War as Seen Through the Eyes of Fictional Characters

Chimamanda Ngpzi Adichie“War is hell,” but it can also be almost an abstraction. Unless you’re directly affected, it might not seem quite as horrible as it actually is or as senseless as it usually is. Novels and other kinds of fiction can help.

By that I mean they introduce us to characters we might grow to love and admire. So if those characters end up affected by war — possibly forced from their homes, possibly terrified, possibly injured, possibly killed — we really feel for them, and are reminded once again of how disgusting war is. Of course we already knew that, but there’s something visceral about seeing characters go through humankind’s periodic carnage. Obviously not as visceral as real life, yet still emotionally wrenching.

Many novels with warfare — such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers — place fictional characters in fictional battles. (That kind of book is often in the sci-fi, fantasy, or dystopian genres.) Many other novels place fictional characters against the backdrop of real wars, and this post will focus on those scenarios.

I just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent Half of a Yellow Sun, which takes a classic approach to characters swept up in war — allowing readers to get to know them before all hell breaks loose. We first meet professor Odenigbo, teacher Olanna, servant Ugwu, businesswoman Kainene, British writer Richard, and others in the early 1960s — a time of relative peace in Nigeria — and find them appealing or at least interesting. Then the novel jumps to the start of the Nigerian Civil War later that decade, and we hold our breath to see how those characters will be impacted. How traumatized will they be? Will they survive? (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is pictured above.)

Moving back in time, there are of course many novels that place characters in the World War II era, and help us understand how soldiers and civilians felt back then. Willie Keith and May Wynn in Herman Wouk’s compelling The Caine Mutiny, Ida Ramundo in Elsa Morante’s devastating Italy-set History, lovers Ernst and Elisabeth in Erich Maria Remarque’s shattering Germany-set A Time to Love and a Time to Die, etc.

The authors of the three above books all had personal wartime experiences, which undoubtedly added to the power and accuracy of what they wrote.

That was also the case with Ernest Hemingway, a World War I veteran whose time in Spain during the 1930s Spanish Civil War inspired the creation of his memorable For Whom the Bell Tolls and its protagonist Robert Jordan.

Among WWI-era-set novels that grip readers through their characters are Willa Cather’s Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours, about farmer’s son Claude Wheeler and his brutal battlefield experiences; and L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, perhaps the best Anne of Green Gables sequel, which features the family of now-middle-aged/now-a-parent Anne Shirley and their experiences when some young Canadians are sent overseas.

Civil War-set novels that evoke the horrors of battle through their characters include Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, whose protagonist is soldier Henry Fleming; and Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-winning March, which focuses on the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Several Sir Walter Scott novels feature intense warfare. For instance, the riveting Old Mortality includes Scotland’s Battle of Bothwell Bridge and its impact on several major characters.

I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Which novels have brought home the stomach-turning nature of war for you?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about how the coronavirus is impacting my town, about a local Facebook group, and about a lawsuit — is here.

68 thoughts on “War as Seen Through the Eyes of Fictional Characters

  1. The first book I ever read that made me think about that, despite having an army father, was actually Little Women. Schindler’s List is another one. Gone With the Wind obvi had some good lines about war in its futility. Also Kate Furnivall’s The Survivors, which was set in the aftermath and a sea of refugees trying to make their way to camps as opposed to out of them. Reading it it made sense of all the old letters and Christmas cards in my dad’s things after he died. I knew he was in Germany with the army after the war but he would never talk about what he did there. it was these refugee camps.

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    • Thank you, Shehanne, for the excellent mentions of novels with characters who experience war directly or indirectly. “March” — which I mentioned in my post — took the oblique references to war in “Little Women” and made them up close, personal, and horrific.

      I’ve never read the novel that the “Schindler’s List” movie was based on, but I can imagine how heart-wrenching it must be. 😦

      It’s interesting that many people, such as your father, in our parents’ generation never talked much about their wartime experiences. Same with my father, who was in the U.S. Navy (though I don’t think he saw much action). Perhaps a more reserved generation, or perhaps the memories were too painful, or perhaps a combination of both. Great that some wartime mementoes of your father were saved.

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  2. “Suite Francais”, by Irene Nemirovsky, deserves mention, though it is, due to wartime and the author’s death in a camp, an unfinished work, finally published decades later thanks mostly to the efforts of her descendants. It was envisioned as sort of triptych, the first section, a general account of various Parisian characters’ reactions to encroaching invasion. Some flee to the country, where they become bogged down in endless traffic or overwhelmed by refugees fleeing from the other direction. Some stay, etc. The character sketches are skillfully done, if often brief,and the pace is exhilarating, if dreadful. So far as I am aware, “Suite Francais” is unique in its fictional treatment of the hectic weeks before the surrender of the French Army, and the subsequent occupation of France.

