I’ve suddenly been filled with a passion to write discussion posts—which is surely a good thing, right? Today, as the title of this post may indicate, I’m going to talk about World War Two. I’ve learnt about it in lots of classes; read nonfiction and fiction about it; seen many movies and documentaries; seen so many pictures and pieces of art. In short: the media is obsessed with World War Two—including a lot of YA fiction. Why is that?
Some of my favourite books are set during World War Two. I absolutely love the Montmaray Journals. The Book Thief is totally fabulous. All The Light We Cannot See is amazing. I’m currently listening to Salt to the Sea, and it, too, is wonderful. Which is to say: this is not a criticism.It’s a discussion. Out of all the books on my ‘historical’ goodreads shelf, about a third of them are WWII (and quite a few others are the French Revolution). While there are exceptions, most WWII books are set in Europe or occasionally the US. Not the rest of the world, which was so deeply involved in the war. I think there are several reasons why World War Two pops up over and over again: 1. It is easy to research, 2. Most readers of YA (at least in English) will have some understanding of it, 3. It is seen by a lot of people as a defining moment for humanity and 4. There are a lot of stories that can come from it.
WWII occurred in our fairly recent history. There were books being written, lots of reporters and newspaper articles, and lots of people who are still alive to talk to. It is pretty easy to find out about World War Two—you could ask a relative (my grandmother had to knit socks for soldiers in school), and there are comprehensive newspaper archives, as well as places like the Holocaust Musuem or the London War Museum. There are diaries, like Anne Frank. This makes it much easier to write about an ‘ordinary’ person’s understanding and Experience of War Two compared to, say, an illiterate Indian women’s experience of southern Andhra Pradesh during the seventeenth century.
Another reason that World War Two may be so common in fiction is that most people have learned about it. I’ve talked about it in numerous history and social studies classes, but it’s also so fresh in peoples minds that it comes into conversation pretty regularly. Most people who read will have a basic understanding of WWII. Because it’s so common, it’s easier to write about. If you were writing about early cattle ranchers in the South American Pampas, there would be a lot of explaining to do for the author/ other media creator. But as it is, WWII is so familiar to the relatively educated readers of YA/ consumers of most English media, that it doesn’t need explaining.
But these same things are true, or even more true of, say, the early seventies. So why does WWII get written about so much more? I think it’s because WWII is seen as such a defining moment in history. Humanity went through great struggles of morality and courage and there was death but also hope, where you might not expect it. That’s great story fodder. After World War Two Western nations became much more developed than the rest of the world; many colonies gained independence; there were social justice movement on a greater scale than before; average wealth increased for most(if not all) of the YA readers ancestors; the UN, and shortly after, the European Economic Community (EU’s predecessor) was born. Things were looking up. It was as if the blood soaked battle fields birthed a new world. Whether or not this is true is up for debate; regardless, many people perceive World War Two as the beginning of great changes leading to our modern era, which is why people care, and want to read stories about it.
World War Two was horrendous, for basically everyone involved, whether soldier or Jew, civilian or leader, German or French, Indian or Nigerian. There was a great amount of death, and tragedy. Those things make good stories. They don’t always make happy stories *cue Code Name Verity sobbing* but they make good stories. Human love stories. We love to read them, to write them, to tell them, to know them. Awful as it was, the legends of WWII (and, in fact, most wars), tell terrible, wonderful stories. Stories that people can care about, because it affected their ancestors. Stories that people can care about because they perceive it as leading to their lives. That’s a huge part of why the media is so obsessed with World War Two.
So is it a bad thing that a lot of the stories about history available to readers (and film-watchers and art-lookers and curriculum writers) are centred on the European experience of World War Two? No, not at all. World War Two has had a huge influence on all the world, and particularly Europe. Do I wish that there were more stories about other times and places? Yes. There are wonderful stories (just as terrible and fantastic as the ones about WWII) to be found in South African diamond mines and Indian soldiers WWI Mesopotamia battles and New Zealands Musket Wars and Nicauraguas plantation exploitation. Some of those stories have already been written down, some have not, and either way I want to read them. As a lover of world history, I want to read world historical books, not just WWII.
So how do you feel about WWII in books? I would love to hear your thoughts. Oh, and tell me a non-WWII, non-European historical novel that you love.