As if real life beneath Donald Trump’s two flat feet weren’t depressing enough—as if coping with this administration’s overt racism, attacks on the press, and reckless threats against North Korea weren’t enough—I had to go and read three books about Nazism in the past two months: Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Since this is the Fall Books issue, I thought I’d say something about what all three books have to tell us about our own political situation.
Piercy’s historical novel is huge and ambitious. It visits and revisits the lives of ten people between 1941 to 1945. Their worlds, though seemingly separate, intersect in ways we only slowly discover. That nameless minor character in several stories must be the wealthy, reckless bisexual whose own story is told in a separate strand. That independent young woman having an affair with a married man is also hanging out with the guy living upstairs from the wife of the married man (himself a major figure in the book). It’s complicated!
Don’t read Gone to Soldiers on a Kindle. To keep it all straight, you’ll need to flip back and forth with the ease only physical books allow. The same consideration led me to buy the paperback version of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light, though its size (531 pages) made the Kindle version tempting. Doerr’s characters also intersect, but the real challenge here is in the timelines: we jump back and forth in the their stories, as if our temporal confusion will help us appreciate their complexities and compromises.
Maybe it does. One of the main characters is a brave young girl in the French Resistance. She is blind. Her German counterpart, a wunderkind plucked out of poverty to work for Hitler’s counter-terrorist wing, is blind in a different sense—neck-deep in Nazism before he finally sees what he is doing. The difficulty of knowing which year we’re reading about, or which city a particular passage is set in reflects the sudden upheaval of the characters’ lives, and makes it easier to understand how they could take such terrible risks.