Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Women of World War II: a gallery of historical novels, new and old

Over the last few days, my husband and I have been getting into the historical crime drama series The Bletchley Circle on DVD, since we'd missed seeing it when it aired on PBS. Set in 1952, the show focuses on a quartet of women formerly part of the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park during wartime, and how they reunite to trap a serial killer. We've only seen the first season so far, and I can highly recommend it for its insights into the postwar era and women's lives and hidden talents.  Plus, there are scenes of almost unbearable suspense; you may not want to watch too late at night!

Along these lines, and per a reader's request, here are 10 historical novels evoking women's wartime efforts. This gallery mixes current reads, forthcoming titles, and some older novels which appeared before the period became trendy, and which are deserving of a second look.

In this inspirational novel, four women of different ages and economic backgrounds become friends during their work at a small-town Michigan factory contracted to build ships for the US war effort.  Bethany House, 2006. [see on Goodreads]

Baldwin's literary novel is based on the real life of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indo-American woman who became an undercover wireless operator for the British government in occupied France.  Knopf Canada, 2004.  [see on Goodreads]

Beard's debut dramatizes the story of ordinary women who traveled to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in the 1940s to work on a clandestine mission whose true purpose was kept from them.  William Morrow, February 2018. [see on Goodreads]

First in a trilogy, The Chestnut Tree takes place in a small Sussex fishing village and follows the lives of a group of women determined to help with the war effort, and who participate in different ways. Thomas Dunne, 2003. [see on Goodreads]

Basing his novel on the wartime lives of his two grandmothers, Cleave depicts a young aristocratic Londoner who forges an inner strength through her traumatic experiences, and two men who love her. Simon & Schuster, 2016. [see on Goodreads]

An adventurous young Welsh singer travels the world during wartime, entertaining the troops, and is asked to assist the British Secret Service, a job she keeps secret from the man she loves. Touchstone, 2012. [see on Goodreads]

The immense courage and heroism of military nurses during WWII are depicted via the author's depiction of two friends half a world apart, one stationed in France, the other in the South Pacific. William Morrow, 2017 (this is the paperback cover). [see on Goodreads]

Called the "Night Witches" by the Germans, this all-female squadron of Russian military aviators was known for courage, daring, and precision. Runyan's third novel (after two historicals about the early settlement of Quebec) follows a young pilot who takes to the skies for her country. Lake Union, January 2018. [see on Goodreads]

From the 1930s through the postwar years, two young African-American women from Mississippi, lifelong friends, find that their destinies lead them across America and Europe; their story involves their wartime service.  BlueHen, 2002. [see on Goodreads]

In this novel about determination and identity, Ida Mae Jones, a light-skinned black woman from Louisiana, decides to pass for white to join the WASPs (Women's Airforce Service Pilots) when the United States enters the war.  The heroine is eighteen, and although this book is classified as YA, it should interest adult readers as well.  Putnam, 2009. [see on Goodreads]

Looking for yet more on this topic?  See Part 1 and Part 2 of my "women at war" lists, which I'd posted back in 2011.


  1. What a beautiful selection of books. The Bletchley story sounds wonderful as well.

    1. The Bletchley series is great. I'm planning to rent copies of the next two DVDs, too.

  2. I can recommend The Chestnut Tree as well, though I found its follow-up disappointing...

    1. From what I remember, The Chestnut Tree was the best in that series. I read the sequel and the third book, which meandered a lot.

  3. Thanks for keeping my To-Read folder well stocked. I'd also add Night Watch by Sarah Waters to this list.

    1. That's a great addition. Thanks, Laurie!