The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith

I have not seen the James Bond films, but evidently the supplier of his cool spy gadgets is someone known as “Q.”

“Q” is based on a real person: Charles Fraser-Smith.

Charles started out as a British missionary in Morocco. One day he spoke at a church about his “pioneer missionary work in Morocco and the often unorthodox methods I had used to keep my various projects alive” (p. 22).

Sitting in the audience was the director of the Ministry of Supply, who chatted with Fraser-Smith afterward. The next day the director asked Fraser-Smith to meet him at the ministry headquarters and offered Fraser-Smith a job.

Outwardly, Fraser-Smith was a civil servant of the Ministry of Supply’s Clothing and Textile Department.

In reality, he procured or developed an astonishing numbers of gadgets and supplies for the Special Operations Executive during WWII.

Fraser-Smith and most of the people he dealt with had to sign an Official Secrets Act, requiring thirty years of silence about their wartime activities.

Some time after that thirty years, Fraser-Smith wrote The Secret War of Charles Fraser-Smith, the “Q” Gadget Wizard of World War II along with Gerald McKnight and Sandy Lesberg.

The “Q” designation came from “warships disguised as freighters and unarmed trawlers” during WWI which were known as “Q ships” (p. 10).

Some of what Fraser-Smith supplied were kits to go with soldiers in case they were captured: miniature maps and compasses hidden in hairbrushes, pipes, pens, even dominoes. Sometimes these included a flexible surgical saw with which to try to cut through bars to escape. Fraser-Smith also supplied spies and other soldiers.

He had to take great care that nothing would alert a casual observer—or a sharp-eyed prison guard—to anything that was hidden or unusual. One trick Fraser-Smith often used was to thread a screw-on lid or top in the opposite direction, so if anyone tried to unscrew it in the usual way, he’d actually be tightening it.

Hairbrushes had to be made with bristles native to the country his clients were going to. Sometimes he had to supply uniforms from other countries for men to go undercover. Fraser-Smith had to make sure the fabric was the same type and quality. In one of his first attempts, the manufacturer he used made the uniforms too well and had to redo them.

Sometimes Fraser-Smith came up with ideas himself. Other times, he had to consult with experts and convey what he needed without giving away too much information. And in either case, he had to employ manufacturers to produce what he needed in sufficient quantity. He had to swear many of these folks to the Official Secrets Act. Most of them rose to the challenge admirably. A few dragged their feet, not wanting to vary what they did for their own profit.

One of the most interesting parts to me were miniature cameras which were used to take pictures of the terrain of certain areas. These pictures would be smuggled back to photographic interpreters who would project the height of hills, depth of crevices, etc., so invading soldiers would know the lay of the land exactly.

Another fascinating section told of the S. O. E. employing an illusionist to disguise things, like making a military base look like a working farm.

Fraser-Smith had to come up with various ways to get his supplies to people, particularly POWs. He never used food packages like the Red Cross sent, because he didn’t want to risk those packages being refused if someone found one of his gadgets in them.

Fraser-Smith wrote that he “slightly” knew Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. But he said Fleming misused one of his ideas of hiding things in golf balls. Fleming’s golf balls would not have performed as golf balls and “wouldn’t have fooled an Irish farmhand let alone the lynx-eyed prison officers and S.S. of the O Flags” (p. 128).

Fraser-Smith also wrote of the “everyday people,” from resistance fighters to sympathetic citizens, who would pass on vital information or supplies at great risk to themselves. “Day after day these men and women continued against the greatest odds with no one present to encourage them. Seldom was it possible to let them know if their arduous and perilous work was successful. Much of it went unrecognized. Those who fought in the services were spurred on by team spirit, e’sprit de corps. The S. O. E. agent and the resistance fighter were alone. This was the highest order of heroism” (pp. 152-153).

I was surprised that some of these tricks would be revealed even after thirty years. Maybe most of them had been discovered by then. I’m sure the types of things that are hidden and disguised now are much different from what they were then.

I first heard of Fraser-Smith in this post, and I was so intrigued, I had to look up his book. It’s long out of print now, but I found used copies on Amazon. He reminded me of other pioneer missionaries, like Nate Saint, who devised ways to carry sheet metal strapped under his small plane or to drop a bucket to people below while flying in a circle. John Paton once had a major spiritual opening with a tribe after building a well. God doesn’t just use preachers and scholars, speakers and writers: He uses people He has gifted in various ways.

This was quite a fascinating book. I read it for pure interest, but I am also counting it towards the Nonfiction Reading Challenge. It would fit equally well for the Inventions or Wartime Experiences category, but I think I’ll count it for the former.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Chateau of Secrets

ChateauMelanie Dobson first came to my attention through Carrie. If you read Carrie much at all, you know that she does not like Christian fiction, yet she likes Melanie. Since I do like Christian fiction, I figured I would probably enjoy Melanie all the more. So when I saw her Chateau of Secrets come through on a Kindle sale last year, I snapped it up.

And indeed, I enjoyed it very much. Normally I read Kindle books on my iPad mini as I am getting ready to fall asleep and then when I have any waiting time away from home. But this one had me pulling my phone out several times during the day to read a few more paragraphs.