    The second section was left unfinished, and concerned the relationship of a woman in a small town whose husband had died in battle and the German officer who had been assigned her house as living quarters.

    The final section exists in outline only.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! “Suite Francaise” sounds memorable. A shame it went unfinished due to the author’s tragic circumstances. Great description of the work. Your comment spurred me to just read a Wikipedia entry on Irene Nemirovsky. Fascinating.

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      • She is a complicated figure,and not without aspects that prevent me from an unbridled admiration. But that first section of her proposed triptych is a wonderful, if fictional account of a peculiar and particular period in French history, and reminds me a lot, now that I’m thinking about it, of right now, and the various approaches to the pandemic we are taking. Some deny there’s much to worry about, some flee at the first hint of danger, others follow the instructions of their government, some take advantage of the panic to do dark things.

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        • Yes, at least according to Wikipedia, she had a certain amount of self-hating Jewishness and made too much of an effort to make nice with France’s Nazi-backing Vichy regime. Trying to stay alive and maintain some semblance of a career, I guess. And it’s so true that people react much differently to danger and/or very hard times, for better or for worse.

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  3. Hi Dave,

    Apologies in advance if I blither and blather, but this is quite a thought provoking topic. I recently re-read John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles which covers a lot of time, but has a huge chunk devoted to the U.S. Civil War. I doubt that I’ll be able to put into words just how senseless it all seemed. The Kent family has been split up over different parts of America with some believing slavery should be abolished and others fighting for their right to continue business as usual. Looking at it from the political side, of course you get swept up in the arguments, and have your own opinion. But then it goes from a political debate to young men shooting at each other, and that’s somehow supposed to make sense? The team who can kill the most people wins? The team with the biggest and bestest weapons gets to decide if slavery is ok or not?

    I remember watching a football match, and they used war as an analogy for the competition and my first reaction was to think how ridiculous. War is so much more important. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to fit. The people with the money and the brains sit back in their world of safety, sending their little soldiers out to do the grunt work. And the team with the best conditions and the best staff are somehow declared better people.

    Having said all that, I am going to miss the senselessness of the footy this year 🙂

    I’m sorry to hear that you’re going to run out of books. I don’t think there are many things worse than that 😦

    Sue

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan! Many great thoughts in your comment.

      Yes, war is senseless much of the time, and many novelists point that out quite well. And the most powerful “winning” side is indeed often not the most moral side. Of course, there are certain moral issues — such as that of slavery — where one clearly roots for one side, even as things can get a bit complicated; for instance, the North in America’s Civil War was also quite racist, but at least it didn’t have officially sanctioned slavery as an institution.

      Like you, I hate it when a sport uses war as a metaphor. So stupid. In the U.S., that’s especially true with football (football, not soccer). And you’re right that, as is the case with politicians and officers during actual war not being in harm’s way while the soldiers are at risk, team owners and coaches in violent sports are not in harm’s way while the athletes are at risk. But, yes, sports can be a diversion. And I miss the more benign-level sports my younger daughter plays — her soccer, softball, and gymnastics are all on hold.

      As for books, I’ll be getting some for my birthday this Sunday! A closed-library end-around… 🙂

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  4. At the risk of being accused of self-promotion (OK, I plead guilty), I might mention a non-fiction book I wrote with a rabbi about how some Jews in Poland survived World War II’s Holocaust with help from non-Jews. It’s called “They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust,” by Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and me. The Amazon link is: http://amzn.to/2tjsexj

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bill! Self-promotion is totally okay. 🙂 I haven’t read “They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust,” but have read two other books of yours (as well as your columns and blog posts) and they are all excellent.

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    • Thank you, Liz, for the mentions of those two books! “Johnny Got His Gun” was indeed devastating; Dalton Trumbo didn’t pull any punches in that very powerful antiwar novel. And fragging was definitely a thing during the Vietnam War.

