Category Archives: WWII Historical Fiction

The Book Whisperer Re-examines The Orphan’s Tale


I had read The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff some time ago for a book club. Another book club chose The Orphan’s Tale for the August book to discuss. It had been long enough that I needed to reread the book, and I am glad I did. I had forgotten some important details. I thoroughly enjoyed The Orphan’s Tale the second time around.

Jenoff leads readers on an interesting journey by beginning in the prologue with the present day and a 90-year-old unnamed woman who slips out of her nursing home in Florida to fly to Paris to see a circus exhibit: Two Hundred Years of Circus Magic. Now, why would this woman risk such a daring escape from her nursing home, telling no one?

Chapter One takes readers back to Germany, 1944. Each chapter is narrated by either by Noa, a sixteen-year-old girl cast out of her Dutch home, or Astrid, a Jewish circus performer from a long-time circus family now hiding in plain sight in a German, non-Jewish circus.

Noa has been sent away by her family because she became pregnant by a German soldier who was long gone from the area when Noa realized she was pregnant. Most likely, the pregnancy would not have mattered to the soldier anyway. Noa’s furious parents send her to a home where she lives until she gives birth to a baby boy. She is allowed to hold the baby only once before he is snatched away, never to be seen again.

Knowing she cannot return home, Noa finds a job as cleaner at a railroad station where she receives a tiny cubical in the attic fitted with an old mattress as a place to live. One snowy evening, she walks past a railroad car and sees it is full of infants, some of whom have no clothing, some are already dead and others are clearly nearly dead. On an impluse she cannot explain, she plucks one of the babies from the train, a baby boy.

Noa’s action of taking the baby sets her on a journey that will endanger her and the infant. She knows she must flee the railroad station in the freezing cold and snow. She has nothing but the clothes on her back which includes a thin coat. She wraps the baby as best she can, discovering when she cleans him up in the railway station bathroom that the baby is Jewish because he has been circumsised. Thus, she will be in even greater danger with a Jewish baby even though she is the ideal Aryan with blonde hair.

Noa falls in unconscious in the snow with the baby. When she awakens, she finds herself taken in by the German circus in the area. There, she meets Astrid, another castaway the circus has taken in. Everyone must earn his/her keep in the circus, so Astrid reluctantly sets about teaching Noa the high wire acrobat act. Noa is quite as reluctant to learn since she has never even thought about being an high-wire acrobat.

Astrid and Noa enter into a wary relationship, each distrusting the other. Circumstances, particularly danger for both of them and for Theo, the little boy Noa has rescued, change turning the two into friends. Even then, the two have some misgivings about the other.

With the Nazis being ever-present, everyone who works in the circus must be on alert. Danger exists around every corner.

Jenoff weaves the tales told by the two narrators seamless so that readers discover the full picture. Readers will also realize a surprise at the end of the story if they have not already determined who the narrator of the prologue is.

Pam Jenoff has published 11 books. At her Web site,, readers will find information on all of the novels along with questions to use in book clubs for discussion.

German circus ringmaster, Adolf Althoff,, saved Jewish performers by hiding them within his circus. Pam Jenoff researched Althoff’s circus and used some of that information in her novel. The picture below is from the article found in Circus Talk; see the URL above.


The Book Whisperer Offers Some Suggestions for Good Reading


Does your to be read (TBR) stack look like the one below?


Perhaps your TBR stack looks like the next picture.


Let me add to your TBR stack; see the suggestions that follow.

Readers are generally looking for that next great book to read. Today’s blog centers on a variety of novels. Out of the books described here, readers will find something of interest. Perhaps a contemporary love story gone wrong will be the ticket, or a book in which two characters in different countries become friends through letters will intrigue a reader. The books in this blog post cover a range of places, people, and time.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones received a great deal of praise. In An American Marriage, Celestial and Roy seem destined for great happiness throughout their married life. An up and coming young professional, Roy has such a good job that he persuades Celestial to quit her day job in order to be an artist full time. Without warning, Roy and Celestial find their lives turned upside down when Roy is not only accused of a terrible crime he did not commit, but he is also found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.  How can the marriage survive if the two cannot even be together? Even when Roy’s sentence is over-turned after five years, the damage has been done. Or has it? An American Marriage offers a compelling story of loss and recovery, although not the way a reader may expect at first.