Gisèle Duchant lives with her father in their ancient chateau on Normandy before the onset of WWII. As Hitler’s forces come ever closer, they decide to leave. But Gisèle’s father is killed, and she then decides to stay. Her brother, Michel, is a leader in the underground resistance, and she has been helping him by secretly bringing food and supplies where he is hiding in the tunnels beneath their property.

Eventually the Nazis come to their area and take over the chateau for their local headquarters. They commandeer Gisèle to cook and keep house for them, so she’s walking a tightrope between doing what is required of her there yet still helping her brother and trying to keep the tunnels a secret.

The chapters alternate between her story in the 1940s and her granddaughter Chloe’s story in modern times. Chloe is a teacher engaged to Virginia gubernatorial candidate Austin Vale. Being the fiancee of a high-profile politician has its drawbacks, but their times alone convinces her that it’s worth it. Just a few weeks before her wedding, her parents ask her to go to France. A filmmaker is doing a documentary on the chateau and its role in the war, and Chloe seems to be the best person to go and be interviewed by him. Chloe doesn’t know much about the chateau, and her grandmother Gisèle’s dementia confuses or hides much of her memory, so she’s not able to give her much information. But when she tells her grandmother that she’s going to the chateau in Normandy, Gisèle urgently insists that she must find Adeline. Chloe has never heard of Adeline before. As she travels to France, stays in the chateau, and delves into her grandmother’s history, she uncovers a multitude of secrets, some of which will have an impact on her family now.

I enjoyed both Gisèle’s and Chloe’s story lines. I liked the way the author wove in much detail about France in that era without making it too heavy or encyclopedic. I had not known that Jews served in the German Wehrmacht. Some probably did so to hide their Jewishness, but some did so out of coercion to protect loved ones. I loved the mystery of the story and thought the author did an expert job at unfolding it.

The story is loosely based on the life of Genevieve Marie Josephe de Saint Pern Menke. She lived in a chateau in France during WWII which was taken over by the Germans, and “risked her life to hide downed Allied airmen and members of the French resistance in this tunnel underneath the chateau,” among many other things.

Gisèle is Catholic, and, not being Catholic myself, there were a few points here and there that I would disagree with, namely praying to Mary, St. Michel, and ever her dead mother (that’s not the biggest problem I have with Catholicism, but it’s the biggest one in this book, because nowhere in Scripture are we instructed or encouraged to pray to anyone but God Himself. Jesus said, “When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven….” After all He did to create access for us to God, why would we try to go to Him through anyone else?) I don’t share what I disagree with in books just to be critical or contentious, but sometimes people tell me they read things I recommend, so I want to be careful that I don’t promote error. I would assume that Gisèle’s Catholicism is accurate to the time, place, and person her character is based on. And I did find much good spiritual truth in the book otherwise.

Overall I loved the book and will keep my eyes peeled for more of Melanie’s books in the future.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)



Book Review: The Book Thief

Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak begins in the Germany of the 1930s with ten year old Liesel Meminger, who is being taken to German foster parents. Her own parents were “taken away” because they were Communists and her brother dies en route, so she arrives alone and very frightened. Her foster father, Hans Hubermann, is kind and gentle and comforts her when she wakes up with nightmares. Her foster mother, Rosa, seems gruff at first, calling her and everyone else an endless stream of bad words, but soon Liesel learns it’s just Rosa’s way, that she does have a caring heart underneath the gruff exterior.

Though Liesel is ten years old, she is illiterate, so in school she is grouped with the younger children. Hans only got through third grade himself, but he tries to help Liesel with the one book in the house – the grave digger’s handbook that a worker accidentally dropped at her brother’s burial, which she stole just as a remembrance of him. Hans is a painter, and he furthers Liesel’s lessons in the basement, writing letters and words on the walls, which he can repaint as needed.

For a few years life goes on as normal, or as normal as possible as the clouds of WWII gather on the horizon. Liesel becomes best friends with neighbor and classmate Rudy Steiner and learns to read more proficiently. The children are all made to join the Hitler youth, and one activity they are required to go to is a book burning. As the crowd disperses, Liesel sees a book that is singed but hasn’t burned, and when she thinks no one is looking, she takes it – her second book theft. But then she realizes someone has seen her, and lives in terror of what might happen to her. As it turns out, her observer is the mayor’s wife, Ilsa Hermann, who, instead of turning Liesel in, invites her to her home to use her library.

Times get harder as rations are enacted, Rosa loses laundry customers due to the financial situation, and Hans loses painting customers because he’s stigmatized after painting over slurs on a Jewish man’s door.

Years earlier in WWI, Hans’s life was saved by a Jewish friend, and when he visited the man’s wife and son, he told them to call on him if they ever needed anything. They do so in quite an unexpected way: the son, Max, is now a grown Jewish young man seeking refuge. The Hubermanns hide him in their basement and share their already meager food rations with him.

The plot goes on from there with the dangers of air raids, of discovery, of being sent to war and not making it back or returning maimed, of the tightened Nazi atmosphere.

