The thesis of my blog post today is going to make you say, “Duh.” Here it is: There are a lot of books and movies about World War 2. (Really? I didn’t know that.) It’s just something I’ve been thinking about over the past couple of days, ever since I watched the new Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk on Sunday night, listened to the YA verse novel American Ace by Marilyn Nelson in the car yesterday, and then started listening to another YA novel, Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys. Also on Sunday, my grandmother told me she’d been watching some documentaries on the war (which took place when she was a young girl) and observing that there was a lot more to it than the heavily-narrated European front, and I recommended that she read and/or watch Unbroken, the story of American POW Louis Zamperini. Even in the murder mystery that I’m reading for book club, Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz, the detective-protagonist of the book-within-the-book (this story is very meta) had been in a concentration camp, and the fictional novelist modeled him after Ben Kingsley’s character in Schindler’s List. So now we’re telling stories about stories about World War 2.
This is not meant to be a philosophical post on causes and consequences, but I want to offer two (again, really obvious) reasons why we can’t seem to stop telling stories about World War 2. One is that the war changed everything: It brought whatever Victorian optimism was still lingering after the first world war and the Great Depression to a screeching halt. It reminded the world that the human race is capable of committing–and of surviving–horrors so outlandish they seemingly can’t be narrated (but they can be, of course, as writers and filmmakers have proven over and over). It changed the way we think about ourselves–and “we” includes those of us born many years after the war.
The other reason there are so many World War 2 stories is that it was a world war—a sprawling, complicated event that encompassed hundreds of battles and thousands of stories–millions, if we consider the story of every person who was affected. So there are always new narrative angles to be taken and under-researched events to be reported. To use the examples above, Dunkirk and Salt to the Sea are both about massive water evacuations (one in France, one in Germany) that I knew almost nothing about before the release of the movie and book. American Ace is about a present-day white teenage boy who finds out that his real grandfather was probably one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the squadron of African-American fighter pilots whose story has only recently begun to receive wide exposure. Unbroken focuses on the war in the Pacific, which I know very little about compared to the war in Europe. A children’s book I listened to earlier this year, The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is about the children who were sent to the English countryside before the bombing of London–who were, functionally, orphans during that time. Other than the frame narrative of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I had never read a book or seen a movie about the experiences of these children.
These stories not only teach us the facts of history, which are important to remember if we want to avoid repeating history, but they also give us examples of hope, sacrifice, and courage. Again, you’ve heard this a hundred times. But there are millions of stories from World War 2 that we still haven’t heard.