The next book takes place in war-torn Normandy in 1944. Stephen P. Kiernan, author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity, has written a book about courage in the face of great danger, about optimism, and about the way humans overcome even the most horrid of terrors. The Baker’s Secret features Emma who is the village baker, having learned from Ezra Kuchen, a master baker. The Germans occupy the town and discover Emma’s fragrant bread. The Nazi leader gives Emma extra flour each day so she can bake a dozen baguettes. What the occupiers do not know is that Emma adds ground straw to stretch the dough even further. And Emma also works in resistance at great peril to her own life.


A book set in contemporary Quebec is next on my list: The Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny, the latest Chief Inspector Gamache detective story. Chief Inspector Gamache is involved in yet another intriguing murder mystery. To add to the story, Chief Inspector Gamache is still under suspension for allowing a large supply of lethal drugs to slip into the country. His plan is to catch the supplier as well as the manufacturer of the drugs, not merely the one supply of drugs. Unfortunately, others do not share his vision and feel he has unleased a terrible plague on the city. In the Washington Post, Maureen Corrigan, reviewer extraordinaire, calls The Kingdom of the Blind “a spellbinder… another outstanding Gamache adventure… ingenious… what more could a mystery reader — or any reader for that matter – want?” And for those readers not yet introduced to Louise Penny, they have a treat in store if they begin with the first book: Still Life.


Circe by Madeline Miller takes readers on a journey in quite a different place from Quebec. Miller retells Circe’s story according to Alexandra Alter in The New York Times “recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right.” When Circe discovers her own witchcraft power, Zeus banishes her. Little does he know, that on that deserted island, Circe works to become more powerful. Circe has garnered a number of awards including being named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Washington Post, People, Time, and Kirkus.


Another debut novel, Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce takes place in 1940 in London. Bombs are falling night after night. Emmy and Bunty, childhood friends from a village near London now live in London. Bunty works for the war office typing up memos. Emmy works in a law office, but she dreams of becoming a war correspondent. She answers an ad which she believes is for the newspaper. She learns the job is a typist for Mrs. Bird who answers questions that are then published in The Woman’s Friend, a magazine owned by the same company that owns the newspaper. Mrs. Bird is quite proper and insists that Emmy must throw away all letters containing anything unpleasant. Emmy feels those people with unpleasant questions are the ones who need help the most. Pearce found inspiration in reading letters to advice columnists in the 1940s, Agony Aunts, they are called. As one might imagine, Emmy cannot resist replying to some of the letters. Trouble, obviously ensues. In addition to her trouble at work, Emmy and Bunty must navigate the war-torn streets each day going to and from work and home. People suggests that fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will enjoy Dear Mrs. Bird. I agree.

Watch for more good fiction from the Book Whisperer in the next blog.


The Book Whisperer Finds a Comfortable Story


The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan has been on my TBR list for quite some time. I even bought the hardback book and then put it into a stack of books I intend to read. Recently, I pulled it out of the stack to read it because it was chosen for a book club I attend.

Ryan tells the story primarily in the form of diaries and letters and the occasional newspaper headline. Mrs. Tilling, the local nurse, begins the story with her journal entry. Readers will note the entries give a date which is helpful in locating the story in time. One theme of the book is evident on the first page: “But there’s a war on. … We women have to take on extra work, help the cause.” Mrs. Tilling is a widow in her mid-forties; David, her only child, has joined the air force and will leave the village soon for his first post.

Mrs. Tilling writes that she has begun her journal so she can pour out her thoughts. Often, she keeps her thoughts to herself. When she heard on the radio that “keeping a journal can help you feel better if you have loved ones away.” Even today, one can find articles on the benefits of keeping a journal. Here’s a link to one, for example:

The vicar has posted a sign at the church disbanding the choir since no men are left to sing in it. Several of the women become upset with this arbitrary decision and argue that the village needs the choir more than ever and that the women can certainly sing as well alone as with the men. Mrs. Brampton-Boyd, teasingly called Mrs. B. by the villagers, much to her chagrin, believes in tradition and is willing to go along with the vicar’s edict.