The story is told in an odd way with Death as the narrator, but he offers a unique perspective. He, or rather, the author, uses quite a lot of foreshadowing  – not even shadowing, but foretelling what’s going to happen, like one character’s death. That bugged me quite a lot at first: I’d rather have the drama of building up to it and then being surprised. In one place Death says, after revealing a significant coming situation,

“Of course, I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me. There are many things to think of. There is much story.”

In another place he says he foretells a bit to soften the coming blow. He also narrates in a zig-zag way, jumping ahead, then backtracking, that’s a little confusing at times.

The worst thing about the book is the excess of profanity. I had read somewhere that there were a few bad words, but they were mostly German, so the non-German reader is spared the full impact of them. That didn’t turn out to be true. Both general bad words and taking the Lord’s name in vain pervade seemingly every page. If I had known just how extensive it was going to be, I would have been less inclined to read the book. I had read somewhere that the author didn’t specifically write this as a young adult novel, but rather wrote it for a general audience; however, it’s seems to have been marketed as a YA novel, and some of the explanation of things adults wouldn’t need explained seems to indicate it’s written more for young people, which makes the profanity all the more atrocious.

Aside from the profanity, though, it’s a beautiful story. It’s mainly about the power of words. As Liesel’s world opens up with reading, she finds books a help as she reads to Max to alleviate boredom, to comfort him when he is sick, and to help distract people in  air raids shelter. But at one point, after so much loss in her life, which she traces back to Hitler, she hates the power of words for evil and rips apart a book, vowing to never read again. Then she is given a blank book to write her own words and discovers the healing power of being able to express her own thoughts and to combat hate with words. She concludes, “I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”

The writer does have a knack for descriptive phrasing:

The brute strength of his gentleness

A snowball in the face is surely the beginning of a lasting friendship.

The church aimed itself at the sky.

Lacerated windows

The gun clicked a hole in the night.

Her teeth elbowed each other for room in her mouth.

His blond hair peppered with dirt.

Night watched. Some people watched it back.

Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.

I loved the well-drawn characters – Liesel, Hans, Rosa, Rudy, Max, Ilsa Hermann.

It’s also a book about humanity. Death often muses on humans’ penchant for good and evil:

“I’m always finding humans at their best and worst. I see their ugly and their beauty, and I wonder how the same thing can be both.”

“I guess humans like to watch a little destruction. Sand castles, houses of cards, that’s where they begin. Their great skill is their capacity to escalate.”

“So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”

“I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race – that rarely do I even simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant…I am haunted by humans.”

The last is one of many examples of irony in the book – Death haunted by humans, when usually humans are haunted by the thought of death. Another is when Max carries a copy of Mein Kampf with him on his way to Hans, a book in which Hans had hidden a key. Thus the book which condemns him is instrumental in saving him.

As to death’s conundrum over humans, I have often pondered over the atrocities committed by people against their fellow men through the years, particularly in the case of slavery, prisoners of war, treatment of the Jews, child abuse, etc.  Humans’ occasional penchant for beauty and good comes from having been made in the image of God. But that image has been marred by sin – in all of us. It’s not a matter of fanning the flames on the good side so that it will outweigh the bad. We all fall short of the glory of God – some to a further degree than others, but none of us can ever attain that original image by our own efforts. Wondrously, God provided a Savior to forgive our sin and draw us back to that image.

In some ways, the book itself reflects Death’s summation of humans: kindness and beauty in unexpected places, profanity, darkness, and cruelty in others.

I enjoyed the audiobook, wonderfully read by Allan Corduner. I haven’t yet seen the recent film based on the book, but want to soon. From what I have read, it doesn’t have the profane words that the book does. I don’t know how they condensed almost 14 hours of reading into a 2 hour movie and what they might have changed or left out – we’ll see! Here is a trailer for it:

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Book Review: The Butterfly and the Violin

Butterfy and the ViolinIn The Butterfly and the Violin by Kristy Cambron, Sera James owns and manages an art gallery in Manhattan. For years she has been looking for a painting she saw as a child which held special meaning for her. She has finally found at least a copy of it, but hopes it will lead to finding the original. The owner, William Hanover, refuses to sell but wants to hire Sera because he also wants to find the original, but for very different reasons. They develop a relationship, but Sera is reluctant to open her heart again after having been left at the altar by her fiance two years ago. Unraveling the mystery of the painting at first brings them closer together but then suddenly brings a sharp division between them.

The painting portrays a young woman with piercing eyes, a shaved head, and a number tattooed on her wrist holding a violin. Cambron switches back and forth between the present day and Sera’s situation to the 1940s and the story of the woman in the painting, Adele von Braun, revealing more of Adele’s story in both narratives.

Adele’s father was a high-ranking official in the Third Reich, and she was a well-known violinist nicknamed “Austria’s sweetheart.” She loved a cellist named Vladimir, but her father would not sanction their relationship since Vladimir was only the son of a merchant. Adele kept seeing Vladimir in secret and eventually learned that he was part of a network that smuggled Jews out of the country to safety. Adele had hidden Jewish friends of her own that she secretly brought supplies to, but when she tried to help them escape, she was discovered, arrested, and sent to Auschwitz. There she became part of the prison orchestra, made to play every day as the prisoners were sent out to work, during executions, and occasionally at a Nazi social event. While she felt her spirit dying, her friend tried to help her see that there could be beauty and service to God even in such a place.

