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Rolf Margenau
War Story
A fresh look at World War II through the eyes of four young people who come of age during the war years. Nine-year-old Achim relates his experiences on the home front in New Haven, Connecticut. He’s a canny Tom Sawyer type with a good heart and a knack for reporting the important events of the times and his adventuresome life. He manages a little business, goes to school, supports the war effort, becomes a black marketer and attempted murderer, and falls in love at least twice all before the age of twelve. Horst is a hardened Nazi tank commander captured by the Allies as the Afrika Korps collapses and sent to a POW camp in Mississippi. His journey involves saving his Panzer crew, surviving the war as a prisoner, and making sense of the challenges to his core belief in the deity of Adolf Hitler. Improbably, his is also a love story. Liesel gains her commercial pilot’s license at sixteen, enters psychological doldrums when she feels betrayed by Lindbergh, her flying hero, and finds her way to Britain, where she and her sidekick, Marylou, become known as the Lancaster Twins and ferry British war plans for the ATA during the last two years of the war. Paul, an engineering graduate from Yale, joins the Army as a second lieutenant to begin an eventful career as a code breaker, radar designer and rocket man. He takes part in two of the war’s little known but highly significant secret missions that led to America’s dominance in outer space. The four heroes connect in ways the reader learns as the story unfolds. The novel also examines forgotten aspects of the war, such as the incarceration of American citizens of German and Italian descent, the exchange of German for American prisoners in Sweden, and legacy of American POW camps. And each hero has a love story to tell.
Novelist and photographer Margenau’s wartime coming-of-age novel centers around four youths each facing their adventures during the upheaval of the second World War. Achim, a respectful youth in Connecticut, unexpectedly becomes involved in a black market scheme; his onetime babysitter Liesel, a young woman already somewhat famous as a licensed pilot, finds her skills give her a chance to aid in the war effort by flying with the British Air Transport Auxiliary; Paul, an engineer turned code breaker discovers that first love can come with brutal lessons; and Horst, a captured German commander who becomes more and more disillusioned with the cause his homeland is fighting for. This cast’s web of connections weaves together as the war nears its end, building to a denouement more optimistic than the norm in contemporary war stories.

After a preface that illustrates the weight and passage of time, an aged Achim finds an old photo album and diary in a cobwebbed attic. Margenau dives into the past, splitting the novel between first-person chapters narrated by Achim, who feels great urgency to share his story as one of the few people left to tell it, and third-person accounts of Liesel, Paul, and Horst. Achim focuses on the war and its impact on himself and the people closest to him: “Almost all those stern, smiling, relaxed people were gone,” he writes, “their stories untold, their eventful lives unrecalled. And so would be my stories, soon.”

From there, Margenau’s work is a warm remembrance of lessons Achim learned from his father (“Once you understand the good and bad things that exist in your world, it is easier to make decisions”), along with the trials, hardships and blessings faced by the others in the tumultuous war years. Whether the focus is on the front lines, the skies, a POW camp, or somewhere back home, War Story offers uplifting testament to the human capacity to carry on when the need is great, no matter how much it hurts.

Takeaway: This warm account of young people in the second World War will please lovers of character-rich historical fiction.

Great for fans of:James Holland’s Twenty One: Coming of Age in the Second World War, Susan Meissner’s The Last Year of the War.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: B+
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A-
Marketing copy: B+