The villagers have gathered for the first funeral of the war; Edmund Winthrop, son of Brigadier Winthrop and wealthy landowner of Chilbury Manor, has been killed in the war and brought home for burial.  At Chilbury Manor, Brigadier Winthrop has a maid show Miss Edwina Paltry into a back parlor where he joins her. The Winthrop estate is entailed, so it must go to a male heir. Following Edmund’s death, Brigadier Winthrop has two daughters, Venetia, 18, and Kitty, 13. His wife is pregnant and the hopes for a boy are pinned on the coming child.

Brigadier Winthrop is not willing to let chance be in control. Miss Paltry is a local midwife, not known for her scrupulous behavior. Winthrop promises to pay her if she can ensure he has a son. That is, if his wife’s baby is a girl, Paltry will find a baby boy and swap the children. Miss Paltry seeing dollar signs quickly agrees to the arrangement.

Other intrigue ensues when Kitty is certain she has seen Mr. Slater, a newcomer and an artist, involved in some illegal activity. Meanwhile, Venetia schemes to make Mr. Slater fall in love with her. As might be expected, Venetia and Kitty, the two sisters, are often at odds with one another and do not appear to like one another much at all.

The choir assembles with only women and it does bring a great deal of comfort to the ladies themselves and the village. In fact, the choir becomes the link that holds them together. It also provides a way for Ryan to disseminate information throughout the village through conversations, both overt and covert.

Below, see a map of the village of Chilbury and a house very like the ones in the village.

Overall, I enjoyed the story, and the book is quick to read. The story ends as one might expect with all of the knotty problems worked out, possibly not all as one supposes. Still, all of the story lines are neatly tied up, mostly happy. The village has seen its terrible share of hardships in being bombed by the Germans, deaths of villagers in the bombing, and in losing sons to the war. Kitty Winthrop writes in her diary after one of their choir practices that “it’s about finding humanity in the face of this war. It’s about finding hope when everything around us is collapsing.”

Mrs. Tilling’s gives Kitty some advice at the end of The Chibury Ladies’ Choir: “It’s what we have to do these days, Kitty. You need to find where you fit in this world, where you are happiest, where you can make a difference. And don’t be afraid of change.”

Jennifer Ryan’s Website: Ryan’s Web site provides a wealth of information including a PDF book club guide for The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. Book club discussion leaders will find questions, an interview with Ryan, recipes from WWII, a map of Chilbury village, and more.

Ryan explains that her grandmother would tell stories about WWII which sparked Ryan’s interest in the time period. As a result, both of Ryan’s books, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Spies of Shilling Lane, are set in WWII England.


The Book Whisperer Enjoys Dear Mrs. Bird


What can the Book Whisperer say about Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce? Plenty! Dear Mrs. Bird is delightful, touching, enjoyable and more than a bit frightening, but ultimately utterly charming.

Set in 1940 London with German planes bombing London almost nightly, Emmeline Lake and Bunty, her best friend from childhood, live in London in a house owned by Bunty’s grandmother who is in the countryside. The two are doing all they can for the war effort.

Emmy wants desperately to become a war correspondent. Meanwhile, she works a day job as secretary at Strawman’s Solicitors and at night volunteers at the fire station to take calls and send out the fire-fighters and paramedics to locations hit by the bombs. Then Emmy sees an ad that changes her life:


Part-time Junior required at

Launceston Press Ltd., publishers of

The London Evening Chronicle.

Must be capable, enthusiastic, hard worker

With 60 wpm typing/110 wpm shorthand.

Letters soonest to Mrs. H. Bird,

Launceston Press Ltd., Launceston House,

London EC4

Can this be her entry into her dream job of war correspondent? She applies immediately. When she reaches the Launceston Press offices for her interview, she finds she is to go upstairs to a warren of offices on the fifth floor. Still, she is in the building with The London Evening Chronicle. Mr. Collins, features and editor at large, interviews Emmy. She is prepared to answer all sorts of questions about current events, but Mr. Collins surprises her by asking, “Are you easily scared?”

Obviously, Emmy thinks this is it! I will be hired as a war correspondent and Mr. Collins wants to know if she has grit. He goes on to quiz her about her typing speed and diction. Then he surprises her with another question: “Are you any good with cantankerous old women… in fact utter old boots?”