God is here. He sees. He knows what is happening in this place.

This, child, is our worship. To live and survive and play to God from the depths of our souls. This is the call that binds us. When we worship in the good times, it brings God joy. But worship in the midst of agony?…That is authentic adoration of our Creator.

One day we will be free. And we become free by living despite what they do to us. We live by working, and we work for God.

I had known that their were musicians among those in WWII prison camps who were made to play for the Nazis. And I knew that the Nazis had confiscated a lot of art during those years. But I hadn’t known that there were many paintings and other art by the prisoners themselves discovered after the camps were liberated – over 1,600 pieces in “partially destroyed warehouses and old barracks of Auschwitz,” according to the author’s note at the end. Those pieces still survive even now, though many of the artists are unknown. As one character muses in the story,

She told herself that to have something of worth in a world full of chaos was the very definition of beauty.  It felt like a spiritual liberation that couldn’t be silenced.  These prisoners, the ones who painted or wrote poetry or played in the orchestra – they refused to let that spirit die.  And this, she decided, is why the heart creates.

God plants the talent and it grows, sustained by a spirit-given strength to endure, even in the midst of darkness. It thrives in the valleys of life and ignores the peaks. It blooms like a flower when cradled by the warmth of the sun. It remains in a hidden stairwell in a concentration camp. It grows, fed in secret, in the heart of every artist.

I enjoyed both Sera’s and Adele’s stories and the themes of God’s presence in suffering and the need to create. This is Cambron’s first novel, and it has deservedly won many awards. My overactive internal editor stumbled over just a few minor places where I felt the writing was a little awkward, but I’m not even going to go into them because overall this was a gripping, fascinating, heart-breaking, yet beautiful story.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Girls of Atomic City

In the 1940s in eastern Tennessee, a complex and a community sprang up, unbeknownst to the rest of the world. At its zenith the town housed more than 75,00 people and “used more electricity than New York City,” but it wasn’t on maps at the time. Locals knew it was there: some had even had their land confiscated for it. They knew it was a governmental entity. But they didn’t know what went on in it.

Many of the people working there didn’t know much more about it themselves. Some worked in offices. Some watched dials and gauges and reported the numbers, not knowing what the numbers meant. Some sealed leaks in huge pipes. Some who worked in the labs knew a little more. Only the higher-ups knew they were enriching “Product” for use in a “Gadget” for a “Project.”The Product was uranium, also know as tubealloy; the Gadget was the atomic bomb; the place was one part of the Manhattan Project. The project director called it the “battle of the laboratories,” trying to put the pieces together before the enemies did.

Atomic CityIn The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, Denise Kiernan traces the development of the discovery and implementation of atomic energy as well as the development of the plants and town that were unknown at the time and supposed to be temporary. Much of the latter is done through the viewpoints of several women who worked in various capacities. Kiernan notes that most historical events are told from the vantage point of those in charge, but she wanted to tell this one “from the perspective of those who were not a part of the decision, those who were not privy to all the facts, people who were just trying to do the best for themselves, their families, and their countries” (p. 384).

It’s hard to imagine pulling up stakes and moving to another state with no knowledge of what the job would entail or even where it would be, but many did just that. Some just needed work. Some saw it as a ticket out of their small hometowns. They were told their work would help end the war, and everyone was all for that.

Once they got to what would come to be known as Oak Ridge, they were shocked by the surroundings: there were no sidewalks and many shoes were lost to the mud until they learned to take their shoes off and walk barefoot. All the homes were prefab units (made of cemesto – cement and asbestos) hastily put together or trailers or “hutments,” all meant to be temporary. A pioneering spirit was definitely needed to thrive here.

The secrecy with which they began their jobs continued. They were all required not to talk about anything to do with their jobs to anyone, even to each other, even to spouses who also worked there. Too many questions or theorizing would cost a person their job, immediately. A staff psychologist was brought in to help people deal with the effects of not having the support system many of them had left behind plus the strain that the secrecy put on marriages and life in general.

Although the main focus was the work, no one could work 24 hours, and people needed recreation, so different groups and sites were organized. Many of the employees were young and single, so there was a lot of dating and eventually marriages.

Alongside the personal stories, the author tells how the first fragments of ideas that led to the study of atomic energy came together from different scientists and different countries and then the various attempts to find the best way to process the needed materials, all the way through the New Mexico testing, political processing (especially with the death of one president, FDR, and the need to bring Truman up to speed quickly with what was going on), then the dropping of the bomb and the aftermath.

Even though the secret was out about the bomb, the various sites in TN and other places working on it, and the “secret city” of Oak Ridge, not everything could be revealed. The powers that were did not want the science getting into the wrong hands, plus they wanted to explore its uses for other purposes as well.

After the war was over, many considered the area home, and the author tells about the process of going from a guarded military complex to an independent city.

