Book Review: Fallen Skies by Philippa Gregory

In her historical novel Fallen Skies Philippa Gregory takes the reader to 1920s England. We meet Lily Valance, a chorus girl with ambitions to become a singer. She meets Capt. Stephen Winters, a World War I veteran, at one of the clubs where she performs. Stephen hardly knows Lily, but believes he is falling in love with her because she seems so unspoiled by World War I. Haunted by his experiences in Belgium, Stephen wants nothing more than to forget the war. He believes Lily’s insistence that no one talk about the past will help him to move on.

Lily enjoys his attentions. She especially likes when he takes her and her mother out in a car driven by his chauffeur. Yet she is also attracted to Charlie, her director. Charlie has a physical injury from the war that will not allow him to have children. Although he loves Lily, he thinks he is doing the noble thing by letting her go.

When Lily’s mother dies, she just wants someone to take care of her. She is convinced that Stephen will do this, so she accepts his marriage proposal.

Soon, however, there is trouble in their marriage. Lily is embarrassed by Stephen’s behavior when a car backfires during their honeymoon. Convinced he is in a war zone, Stephen hits the ground and starts rolling. Onlookers tell Lily he is shell-shocked. She gets him back to the hotel and when he feels more like himself, he acts as though nothing has happened and violently insists that Lily do the same. He pays off the hotel staff with money, and Lily finds herself trapped with a man she fears rather than loves.


British army at Battle of Ypres, Aug. 1917

When they return home to Stephen’s parents’ house, Lily discovers that she is expected to sit at home with her mother-in-law or to pay boring calls on other ladies while Stephen goes to work. One day she manages to slip out of the house and audition for a production that Charlie is directing. When he realizes what Lily has done, Stephen tries to rape her. With a little help from an unlikely friend, Lily is both saved from rape and allowed to continue performing at the theater. She decides she will let Stephen do what he likes with her at home but lives for her work—at least until she discovers that she is pregnant.

With a baby on the way, Lily and Stephen both have to confront their past. Stephen cannot avoid his war memories and the knowledge of what he and his chauffeur did while at a farmhouse in Belgium. He has to decide what is more important: keeping his past secret or keeping his family together. Lily also has to decide what is most important in her life: her baby or her career. Ultimately the decisions they make will have live-or-death consequences for themselves and their son.

Overall I would recommend the book, especially to anyone who wants to learn more about how World War I affected soldiers when they returned home. The novel also does a good job of describing gender expectations in the 1920s, which basically involved men working and women staying home. Given some of the subject matter, however, I would recommend it for ages 12 and up.


Book Review: The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler

The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler by James Giblin 223p.

Giblin’s middle grade biography traces Hitler’s life from nearly homeless artist to ruthless dictator.

The first chapter is short and sets up the story with what kids will know about Adolph Hitler: he once ruled Germany and he’s dead. Giblin explains that while young people might not know exactly who he was or what he did, they have older family members who were influenced by Hitler’s actions. Questions that kids might ask about Hitler, such as why didn’t people stop him sooner, are posed and the author promises to explore them in the book.

adolf hitler

Adolph Hitler as a baby

Giblin’s straightforward storytelling of Hitler’s childhood makes him, at least at this point, more relatable to young people. For example, kids that tried out and didn’t make a sports team could understand Hitler’s disappointment when he didn’t get accepted to art school. Any one who has lost a family member can understand why Hitler didn’t want to accept his mother’s cancer diagnosis.

The book goes on to explain Hitler’s crushing disappointment after World War I. He had nearly gone blind trying to defend his country, but Germany lost anyway. Like other German soldiers, Hitler resented the Versailles Treaty which made Germany pay nations like Britain and France for the cost of the war. When the German army needed instructors to teach the evils of Communism and the importance of nationalism to the troops, they had little idea that they were helping to launch the career of a dictator. Through his speeches Hitler learned that he had the power to persuade audiences–a skill he would use again and again in the coming years.

Unlike other biographers, Giblin does not pretend to have all the answers. For example, while other biographers have speculated that Hitler may have disliked Jews because his mother’s doctor was a Jew, Giblin points out that Hitler only had kind words for the doctor. Giblin comes to the conclusion that there is no obvious reason for Hitler’s feelings but that hating Jews was a main feature of Hitler’s life from 1919 until his death.

The book points out why the Nazi party was popular with some Germans during the Great Depression. Hitler’s rise to power coincided with an increase in jobs and better working conditions. People were healthier, too. Hitler even suggested that an affordable car called the Volkswagen (the people’s car) be produced so that the middle class could drive around town and go on vacations. Though the lives of Jewish people were increasingly restricted, Hitler often didn’t emphasize his anti-Semitic beliefs in his pre-World War II speeches.

As Giblin explains, World War II came about because of serious misunderstandings between Hitler and the British and French. Britain and France didn’t want another war, so they stood by while Hitler took over territories like Austria and Czechoslovakia for Germany. Britain warned that it would stand by Poland, however. Hitler thought the British were bluffing and proceeded with his invasion only to find himself at war with Britain, France, and eventually the Soviet Union and U.S.

Although Giblin does talk about the Holocaust, his coverage of the extermination of the Jews is somewhat brief, perhaps because Hitler delegated the working of concentration camps to other Nazi officials. The book does quote Hitler’s book Mein Kampf which outlined his hatred for Jews. It also covers the laws restricting Jewish participation in society in the 1930s.

Giblin does a good job of incorporating stories from and about young people. He includes  members of the Hitler Youth, a group that indoctrinated young people in the policies of the Nazi Party. Hitler’s troubled relationship with his niece Geli and his odd romance with the young Eva Braun are explored. In addition, Giblin includes stories of young people like Sophie Scholl and her brother who bravely opposed Hitler’s political agenda.

Extensive photos help Giblin’s gifted storytelling come to life. Included are rare photos of Hitler in private, family photos and paintings, and photos of Hitler’s Nazi followers.

Readers would have benefited from short summaries of important people in Hitler’s political life. It can be hard for young readers to keep track of people with similar names, such as Himmler and Heydrich.

The book ends with a cautionary note: leaders like Hitler can still come to power under the right conditions, but hopefully future generations will use their knowledge of others’ mistakes to prevent such an event.

Overall, The Life and Death of Adolph Hitler provides young people with a solid introduction to the career of one of the most infamous men in history.