In 1942 Enrico Fermi and a team of scientists were working on a top secret project called the Manhattan Project. This was the research on developing the atomic bomb done at Stagg Field, the University of Chicago football stadium. The Accidental Agent by Andrew Rosenheim tells the story of a fictional FBI agent who is asked to determine whether or not a Nazi has managed to infiltrate the research group. Many of the scientists in the group were European immigrants and some of their credentials had been difficult to verify. Is it possible that one of them had been recruited as a spy? Jimmy Nessheim had asked for an extended leave from the FBI to attend law school at the University of Chicago. Since he is in the right place and has the perfect cover story, he is asked by his superiors to resume his Special Agent status to observe the scientists’ work. The novel is filled with shadowy characters, including two ex-girlfriends and thugs from his past. As Jimmy tries to understand just how far the Manhattan Project is progressing and if all the scientists involved are who they say they are, all sorts of complications emerge. The book has interesting and understandable details about the nuclear experiment. It also has the noir feel of 1940’s spycraft.
Historical fiction can be an effective way for anyone trying to get basic knowledge of a period. When facts are revealed as a story they are easier to understand and remember. A great introduction to the beginning years of Queen Victoria’s reign is the novel Victoria by Daisy Godwin. Victoria inherited the throne when she was only eighteen years old. Although she knew she would be queen, she had been given very little exposure to the politics of reigning. Her widowed mother insisted that she was protecting her by keeping Victoria almost secluded. Victoria’s diaries and court observations are used as sources that show us someone who would now be defined as a rebellious teenager. At the very beginning of her reign she asserted herself by distancing herself from her mother and making her own choice as to the name she wished to be known by. She did commit several political missteps and the author depicted the known facts in a very plausible manner, giving Victoria what would seem like understandable motivations. My occasional dissatisfaction with historical fiction is when an author seems to place contemporary values in a different era and that did not happen in this novel.
What if you only had a week to understand the secrets of the past that have left your mother with severe depression and yourself prone to panic attacks? A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore is the story of two young women caught up in the glamour and tragedy of Paris. Kitty Travers left England in 1937 to study piano in Paris. In 1961 her daughter, Fay Knox is playing the violin as part of a week-long symphonic tour of Paris. Fay remembered a trip to Paris as a schoolchild when she had experienced what felt like flashbacks even though her mother told her that she had never been to France. Just before Fay left, her mother told her to talk to Mother Superior Marie at St. Cecelia. The novel alternates between Kitty and Fay as they each fall in love in the romantic city. The book portrays the particular attractions of Paris during each era. The dangers of wartime are a part of the story that Fay needs to understand so she can help her mother heal.
Philippa Gregory is an outstanding writer of historical fiction. Her most recent novel Three Sisters, Three Queens is the story of Henry VIII’s two sisters, Margaret and Mary, and his first wife, Katherine. Although at times they had real affection for each other, they were often in conflict for control and precedence. Margaret, the oldest Tudor sister, was at court when Katherine came to England to become Henry’s brother’s wife. Marriage was a political function, so Margaret was there to witness the loss of status Katherine faced when her first husband died and her later elevation when she became Henry’s wife. Even though Margaret had hoped to marry someone else, she was sent to Scotland to become King James’ wife. Her treatment by Gregory is what makes an absorbing novel. Although the major highlights of Margret’s life are well known, her motivations are open to interpretation. She was widowed when Scotland rebelled against Henry. Margret’s marriage was supposed to have been a peaceful link, but she basically had to spend her life trying to protect her son’s birthright. A good historical novel humanizes figures which help the reader better understand and remember the events the characters were a part of.
It is the beginning of May 1937 and you are a passenger on a zeppelin, the Hindenburg, on a flight from Berlin to New Jersey. The novel Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon fictionalizes that last, fatal flight. The characters include an angry American businessman, the first woman stewardess on a zeppelin, a German female reporter who has just had her press card revoked, and an eager young cabin boy. The Hindenburg has been used as German propaganda to showcase the technological marvels that the Nazi regime can manufacture. The novel’s characters are just beginning to realize what a threat to personal freedom the Nazis can be. The reporter wonders if her reporting privileges were curtailed because of her Jewishness instead of her controversial stories. Widowhood has given the stewardess a Germanic name, but her maiden name is Jewish. She is planning to remain in America after the airship lands. An accurate explanation for the Hindenburg disaster has never been established, so Lawhon has used artistic license to create a possible answer to the question of what caused the explosion.
The novel The Midnight Watch by David Dyer is a very different approach to the Titanic story. It focuses on the crew of the Californian which was supposedly a ship that had been close to the Titanic when the boat went down but did not respond to distress rockets that were fired into the sky. A Boston journalist, John Steadman, who was known for his ability to portray the victims of tragedies, was investigating just what happened that night. When the story first broke, newspapers even printed that the ship had hit an iceberg, but had only been slightly damaged and was being towed into port. It took time for the complete and accurate story to unfold. Steadman’s editor was pressuring him to go to press with a story about the victims, but he just didn’t feel the captain of the Californian was properly explaining why his ship had not gone to Titanic’s rescue. Two of the Californian’s crew felt pressured by their captain to not fully disclose what had happened that night. The character’s reactions are fictionalized, but many of the actions are fact based and carefully researched by the author. If you are fascinated by the Titanic’s story, this humanizes a part of the story which is usually only briefly mentioned when the tragic night is detailed.
The Summer Before the War is Helen Simonson’s newest novel that pulls in almost all the expected types of people who would have been affected by the start of the first World War. Beatrice Nash is a well-educated young woman who has just been hired as the first woman to teach Latin at a small grammar school in Rye, England. She needed to find a way to support herself after the death of her father.
Mrs. Agatha Kent acted as her sponsor, encouraging the school to hire Beatrice. She tries to protect Beatrice from petty attitudes of those who are not ready to accept a woman teaching such a serious and important (for the time) subject. Agatha’s nephews, Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham are part of an extended family, providing Beatrice with encouragement when some of her actions are criticized. The novel is a wonderful depiction of how difficult life could be for a young, single woman when she is forced to earn her own living during this era. The many characters have varied roles in the inevitable war, from diplomat to foot soldier. The novel is an immersion into life in an English town struggling with the start of war.