There are some blots on the record, however. Besides the land confiscation previously mentioned, black workers were segregated and “were primarily laborers, janitors, and domestics” (p. 47) and black married couples had to live separately. In an unbelievably unconscionable act, one black man was injected with plutonium, without his knowledge or consent, so that the effects of it could be tested.

Kiernan notes in an interview at the end of the book that some readers of the book might not have ever read anything else about the Manhattan Project, so she felt she needed explain it as a whole to set the stories of these people in the times and unique situation they found themselves in. I am glad she did, because, although I knew vaguely what it was about, I really had no idea about many of the details.  Denise Kiernan has done a massive amount of research and and skillfully woven together historic, scientific, political, and personal elements to tell the story.

Some reviewers I glanced at on Goodreads felt the characters weren’t fleshed out enough, but I don’t think Kiernan’s goal was to relate full biographies of the women. I think rather she was trying to give a glimpse of different aspects of the experience from many women in different positions. True, she acknowledges that the information in the book is “compartmentalized as was much of life and work during the Manhattan Project” (p. xxi), and I lost track of which woman was which in some of the narrative (there’s a list of the main ones at the beginning, but I didn’t always feel like flipping back there), but overall I think for the purpose of the book, the way it is written is fine. I think if she had written it with each lady’s full story in a different chapter, we might have gotten to know them better, but there would have been a lot of overlap.

I have a personal interest in the story because we live not far from Oak Ridge and go to church there. In fact, several of our church members are employed at the Y-12 plant, which is still operational, and the Oak Ridge National Labs, which is what the X-10 plant became, and many still cannot talk about theirs jobs. In our early days here, I was following my GPS through Oak Ridge and accidentally came to the Y-12 gate (though I didn’t know that’s what it was then), and even though I had my GPS on and my destination address on the car seat beside me, and my GPS showed that where I needed to go seemed just beyond the gate, the guard said the GPS was wrong and they’d have to detain me a couple of minutes while they took a photo of me, my license plate, and my driver’s license. He was very cordial about it, but it was still nerve-wracking; even still, I am sure that’s very mild compared to the security the area used to have. When we first visited the area and were interviewing schools and looking at houses, we visited the American Museum of Science and Energy there, which is the first I heard about Oak Ridge’s previous status as a “Secret City.” I don’t know if they did not have bus tours then or if I just missed it, but I learned about them, ironically, from a blog friend named Susan (from Indiana, if I am remembering correctly?), who told about going on the tour here. That’s also where she mentioned this book, which I had not seen or heard of before (it was published after my visit to the museum), and I immediately put it on my TBR list, and we are planning to go on one of the tours they next time they coincide with my oldest son’s visit home. Susan’s review of the book is here.

Though this discussion is long already, I feel like I am just scratching the surface of the fascinating elements to this book. There is a web site with more details and photos here and additional photos here. I’ll close with Kiernan’s closing remarks in a highly interesting interview at the end of the book:

Whether or not you agree with the outcome, the tremendous amount that the Manhattan Project accomplished in such a short amount of time–just under three years–is astonishing. It makes you wonder what other kinds of things could be accomplished with that kind of determination, effort, and financial and political support. What if the kind of money, manpower, and resources that went into the Manhattan Project went into the fight against hunger? Cancer? Homelessness?

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: Through Waters Deep

Through-Waters-DeepThrough Waters Deep is the first in the the Waves of Freedom series by Sarah Sundin. All of Sarah’s books so far have been set in the WWII era, and this one is no exception. I love how she weaves historical detail into the story.

It’s the time when Europe is involved heavily in combat but America has yet to join the fray. Strong feelings among the isolationists, who don’t want the US to get involved, and the interventionists, who do, run high and cause conflicts, especially at the Navy shipyard in Boston where Mary Stirling is a secretary. Minor problems increase until some people begin to suspect that they are deliberate acts of sabotage, but is it an isolationist or an interventionist, or one trying to frame the other in order to get sympathy for his side? Mary’s work takes her all over the premises and into various offices, and she hears a lot of talk. She decides to make notes in shorthand (which no one would suspect) in case she overhears anything useful. But when she shows her notes to the FBI, they dismiss them as gossip and hearsay.

At a ship’s christening, Mary runs into an old high school friend, Jim Avery, now an ensign in the Navy. They are both changed from what they remember: they had been the quiet ones of their group and Jim had pined away for someone who was in love with someone else, so they had not really known each other well, but as Mary shows him around Boston, they each realize there is more to the other than they thought. When a definite and dangerous act of sabotage is found aboard Jim’s ship, tensions and suspicions escalate.

One underlying issue Mary has to deal with is that she has a strong aversion to being the object of attention. She wants to avoid being prideful and self-promoting, but it is more than humility. As the story unfolds we find the reason for her reluctance and panic, and she wrestles with what it means to “let your light shine” yet not put yourself forward, along with not missing opportunities God would have her take due to her wanting to stay in the background. I found this aspect of her character fascinating because I have wrestled with some of the same issues, and I have never seen this addressed anywhere except just a bit in C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

Jim describes himself as a “floater.” His two brothers who went into the Navy before him have ambitions to move up the ladder. Jim does not have that goal and just wants to float where the current of life takes him. He’s a hard worker and a caring person, yet has to realize his tendency to “float” looks like laziness and a lack of initiative. A good captain sees his potential and helps draw out his good points. That and the potential of missing opportunities in his relationship with Mary help him see that sometimes he needs to direct his steps, under God’s leadership and direction, rather than “floating.”

