The Eagle’s Claw, by Jeff Shaara*****

Shaara is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted when I received an invitation to read and review. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; this book is for sale now.

Like everyone else, I bring my own experiences and biases to this novel, and this one is a potential hot potato. I am married to a Japanese citizen, and my in-laws still reside in Japan. The implicit, and at times overt racism that many authors bring to this topic—the Pacific theater of World War II, between the U.S. and Japan—ruins my mood for days, and consequently, I won’t even go near most nonfiction or historical fiction that focuses on this aspect of American history. When Shaara published To Wake the Giant, I signed on to read and review with great trepidation; I was afraid that I would not only hate the book, but emerge from it unhappy enough to abandon the author entirely. Imagine my delight when I found the opposite was true.

Shaara’s signature format is to portray the events that unfold through the eyes of key participants, delivering staggered narratives that include admirals and pilots on both sides as well as a code breaker on the American side. Shaara sticks to the truth, and by now I know this, so I’m not distracted by the need to fact check information that is new to me. His research and attention to detail is matchless, and his capacity to develop characters on the page makes me feel I would know these men if I ran into them on the street. My review copy, sadly, did not have the maps added, merely noting on what pages they would later be added; however, I once more defer to this author’s track record. I would bet my last dollar that the maps are also excellent.

One aspect that is usually a deal breaker for me is the frequent use of the period’s predominant racist slur, when Americans mention the Japanese. There are three syllables in this word, and they should be used. For those that plead that the one syllable word is authentic to the time and place, I would invite them to imagine a similar tale featuring a hypothetical African enemy during the same time period. What would be the expected, authentic term by which Caucasian Americans would refer to such enemy combatants, and to the government from which they hail? For the obtuse, I’ll tell you, it would be the N word. So would you just go ahead and drop it in there for the sake of accuracy, or would you use greater sensitivity and explain the alteration in an author’s note? You’d do the latter. Of course you would. In fact, likely it would be the only way your novel would see the light of day, and rightly so.

But here as well, Shaara gets a pass from this reviewer despite his use of the term I abhor, and the reason is his candor, addressing the racism of the time period right up front. Though you might think it obvious, I have never seen a successful author of World War II historical fiction do this, and he is absolutely clear about it. In fact, I began highlighting the introduction—don’t skip it! And when it was done, I found I had highlighted nearly all of it.

Whether you are drawn to this book from a love of history and the desire to learn a few things painlessly, or for the escapist entertainment that great novels provide, you can’t go wrong here. This is a damn fine book. I highly recommend it to everyone.

Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly***-****

lilacgirlsLilac Girls is the story of three women during World War II. I received a DRC for this book courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for an honest review. I rate this novel 3.5 stars.

The story centers around Caroline Ferriday, an actress and New York socialite that volunteers at the Consulate organizing clothing and other essential items for French orphans; Kasia, a Polish teenager that is active in the resistance movement; and Herta Oberheuser, a doctor given one opportunity to practice medicine under the Nazi regime…at Ravensbruck. All of these are based on people that existed, though the story is a fictionalized account.

Kelly’s debut novel is strong in historical detail and setting. Here she describes Kasia’s home town in Poland:

 

Lublin rose beyond them in the distance, like a fairy-tale city, scattered with old

red-roofed pastel buildings as if a giant had shaken them in a cup and tossed

them on the rolling hills.

 

Whether it’s at Ravensbruck, which was a Nazi concentration camp, at an orphanage in France, or in a glittering nightclub, Kelly nails setting. I would like to see her rely less on crutches such as famous people of that time period that pop into the scene—this device signals a lack of confidence to me, and Kelly can get by without these props.

I also would have liked to see less brand name identification, which looks a lot like product placement. The whole advertising jingle for a particular brand of cookies, and a particular New York department store whose name may actually have appeared some thirty or forty times hindered the novel more than it helped; Kelly will do well to leave her advertising career behind when she sits down to write fiction. But this is her first  novel, and given what I see here, I think we can expect great things from her in the future; she is just getting warmed up.

In addition to crafting resonant settings, Kelly does the world a favor in telling about the experiments done on members of the Polish resistance, known as “the rabbits” because of the way they hop around rather than walking after their legs have been experimented on surgically, often done to them in ways that further medical knowledge in no way at all. Though it is critical to remember that what Hitler and the Nazi regime did to the Jews was real—and it’s more important than ever now that most World War II veterans have died and revisionists would like to rearrange the historical record and count the camps as an exaggeration of the facts—few know of the extent to which other groups were also sent away, often to die before the end of the war. The author makes an important contribution to historical literature by doing this.

That said, I have to confess that I am a little bit disappointed because I have wanted to read more about the resistance movement itself, and when I read the teaser for this story, I thought that one character’s life within the story would center on this aspect of the war. Instead, Kasia is arrested almost immediately, and once inside the camp, her story is in many ways like other Holocaust stories.  It’s horrific, and if you have not read any other stories set during the Holocaust, then you will certainly want to read it. I have read enough Holocaust stories, and this character never stops being fictional for me.  And the same is true for Caroline, who seems shallow and superficial despite her sacrifices and tireless effort.

The character that makes me sit up and take notice is Herta. I can’t recall having read a Holocaust story in which a Nazi speaks to us in the first person, and the gutsy depiction of this opportunistic woman mesmerizes me. The offhand remarks that Herta makes to rationalize her choices as she slides down that slippery slope ethically, letting her standards be eroded in order to further her career and increase her own standard of living, are chilling and immediate. I believe in this character. Kelly is deft in the way she depicts this ambitious but morally pliable, solipsistic individual. There are a hundred chances to make her into a caricature, but Kelly’s subtle finesse steps back every time this might occur, and the result will leave you breathless with horror.

Whether to invest the full jacket price of this novel depends on how deep your pockets are and whether you have read a lot of Holocaust literature. If you haven’t, you’ll want to add this title to your collection. And come what may, Kelly will be a writer to watch in the future.