Book Reviews, Literature

Enchanted Islands – Allison Amend

Enchanted Islands Amend

The question of independence is at the center of Allison Amend’s novel Enchanted Islands. Loosely based on the memoirs of Frances Conway, the book explores the struggle of a woman creating a life for herself, straddling the conventions of her time.

Born to a poor immigrant (Polish) Jewish family in the mid-western US, Frances never quite has a place to call her own. Her friendship with Rosalie, the daughter of an established German Jewish family highlights every limitation, even as she discovers that things are not always as they appear. As young women the two friends leave their hometown together, but after Rosalie’s betrayal, Frances decides to make her future on her own.

Frances remains an isolated character, a position that gives her the freedom to take on her adventure with the military intelligence. Away from society and the constraints of expected behavior, Frances finds a sort of peace. Or gets as close to being comfortable in this world as she is ever going to be.

Amend’s novel has a sense of disarray and incompleteness that complements Frances’ independent spirit. The world is an untidy place, and any single person who must live in it necessarily lives in that messiness. Amend is at her best as a writer describing the natural world of the Galapagos. She captures the connections between the islands and the surrounding trade and political infrastructure with clarity and succeeds in highlighting the uniqueness of her setting.

Readers who enjoy American military and social history will most appreciate this book. Amend’s characterizations of the Jewish community slant towards the cliche and are a weaker aspect of the novel. The diversity of its characters and military connections provides lots of potential for book club discussions. It is difficult to read this book without considering one’s personal experiences and understanding of WWII, the military, the Jewish community and sexism. Readers who are open to allowing Amend to plumb the depths of their memories will be rewarded with an imaginative and touching book. Others will find that they prefer to leave these complexities buried.

Book Reviews, Literature

Sons and Soldiers – Bruce Henderson

sons and soldiers“I’m Jewish, sir, and I’m going to fight Hitler”.

These are the words of my great-uncle Col. Bernard J. Finestone z”l, who along with my grandfather Seymour Shuchat z”l, great-uncles Menassah Miller z”l, and Leonard Silver z”l, and many other extended family members fought in different branches of the Canadian Armed Forces during WWII. Some shared their experiences willingly, while others hesitated. Some passed away before they had the chance to tell their stories.

My thoughts continuously returned to their memories as I read Bruce Henderson’s Sons and Soldiers. He tells the stories of the “Ritchie Boys”, German-Jewish refugees who escaped to the United States during the 1930s then joined the American army when the U.S. entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Henderson follows them from the time their lives are first impacted by Hitler’s ascent to power until after they return from their tours of duty. Because he begins when his subjects are still teenagers in Europe, the book includes a rich description of the diversity of Jewish life in Germany before the war. The representations of Jewish families of different socio-economic backgrounds, in rural and suburban settings, and various religious observance are especially helpful in preventing the individual stories from melding into one another. One of the pitfalls of trying to follow multiple protagonists is keeping everyone straight, and Henderson’s detailed backgrounds sharpened each one’s narratives.

These differences become blurrier once the activity moves from the soldier’s training to their deployment. As the author turns his focus to their military activities, for he which necessarily relies on tactical and specific terminology, as well as increasing references to particular geographic locations, he challenges readers who are less familiar with the intricacies of American actions on Europe’s battlefields. Those who have a strong understanding of the historical context will certainly be moved by the way Henderson weaves the individual stories into the tapestry of the war. Those who don’t are far more likely to get lost in the details.

Henderson’s skills as a historian and writer move the action of Sons and Soldiers along at a quick pace. It’s possible to dip in and out to read select passages, which makes the book an ideal choice for high school and college curricula. Instructors could easily incorporate Henderson’s work into class readings, and it could serve as a focal point for increasing awareness of the Jewish community’s participation in the American military.  Perhaps most importantly, it will honor and nourish the memories of a generation whose courage and commitment deserves, at the very least, this masterfully crafted literary monument.

Books and Blintzes received a complimentary copy of this work in order to write this review. The opinions contained herein are exclusively those of the writer.