I’m not usually interested in romances just for the sake of romance, and Sarah’s books always go beyond just the romance to the deeper character issues as well as fleshing out what it might have been like to live in the setting. I love what Jim and Mary both had to learn and go through on their journey as well as the underlying mystery of the saboteur. Sarah does a great job conveying the feel of the times in the conversations and interactions of the various characters.

I loved this book, and I am looking forward to the next one in the series!

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Seamstress

SeamstressI don’t recall where I saw The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival by Sara Tuvel Bernstein recommended: I think it was probably through some of the What’s On Your Nightstand participants. But when I saw it on sale as an audiobook, I decided to try it. It was very wonderfully read by Wanda McCaddon.

Audiobooks don’t always include prefaces and introductions, but I am glad this one did as the co-author, Louise Loots Thornton, explained how the book came to be. Sara had attended a lecture on the Holocaust where the professor said that, although there were camps during WWII, the Jewish people embellished their experiences and made them sound worse than they were so people would “feel sorry for them and buy things in their stores.” Sara was so angry she decided she must write of her experiences. Louise had an MA in Creative Writing and Sara’s son had married into her family, so Sara asked her to help write her book.

The book begins with Sara’s birth (as Seren, which she is called throughout) and early childhood in Romania, where she was one of the youngest children of a Jewish mill owner. Persecution started early, as schoolchildren called her and her siblings “stinking Jews” or “dirty Jews” (after coming home from her first day of school, she smelled her clothes to see if they were indeed stinky. When her mother asked what she was doing and heard her answer, she waved it off with an “Oh that. Don’t even listen to it. It’s nothing.”) The priests presiding over the classroom and school would continually make disparaging remarks about Jews as “Christ-killers” and would respond negatively to the rabbi’s pleas for them to be let out for Jewish holidays. Periodically roving mobs would vandalize Jewish homes and businesses.

When Sara was in the fourth grade, she entered a contest where she was chosen to represent their school as a student in a more prestigious boarding school in another town. She was its first Jewish student. Things were not terribly different in this school, and when one teacher warned students to keep their distance from Jews during Passover because they used Gentile blood in their rituals, Sara threw an inkwell at him, marched to her room, packed up her things, and left.

She did not go home, however. She decided to try to apprentice as a dressmaking salon and found one salon owner who seemed to size up the situation and take her in. Sara did not tell her parents for a long while, as in the village she came from, young ladies did not work outside the home. When her father finally found out, he was furious: he had not wanted her to go to school there in the first place. But he finally came around.

When Sara completed her apprenticeship, she worked at the salon for many years and enjoyed outings with a group of friends. Many of them began sharing rumors they had heard about strange things happening to Jews in other areas, and then, suddenly, some of their number began disappearing one by one. As persecution escalated, Sara made it back home with the help of her supervisor’s son. There Jewish businesses were being closed down, and Sara and her father were arrested and accused of being spies. They were sent to a labor crew and then to prison. Sara was released, but her father was not. She then had to scramble to find work to support her mother and sisters. Eventually she moved to a different town with better prospects. Because she did not look like a Jew, with her blond hair and blue eyes, she got more work than she would have otherwise. Eventually two sisters  joined her. When she was out with one sister, they were picked up and forced to work with a labor crew for months. When it was discovered her sister was pregnant, she was shot. Sara was released and went back to her other sister, but eventually all the Jews were rounded up and sent to prison camps. Sara, her sister, and two friends were taken to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women north of Berlin. I had not known that this camp was only for women and that not many survived: I did know that Corrie Ten Boom and her sister were there, but unfortunately there was not much chance of their meeting as the Jewish prisoners were kept in a separate barracks.

Sara tells of the beatings, starvation, and inhumanity of the camps. She and her sister and friends became a foursome who managed to stay together, although Sara was careful never to stand next to her sister in line-ups for counting (some of which lasted four hours long) so it would be less likely that anyone noticed their resemblance and used their relationship to torture either of them. Sara was the oldest and helped the others know what to do (like choosing a top bunk for the four of them, since the bottom bunks were by windows which caused some of those in them to freeze to death), sought for (and stole, sometimes) food for them.

As the war wound down and Germany was losing, they tried to evacuate the prisoners for seemingly endless days of being packed together in cars with little food and less water. I believe she said they started out with 10,000 women, but by the time they finally stopped they were down to a few hundred because so many died on the way. At every stop the soldiers removed all the corpses.

After the war Sara ended up in a hospital for several months, where she weighed 44 lbs. on arrival, and later found work in Germany. Even at that time, if Jews boarded a bus, the Gentiles would vacate the bus: if Sara stood in line at different stores for provisions, the butcher or grocer would just happen to run out as she finally got to the counter.

Sara married, and eventually she and her husband received permission to emigrate to Canada, and later on to the US. Her daughter fills in details from the rest of her life in the epilogue.

