and again; likewise, he and his wife open their home to the sisters in the UK for future visits. They become family. This chapter is titled “I Was a Stranger and You Took Me In.” It is just one of the many moving stories interlaced with the UK’s status as the “last hope island” of the war. I’m delighted I found time to read this book.
NEXT FRIDAY: My Book World | Robert Long Foreman's Weird Pig