The Last Garden in England book

5 World War II-Era Novels Featuring Brave Women Who Persevere

January 21 2021
Share 5 World War II-Era Novels Featuring Brave Women Who Persevere

Over the past year of stress and unpredictability, I’ve found myself looking backward by way of historical fiction—specifically, novels that draw from our real-world history to reassure us that we can overcome even the greatest of challenges. Some of my favorite books in this vein share more than just a genre; they also focus on ordinary women of the time who are called upon to do extraordinary things. There’s something comforting in reading about characters with the same hopes and dreams we all share vanquishing the forces of evil and making the world around them better.

If you could use a boost to start off your reading year, I recommend picking up one of the terrific books below.

The Last Garden in England
by Julia Kelly

The new book from the author of THE WHISPERS OF WAR and THE LIGHT OVER LONDON centers on the elaborate gardens of an English estate, gardens that connect five women across three different eras. Beginning at the turn of the century, passing through the estate’s conversion to a hospital during World War II, and extending to its present-day restoration, the titular “last garden” is the medium through which these women forge their own paths in ways they couldn’t have imagined. It’s an amazing interweaving of time and place that will have you looking at your own backyard with new eyes.

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The Last Garden in England
Julia Kelly

From the author of the international bestseller The Light Over London and The Whispers of War comes a poignant and unforgettable tale of five women living across three different times whose lives are all connected by one very special place.

Present day: Emma Lovett, who has dedicated her career to breathing new life into long-neglected gardens, has just been given the opportunity of a lifetime: to restore the gardens of the famed Highbury House estate, designed in 1907 by her hero Venetia Smith. But as Emma dives deeper into the gardens’ past, she begins to uncover secrets that have long lain hidden.

1907: A talented artist with a growing reputation for her ambitious work, Venetia Smith has carved out a niche for herself as a garden designer to industrialists, solicitors, and bankers looking to show off their wealth with sumptuous country houses. When she is hired to design the gardens of Highbury House, she is determined to make them a triumph, but the gardens—and the people she meets—promise to change her life forever.

1944: When land girl Beth Pedley arrives at a farm on the outskirts of the village of Highbury, all she wants is to find a place she can call home. Cook Stella Adderton, on the other hand, is desperate to leave Highbury House to pursue her own dreams. And widow Diana Symonds, the mistress of the grand house, is anxiously trying to cling to her pre-war life now that her home has been requisitioned and transformed into a convalescent hospital for wounded soldiers. But when war threatens Highbury House’s treasured gardens, these three very different women are drawn together by a secret that will last for decades.

In this sweeping novel reminiscent of Kate Morton’s The Lake House and Kristin Harmel’s The Room on Rue Amélie, Julia Kelly explores the unexpected connections that cross time and the special places that bring people together forever.

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The Book of Lost Names
by Kristin Harmel

Eva Traube uses a talent for forgery to create false papers in order to flee Paris during the Occupation, taking refuge in a remote mountain village in the Free Zone. But when she meets Rémy, a member of the French Resistance operating in the region, she can’t just hide at home. She puts her skills to use faking documents for hundreds of Jewish children being smuggled over the border to safety in Switzerland—but when a spy in their midst threatens to expose them all, Eva must decide whether she’s willing to risk everything for her new calling. This novel is inspired by real forgers in World War II, and the details will make you want to try it yourself.

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The Book of Lost Names
Kristin Harmel

Inspired by an astonishing true story from World War II, a young woman with a talent for forgery helps hundreds of Jewish children flee the Nazis in this unforgettable historical novel from the international bestselling author of the “epic and heart-wrenching World War II tale” (Alyson Noel, #1 New York Times bestselling author) The Winemaker’s Wife.

Eva Traube Abrams, a semi-retired librarian in Florida, is shelving books one morning when her eyes lock on a photograph in a magazine lying open nearby. She freezes; it’s an image of a book she hasn’t seen in sixty-five years—a book she recognizes as The Book of Lost Names.