I found this account riveting. Man’s inhumanity to man just astounds me, but Sara faced all of the events in her life with pluck, courage, and wit. She had an independent spirit early on which stood her in good stead through her trials.

Though she was a Jew in ethnicity, unfortunately she was not in her faith. Her daughter shares in the epilogue that her mother continued with many of the Jewish rituals because they were comfortable and familiar, but she didn’t understand why her friend through the horrors of labor camp became devoutly religious. She couldn’t believe in a God who let such things happen, and she felt that if there was a hell, it couldn’t be worse than what she had already experienced. She would be sadly mistaken on that point, and I can only hope she found that out before it was too late. That’s the down side of an independent spirit: one doesn’t recognize or acknowledge that God sends His rain on the just and the unjust, that He was the one who led her to food in unexpected places or to a coat with money sewn in the hem or gave her the will and drive to survive and to help her friends as well. Unfortunately, her experiences with so-called Christians early on caused her to see “the cross was used as a backdrop for persecution of the Jews.” I hope somewhere along the way someone was able to share its true meaning with her.

I’ve skimmed through a number of reviews, and some of them mention that she describes some of the horrors as well as the deaths of friends and family seemingly unemotionally. I didn’t get that impression, perhaps due to the narrator’s sympathetic inflections, but I would guess that was perhaps the only way she could write about such gruesome, wrenching details was to distance herself from them a bit in the telling. It is also possible she would not have wanted to seem as if she was embellishing the facts or pulling on readers’ heartstrings with her own emotions: she wanted to details to speak for themselves.

This will probably be one of my top ten books of the year.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

31 Days of Missionary Stories: Darlene Deibler Rose, Missionary POW

Evidence Not SeenEvidence Not Seen: A Woman’s Miraculous Faith in the Jungles of World War II tells the story of a few eventful years in the life of Darlene Deibler Rose, who became a POW during WWII while she ministered in New Guinea. She and her new husband, Russell Deibler, left to minister in the field of New Guinea in 1938. They were pioneer missionaries in a quite rugged area.

On one of Russell’s survey visits, the chieftain he was talking with said he believed Russell and the others with him were spirits because they were all men. “Who gave birth to you?” he asked. Russell explained that he did have a wife, but his “chieftain” said she could not come because the trail was so dangerous that many men had died. The chieftain replied, “Your wife would have made it. Wherever we go, the women follow and carry the loads.” He said if she were so weak she could not make it, he would send men to help her. Meanwhile, others of the tribe decided to test whether some of the men were spirits or human by shooting arrows at them to see whether the arrows passed through or killed them, and, unfortunately, some of the tribe members were killed when the government officials who were along shot them in self-defense. On reading this in a letter from Russell, Darlene prayed, “Lord, if those people are ever to believe and understand about you, women are going to have to go there.” Immediately she felt an assurance that she was supposed to go. She dashed out to find their mission leader, who said he had a letter from Russell giving his consent for her to go.

At her first meeting with the people, they shoved her sleeve up to see if her arms were white “all the way up” and wanted to pinch her flesh to see if it was real. The chieftain did not believe she was a woman until she took off her hat and took the pins out of her heir, letting her hair fall over her shoulders. From the first moment she felt that these were her people, and she approached them and the living conditions with grace, courage, and humor.

By May of 1940, they heard that Nazis had invaded Holland; it fell within five days. Soon word came from government officials that their post must be evacuated, though they begged to stay.

They moved to another area, and within five months learned that their post was to be reopened. But then Russell was appointed assistant field chairman by a unanimous vote of the other missionaries. Russell and Darlene were both grief-stricken, but felt it was the Lord’s will, and reminding themselves that they had been willing to go anywhere, remained in Macassar.

Meanwhile, they heard news of war increasing until finally Pearl Harbor was attacked. They sought the Lord’s counsel as they continued to work and hear news reports of the Japanese taking islands near to them. One day a Dutch policeman came and told the missionaries that they had a ship on the coast and wanted to evacuate all foreigners as well as Dutch women and children. Their field chairman, Dr. Jaffray, encouraged them all to take time to pray about whether the Lord would have them stay or go so that they would have His assurance, whatever happened, that they were right where He wanted them to be. None felt led to leave. Three days later they learned that the ship had been torpedoed and sunk with no survivors.

By March 8, 1942, their island had been taken by the Japanese. They let them stay together for a while, until one day they suddenly came to take the men. Russell’s last words to Darlene were, “Remember one thing, dear: God said that he would never leave us nor forsake us.” She never saw him again.

The women were eventually taken to a prison camp, where the bulk of the book takes place. There is not space here to tell of many of the experiences, but God proved Himself faithful many times over, protecting, assuring of His Presence, answering prayer.

The camp commander, Mr. Yamaji, was notoriously cruel. Yet God gave Darlene some measure of favor in his eyes. When news came that Russell had died, Mr. Yamaji called Darlene to his office to try to encourage her somewhat. God gave her grace to tell him she did not hate him, that she was there because God loved her…and God loved him, and perhaps He allowed her to be there to tell him. She shared with him the plan of salvation, and Mr. Yamaji broke into tears and left the room. Yet from then on she felt he trusted her, and years later she heard a report of him that seemed to indicate he had trusted the Lord.