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  5. Oh man…. where do I even begin!!! I’ve read so many good ones it would be impossible to list them all here, so I’ll just go with some I’ve finished recently. I see another person mentioned “All the Light We Cannot See,” which I just finished a few weeks ago and thought was incredibly well done. I also just finished another great newer novel, based in part on real life people, called “Resistance Women” by Jennifer Chiaverini. It follows a network of spies and resisters inside of Germany and was a pretty gripping read. And of course you know how I feel about Kate Quinn 🙂 I also think I’ve recommended Ruta Sepetys here a time or two. She has two books that follow fictional characters in the Eastern theater of WWII, and her most recent book covers the Spanish Civil War. I think you would enjoy all three. Then another recent release I just finished was the Last Train from London by Meg Waite Clayton, which tells the story of the kindertransport, and a very brave woman who smuggled Jewish children out of Nazi-held countries during the war.

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    • Thank you, M.B.! Yes, the subject of this week’s blog post is clearly in your bailiwick, as a reader and writer. 🙂

      “All the Light We Cannot See” has definitely gotten recommended multiple times here and on Facebook (where I linked to this blog post). And glad you mentioned the great Kate Quinn; so happy that you suggested her riveting “The Alice Network” and “The Huntress” to me. I appreciate your comment’s other novel and author mentions as well!

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  6. I don’t typically choose books where a war is the main focus because I find them to be so unsettling. However, I read “We Were the Lucky Ones” by Georgia Hunter for book club last year. This is originally WHY I joined, so that I would try reading different sorts of things. The setting is mainly Poland during WWII. Very gripping book about the lives of various members of this Jewish author’s family. Many aspects were fictionalized, but it was based on her background research. Excellent book.

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    • Thank you, Becky! War novels are indeed unsettling — best as once-in-a-while reads rather than steady-diet reads.

      I appreciate the “We Were the Lucky Ones” recommendation! It does sound very intense and compelling.

      Great idea to join a book club to get out of one’s reading “comfort zone”! (Along with the other positives of such clubs.)

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  7. I read none of the novels you mentioned in the article except Ernest Hemingway’s ” For Whom The Bell Tolls”. By listing out the books name and giving the outline you have shown me,as a writer, how important it is to read those books. Thanks Dave !!! for pointing out those valuable books to me .

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  8. Dave, I’ve mentioned the novel “Life After Life,” by Kate Atkinson, several times before, but it’s the most recent one that I’ve read that greatly affected me with its scenes taking place during WWII. The main character is a woman born in England in 1910 who is actually stillborn. Ursula then is born again and dies again many times with many different lives and outcomes. In several iterations of her life she is in London during the Blitz, sometimes as a victim and sometimes as a rescuer. The descriptions of that time were absolutely harrowing and stayed with me for a long time. In other lives leading up to and during the war years, she is married to a German and is Munich during the allied bombings, and, most intriguingly, in 1930 she begins to realize she has had other lives and decides to try to kill Hitler to stop the war from ever happening. I haven’t explained this very well, but I did love the book. Atkinson is also the author of one of my favorite detective series featuring Jackson Brodie.

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      I tried “Life After Life” a year or two ago, but couldn’t get absorbed in it no matter how hard I tried and finally gave up. Maybe I should have stuck with it longer; your great, evocative description certainly makes it sound VERY compelling. Love the book’s title, too — perfectly matches the content.

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      • I understand, Dave, and as has been said before, we all have different tastes in books or anything else for that matter. I finished all the library books I had and really want to go replace them, but we’re not sure that’s a good idea right now. I was reading something online where Margaret Atwood was advising people what to books to read right now and amongst others, she recommended Jane Austen and Agatha Christie. So I’m all set to reread all of them as I mentioned last week! 🙂

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        • Thank you, Kat Lit! Very true that not everybody likes the same books. 🙂 But you and I definitely agree more than disagree on liking many of the same authors — Jane Austen and various others. 🙂

          Yes, going to a library these days can be problematic — many not open (including my town’s), and if some ARE open, not exactly an ideal place for social distancing. I’m going to soon run out of novels to read, so, when my wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday this coming Sunday, I gave her a list of some books. 🙂 (There’s an independent bookstore two blocks from where I live that’s allowing customers to do “curbside pickup.” ) Little room for more books in my apartment, but I’ll stack them somewhere.

          Of course rereading is also an excellent option, and Austen and Agatha sound like a great plan! But in my case, one reason I want to continue to read works I’ve never read before is to come up with future blog topics. 🙂

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          • I know I’m being silly by feeling I must go to the library, because I have more than enough books here to read for the first time (even some Reacher novels that Bill has left here!). But as usual I want some books by authors I just read recently — I think that’s called immediate gratification! Anyway, that’s great that you’ll be getting some new novels, we need you to keep those blog posts coming! 🙂

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            • Well, Kat Lit, it’s always gratifying to borrow novels from a library, and to just be in a place with so many books for a while. 🙂

              If you read one of the Reacher books Bill left you, I’d love to hear what you think. While the series is mostly thriller in genre, some of the Reacher novels do have mystery elements that might interest a mystery buff like you.