The accompanying article discusses the looting of libraries by the Nazis across Europe during World War II—an experience Eva remembers well—and the search to reunite people with the texts taken from them so long ago. The book in the photograph, an eighteenth-century religious text thought to have been taken from France in the waning days of the war, is one of the most fascinating cases. Now housed in Berlin’s Zentral- und Landesbibliothek library, it appears to contain some sort of code, but researchers don’t know where it came from—or what the code means. Only Eva holds the answer—but will she have the strength to revisit old memories and help reunite those lost during the war?

As a graduate student in 1942, Eva was forced to flee Paris after the arrest of her father, a Polish Jew. Finding refuge in a small mountain town in the Free Zone, she begins forging identity documents for Jewish children fleeing to neutral Switzerland. But erasing people comes with a price, and along with a mysterious, handsome forger named Rémy, Eva decides she must find a way to preserve the real names of the children who are too young to remember who they really are. The records they keep in The Book of Lost Names will become even more vital when the resistance cell they work for is betrayed and Rémy disappears.

An engaging and evocative novel reminiscent of The Lost Girls of Paris and The Alice Network, The Book of Lost Names is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the power of bravery and love in the face of evil.

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MENTIONED IN:

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Lilac Girls
by Martha Hall Kelly

While certainly not the first historical novel to be set during World War II, this is the book that, in some ways, launched the recent boom in that genre—and it’s easy to see why. Inspired by a real historical figure, the novel creates three compelling female characters from vastly different walks of life. Caroline is a New York socialite working for the French consulate, while Kasia, a Polish teen, is a Resistance courier. Meanwhile, German doctor Herta secures a government job, only to find herself enmeshed in the Nazi regime. All three find their fates intertwined at Ravensbrück, the infamous women’s concentration camp, in a fascinating story with epic scope.

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Lilac Girls
Martha Hall Kelly

An ode to the bravery and boundless determination of women, LILAC GIRLS follows three incredibly different yet equally inspiring women during World War II as they navigate the changes in their lives and surroundings. A young German doctor trapped in a field dominated by men and secrets, a Polish courier grasping for the ends of her innocence and youth as she falls further into the resistance, and an American socialite learning to prioritize duty over love are all thrust into the harrowing realm of war and its consequences.

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MENTIONED IN:

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Close
The Island of Sea Women
by Lisa See

If you’re looking for something less Eurocentric, try this fascinating bestseller from the author of THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE. See explores a deep friendship between two Korean girls training to be free divers in the community of women divers on Jeju Island. Beginning in 1938 and spanning seventy years, the novel follows the pair as their intense bond is strained by the forces of history and nature. A gorgeous, evocative look at a world few could ever imagine.

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The Island of Sea Women
Lisa See

THE NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

“This vivid…thoughtful and empathetic” novel (The New York Times Book Review) illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge and the men take care of the children. “A wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women” (Publishers Weekly), The Island of Sea Women is a “beautiful story…about the endurance of friendship when it’s pushed to its limits, and you…will love it” (Cosmopolitan).

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Fast Girls
by Elise Hooper

For more “untold stories of the past” enjoyment, check out this novel about the first integrated women’s Olympic track & field team. Three young women—a Boston-area girl growing up as one of the few Black people in town; an awkward, tomboyish runner from Missouri; and a decorated Olympic athlete trying to recover from a devastating accident—see the 1936 Olympic Games as their ticket to a better, wider life. Brought together as teammates, they must harness their collective strength of will to weather the historical challenges they’re about to face.

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Fast Girls
Elise Hooper

Amazon logo Audible logo Barnes & Noble logo Books a Million logo Google Play logo iBooks logo Indiebound logo Bookshop logo Libro.fm logo

MENTIONED IN:

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By Off the Shelf Staff | June 18, 2021

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By Maddie Ehrenreich | June 17, 2021

8 Under-the-Radar Reads That Deserve All the Love

By Chris Gaudio | June 16, 2021

Book Club at the Beach: What My Club is Reading This Summer

By Holly Claytor | June 15, 2021

Genre Bridges: 7 Books to Shake Up Your Reading Routine

By Off the Shelf Staff | June 14, 2021

Books as Gifts: 14 Reads Dad Will Love This Father’s Day

By Off the Shelf Staff | June 11, 2021

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Photo credit: Simon & Schuster Canada

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