Some time later, Darlene was arrested by the secret police and taken to another prison for “questioning.” The conditions were horrible, to say the least, and Darlene also suffered from dysentery, cerebral malaria, and beriberi. She asked the Lord to heal her of dysentery — and He healed her of all three ailments. One day she saw out of her window someone secretly passing along some bananas to one of the other women. She was in solitary confinement and knew she would never receive one, but she began to crave bananas: though she had been healed, she was still starving. Then, Mr. Yamaji came to the prison to see how she was doing and to tell the secret police that she was not a spy, and after he left he had ninety-two bananas delivered to her! Days later, when she ate the last banana, she was returned to the prison camp.

The book goes on to tell of the end of the war, an opportunity to visit Russell’s grave and speak to some of the men who knew him, the process of getting back to America, rediscovering such “luxuries” as showers, fear upon arriving back in America and not knowing what to do or how to contact her family, the Lord’s provision for that as well. She recuperated at home for a long while, and eventually remarried and went back to New Guinea as a missionary.

Darlene’s story is a marvelous one of the grace of God and her courage, faith, and endurance in the midst of the most trying of circumstances.

(You can see other posts in the 31 Days of Missionary Stories here.)

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: On Distant Shores

On Distant ShoresOn Distant Shores by Sarah Sundin is the second in her Wings of the Nightingale series about flight nurses during WWII, the first being With Every Letter, but it could be read as a stand-alone book.

Georgie Taylor followed her best friend, Rose, into flight nurse training, but doesn’t really have confidence in herself. Her tendency to panic in a crisis causes her to wonder if maybe her fiance and family are right, that this life is too much for her, that she should resign and come back home to Virgina where it’s safe. Coddled by both her family and fiance, she is usually reliant on them to make decisions for her, but she questions whether she should push herself to grow and develop in her current situation.

Her friends seem to think she can grow into a great flight nurse, and a new friend, Hutch, encourages her to step out of her comfort zone. Sgt. John Hutchinson, or Hutch, is a pharmacist looking forward to becoming an officer some day. His father is working on the development of a Pharmacy Corps, but in the meantime, Hutch has to work under an officer who knows nothing about pharmacy and coworkers who have only had three months of training. Hutch chafes under the lack of respect for his profession and position, but he feels that once he becomes an officer, everything can be set to rights. Letters from his fiancee tend to upset him rather than encourage him, though, due to her rampant jealousy and worry.

As Hutch and Georgie cross paths on throughout Europe, their friendships grows, but as they find themselves becoming attracted to each other, they make an effort to step back. Meanwhile each faces crises of their own, involving grief, hurt, and betrayal, both at home and overseas.

Sundin’s characters are always likeable but realistically flawed, and part of their journey is how they have to come to grips with their flaws and seek change. Georgie has to learn to stand on her own two feet, among other things; Hutch has to learn humility and contentment.

Sundin also weaves interesting history and detail in her stories. She and her husband are both pharmacists, and at the end she shares where some of the inspiration and facts came from for this story.

My only tiny quibble is that Georgie’s “Southern Charm” is a little thick sometimes. I consider myself a Southerner, but I cringe when people “Sugar” and “Honey” everybody. On the other hand, some people do do that, so it’s not unrealistic, and it’s not overwhelming here.

On Distant Shores is another great WWII-era read from Sarah Sundin that I am happy to recommend.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: Wildflowers of Terezin

Steffen Petersen pastors a Lutheran church in 1943 Denmark. He likes safety and predictability and thinks if everyone just lays low and cooperates with the German occupiers, everything will blow over soon.

A bicycle accident lands him in the hospital under the care of Jewish nurse Hanne Abrahamsen who mistakenly thinks he is part of the Danish resistance movement and protects him from the questions of a German officer. Steffen’s brother is a part of the Resistance and comes to take his brother out of the hospital. They have many arguments about the right way to respond to the troubles in their country.

But when Steffen comes face to face with the need to smuggle Jewish citizens out of the country before the Germans whisk them off to camps or worse, he cannot help but aid them.

Hanne is instrumental in aiding them as well but stays behind to help at the hospital. But with an ambitious German officer in charge in the town, can Hanne remain undetected, and can Steffen help her if she is captured?

I first came across Wildflowers of Terezin by Robert Elmer when the Kindle version came up for free. I’ve often said that those free Kindle app books are a great way to try new authors, and this is one case when reading one book through that route led me to exploring the author’s other books and wanting to put many of them on my wish list.

I liked many aspects of this book. I’ve read many WWII-era novels and biographies, but never one set in Denmark as this one is. That added a fresh perspective. The author shares at the end that many of the details and incidents are based on real-life happenings. There is humor sprinkled throughout which counterbalances the grimness of the circumstances. The deepening relationship between Hanne and Steffen, her growing attraction to his Savior, their individual personal growth, the new vibrancy that comes into his own life and ministry, are all unfolded and blended very nicely. There is a sweetness to all of it amidst the danger — not saccharin, not overly done, but the same effect as….finding lovely wildflowers in a prison camp.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)