              The posts will definitely keep coming. 🙂 If anything, one or two more than planned because we postponed one trip next month (to my younger daughter’s native Guatemala) and who knows about the the other two planned 2020 trips — to my annual June columnists’ conference, this year in Tulsa, and to my wife’s triennial family reunion in New York State followed by a few days in Cape Cod, this July.

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              • Well, after all that thought given to going to the library, it turns out it’s been closed since the 14th! You’d think they would have made that a bit clearer on their website. Sorry you’re not able to go on the trip to Guatemala; that must have been so disappointing for all. And who knows what it will be like in June and July? I do hope that our “dear leader” doesn’t act too soon or too quickly in his desire to get the economy “up and running” — I just heard he’s talking about by Easter!

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                • Kat Lit, your library’s website should have made things more clear!

                  My local library also didn’t communicate well — it announced it was closing with very little notice. If I had even a few hours of warning, I would’ve driven there to take out a bunch of books.

                  Trump’s words, ideas, and actions relating to the pandemic have indeed been appalling. No surprise, of c course, but still disgusting and frightening. He is such a low, greedy, self-centered human being. The worst possible person to be president at a time like this — or any time.

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    • Thank you, Don’t Lose Hope! “Half of a Yellow Sun” was the first time I read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I was very impressed. I thought the ending felt a bit rushed and didn’t quite match the rest of the novel, but, all in all, a tremendous book with memorable/three-dimensional characters.

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    • Thank you, Neil! Fighting the coronavirus is indeed a war of sorts. Everything I’ve read about a potential vaccine is that it’ll probably happen but might take 12-18 months to be ready. A very long time for something like this. 😦

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  9. I ‘enjoy’ reading war novels which realistically depict civilian life during occupation and billeting of enemy soldiers, etc. Two more recent novels which come to mind are The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Novels which authentically depict resistance movements are also interesting, and this has become quite a burgeoning genre for authors in both indie publishing and traditional publishing of popular women’s fiction.

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    • Thank you, Mary Jo! I agree that war novels with a hefty element of how civilians are dealing with the war can be very compelling — and relatable.

      And glad you brought up resistance novels! A number of excellent ones (Kate Quinn’s great “The Alice Network” is one example; recommended by commenter M.B. Henry here). I didn’t realize “this has become quite a burgeoning genre for authors in both indie publishing and traditional publishing of popular women’s fiction.” Interesting!

      And thank you for the recommendations of “Nightingale” and “All The Light We Cannot See”!

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  10. I know I’ve mentioned it before, but it you want to read about modern war, Arkady Babchenko’s “One Soldier’s War” is a must-read. Don’t come cryin’ to me if you get triggered by it, though.

    The English translation of Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad” came out last summer, and is an absolute must-read too, especially for WWII and Russian lit buffs.

    One of my most formative war novels was “Rilla of Ingleside,” by LM Montgomery. It’s set during WWI and follows Anne Shirley/Blythe’s youngest daughter as a teenager watching all her older siblings head off to the front. I must have read it a dozen times or more.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Elena!

      “One Soldier’s War” and “Stalingrad” are still on my list, and they indeed both sound like must-reads.

      Totally agree about “Rilla of Ingleside.” The most unique “Anne of Green Gables” sequel in some ways. I’m impressed with how many times you reread it! L.M. Montgomery certainly didn’t shy away from addressing some intense topics in many of her novels.

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  11. Another fabulous post, Dave! I remember the first time I read Little Women – when I was around 8 or 9 years old. It was a profound moment for it was the first time I read how families were affected by the Civil War. And this was when I was only beginning to know and understand the definition of “war.” The book that influenced me about the aftermath of war was Leon Uris’s “Armageddon: A Novel of Berlin.” For me, it was pivotal, for it showed the consequences of disruption. Here is a wonderful quote from the novel: “The moment of decision is the loneliest in human life. It must be come upon in stillness and darkness and brooding thoughts and doubts torn out from the deep reaches of the soul.”

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    • Thank you, thepatterer! It was omitted accidentally. 🙂 I included a few novels that crossed my mind, but failed to be more comprehensive. (Also, see Elisabeth’s mention of “War and Peace” below.) I had mixed feelings about “Gone With the Wind” because of its racism, but it still should have been in the Civil War part of the post!

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