A Box Full of Books

My summer 2019 reading followed a truly strange and definitely unexpected path, one with an interesting and educational, if horrifying, twist that saw me become absorbed in the devastation and death of war.

It began with a paperback, torn into two pieces and lacking a back cover, hidden away among some older books I hadn’t come across before. The Longest Day, by Cornelius Ryan, is as accurate an account as one could read of the Allied invasion of Europe, during which almost 5,000 ships carrying more than 200,000 soldiers, sailors, paratroopers and coast guard — the greatest armada the world had ever seen — assembled off the beaches of Normandy on 6 June 1944, the day that would be forever referred to as D-Day.

Troops of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade going ashore to establish a beachhead. Bernières-Sur-Mer, Normandy, June 6, 1945. By Tylerweatherill – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Ryan’s book, according to the forward, “is the story of people: the men of the Allied forces, the enemy they fought and the civilians who were caught up in the bloody confusion of D Day – the day the battle began that ended Hitler’s insane gamble to dominate the world.” Definitely not the type of book I would have imagined reading –war isn’t my thing — but I was quickly caught up in the tremendously researched and well-written story.

It was actually Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, commander-in-chief of the “most powerful force in the German West,” stationed in La Roche-Guyon in France, who, in April of 1944, told his aide that the fate of Germany depended on the outcome of the expected invasion by the allies, and that for both armies, it “would be the longest day.” But Rommel had headed home to celebrate his wife’s birthday, fairly secure invasion was not imminent, while General Eisenhower, in London, had “made the most momentous decision of his life,” by signing off on it.

U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses paratroopers prior to D-Day. By Unknown U.S. Army photographer – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Ryan did his research over three years, interviewing Allied and German survivors, as well as “French underground workers and civilians, more than 1000 in all,” making “The Longest Day” pretty much the ultimate story of the battle that resulted in 10,000-12,000 Allied casualties, according to best estimates. Rommel, however, wrote at the end of June 1945 that German casualties for June, included “28 generals, 354 commanders and approximately 250,000 men.” This is not “a military history,” says Ryan, but a story of the people involved. I have no doubt that war and history buffs have already read it, since it was published in 1959, but for anyone who hasn’t, I would highly recommend it, as the definitive word on the invasion of Normandy.


Back to the box of books that had probably been in the bungalow for years, where I came across A Woman In Berlin: Eight Weeks in the Conquered City, A Diary which, it seemed, everyone else had already read long ago.

The author is an anonymous “young woman at the time of the fall of Berlin” who was a “journalist and editor during and after the war.” The book came about as a result of her having survived eight weeks in Berlin from April to June 1945, and scribbled down each day’s happenings, “a total of 121 sheets of gray war-issued paper,” after the Russians had entered the city. She finds herself in an attic apartment with a leaky roof after her own apartment has been bombed out, leaving her with nothing “except a small suitcase with a handful of clothes.” Later, having searched the three rooms, she writes:

[M]y whole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.

And that’s how her life grinds out over the next eight weeks, given that the “dubious blessing” of technology — “radios, gas stoves, central heating, hot plates are nothing but deadweight if the power goes out” (a line that really resonated during Dorian).

The bomb shelter she shares with her neighbors is not easily accessed, especially as apartment dwellers drag down bags of whatever food items they can manage to bring with them and claim their own areas of the “cave,”  as they all it. Her descriptions of her fellow shelter-dwellers are not all flattering – “three elderly sisters, all dressmakers, huddled together like a big black pudding,” being one of the more comical ones. But she listens and questions and learns about their lives before the war and their struggles since. Anonymous describes herself as a “pale-faced blonde, always dressed in the same winter coat” – which she managed to save just by chance – who was “employed in a publishing house until it shut down last week and sent its employees on leave until further notice.”

The Russians arrive, shining flashlights into faces filled with fear, and it’s noted that the soldiers pay special attention to the women, asking their ages and whether or not they have husbands and, if not, if they would  like to “marry” a Russian. The writer has lived in Russia and speaks the language well enough to know what the soldiers are suggesting. Rape is on the minds of all the women, and the writer soon finds herself trying to dissuade the “Ivans” (as they call the Russians), to please leave them alone. In the end, they do what the Russians wish — Anonymous becomes a rape victim and knows it won’t be the last time.

German women in Allied-occupied Berlin work removing rubble. Photo: Hewitt (Sgt), No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit from the collections of the Imperial War Museums Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

She writes that “bombs have made the walls shake and that “her fingers are still trembling” as she holds her pen. Before her building was hit, she would “go down to the shelter and eat thick slices of bread with butter,” but “since the night I helped dig out people who’d been buried in the rubble, I’ve been preoccupied, forced to cope with my fear of death.”

Her initial fear of rape, which is happening all around her, becomes less of a concern when she finally gives in and admits that she is prostituting herself for something to eat. But she questions why she should be so moralistic, acting as if prostitution were “beneath her dignity.” Yet when she wonders if she could “actually slip into the profession and still be pleased with herself,” she is certain the answer is no because “it goes against my nature, it wounds my self-esteem, destroys my pride – and makes me physically miserable.”

The theory that the writer refused to have her name attached to her writing until after she had passed away no doubt stems from what she had done to stay alive, but her contribution to the annals of war and the daily struggles of those affected by it has been recognized, in one review as “a work of literature, rich in character and perception.” I believe that this is the first book I’ve read in recent years that completely preoccupied me until the very last page.


For a break from war and all it entails, I turned to one of my favorite writers, John Grisham, and his latest “The Reckoning,” set in Mississippi in 1946. It’s a straightforward murder story: a victim, a murderer who confesses to the crime and is judged and sentenced to the death penalty (the story of the recently introduced electric chair providing a grim but interesting aside). However, the murderer happens to be — guess what? – a war hero! So before too long I’m immersed in the Japanese attacks on the Philippines that are being defended by American troops led by General Douglas MacArthur, and among whom is, you guessed it, our murderer/decorated war hero!

A Japanese soldier stands in front of U.S. propaganda, Phillipines, 1943. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

I assume Grisham’s descriptions of the cruelty of the Japanese invaders is accurate, they certainly make for very difficult reading, but read it I did. I would call this a complete departure on Grisham’s part from his usual thrillers, but thrilling it was, with turns and twists not at all expected, except for his usual put-down of various aspects of the American legal system.

If you prefer something more traditional from Grisham, try The Rooster Bar, a much lighter tale that I also managed to read, along with Educated, by Tara Westover, an excellent memoir of her upbringing as the youngest child in a Mormon family in Utah, which she insists is “not about Mormonism” or about any religious belief in particular. Judge for yourself but it’s an excellent read, summertime or not. Add to that anything by Liane Moriarty and you can have a great winter read-athon!



Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.