Mr. Collins hires Emmy; only then does she learn she is to be a part-time typist working for Mrs. Henrietta Bird. Emmy must also sign a confidentiality agreement and never breathe a word of the letters outside of the office. Only when Emmy signs the confidentiality agreement does she learn she is not working for the Chronicle, but for Woman’s Friend magazine.

Mrs. Bird answers subscribers’ questions in The Woman’s Friend, a magazine also published by Launceston House. Emmy takes the job because it still puts her closer to her goal of working as a war correspondent for a newspaper while she continues her volunteer job with the fire services.

Mrs. Bird is a large, imposing woman wearing a fur coat. Not only does she answer questions for the magazine, she also does good works throughout London; these good works take up a great deal of her time.

When Emmy reports for work and meets Mrs. Bird, Mrs. Bird is immediately put off by Emmy’s entrance into the office. Readers gain an understanding of Mrs. Bird by some of her remarks to Emmy upon their first meeting. Mrs. Bird tells Emmy, “In terms of children, four is ample. More than that and one veers into the working classes or Catholicism.” Mrs. Bird jumps into explaining Emmy’s job.

Emmy will open the letters received and “at the first sign of Unpleasantness it’s into the wastepaper bin. Is that clear?” When Emmy is not helping Mrs. Bird, she will type up material for Mr. Collins. Mrs. Bird is quite full of herself and says Emmy “will find I am quite busy. This is not my only commitment.” Below is an acceptable letter Mrs. Bird would answer, but her answer would be a bit more direct. Mrs. Bird does not mince words.


Emmy also works with Kathleen Knighton who works for the magazine as well. Emmy recognizes quickly that Kathleen fears Mrs. Bird; often, Kathleen speaks in whispers and glances about nervously as if expecting Mrs. Bird to jump out and yell at her.

Pearce gives readers a clear picture of what living in London under the nightly threat of Nazi bombing raids is like. Bunty and Emmy keep their windows dark and often they must walk past bombed out buildings, thinking about people they used to see in those areas or shops where they bought items. Life is difficult and dangerous, but they are both doing their best to help the war effort and carry on.

Emmy cannot understand Mrs. Bird’s orders that “any unpleasantness” must be discarded; a spouse’s loss of interest, and parents’ disapproval of a suitor are all topics that people need addressed, yet Mrs. Bird says cut the letters up and throw them away. After a throwing away several such letters, Emmy opens one that she feels must be answered; the writer has enclosed a stamped, self-addressed envelope for a private reply.

Emmy types up an answer to the letter and signs Mrs. Bird’s name to it. With trepidation, she mails the letter back. When she tells Bunty about answering the letter, Bunty is livid and tells Emmy she must never do it again. Well, dear Readers, what story would we have if Emmy listened to that advice?

Clearly, Emmy feels she must answer other letters. Then she becomes really bold when she learns that Mrs. Bird NEVER reads the finished magazine. Emmy decides to slip a letter and her own answer into the magazine. Mrs. Bird writes her answers and gives them to Emmy to be typed and then they are sent on to be set up for the magazine. Since Mrs. Bird does not look at them again, Emmy feels she will be safe.

Naturally, complications must arise in the story. Emmy who has been engaged to Edmund, a young man from her home village now serving in the war. She receives a telegram from Edmund saying he has met a nurse, they have fallen in love, and they are getting married. Bunty becomes angrier at Edmund that Emmy is. Bunty also has a beau from their hometown, the more loyal William who was rejected for the service, so he is a fire fighter in London.

When Emmy, Bunty, and William along with other friends are supposed to be celebrating Bunty and William’s upcoming wedding, the street where the party is being held is bombed. Terror ensues and a death occurs. Emmy, foolishly blames herself, and she and Bunty become estranged.

The story then deals with the sorrow both young ladies feel. Readers must know that Emmy’s meddling in the letters will eventually come to light and with what results?

Dear Mrs. Bird is a delight to read. Pearce has captured the language of the day as well as the anguish and horror of war in London. After reading letters in women’s magazines during WWII, Pearce used the inspiration found in those letters to write Dear Mrs. Bird.

The Guardian review sums up novel well: “Dear Mrs. Bird proves as hilarious as it is moving…. The novel’s spirit is madly winning, and its foregrounding of wartime women seems spiffingly modern.”

A.J. Pearce’s Web site provides further insight: