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Why Connie Willis is a genius

I'm rereading my favorite books from last year, Blackout and All Clear, in which time-traveling historians go back to WWII to observe the contemporaries and view heroism in action - at Dunkirk, in the countryside with the children evacuated from London, as part of ambulance crews responding to V-1 attacks. Only something happens and they all converge in London during the Blitz:
Michael Davies should have come here, not Dunkirk, if he wanted to observe heroes, Polly thought, looking after them. She'd just seen them in action. And it wasn't only the young women and their willingness to go out on the streets in the middle of a raid. How much courage had it taken for the rector to cross the basement and open that door, knowing it might be the Germans? Or for all of them to sit here night after night, waiting for imminent invasion or a direct hit, not knowing whether they'd live till the next all clear?

Not knowing. It was the one thing historians could never understand. They could observe the contemps, live with them, try to put themselves in their place, but they couldn't truly experience what they were experiencing. Because I know what's going to happen. I know Hitler didn't invade England, that he didn't use poison gas or destroy St. Paul's. Or London. Or the world. That he lost the war.

But they didn't. They'd lived through the Blitz and D-Day and the V-1s and V-2s, with no guarantee of a happy ending.

                                                    Blackout, by Connie Willis
This struck me, because... how can we really understand what it was like, us safe in our 21st century, knowing the ending? We can watch all the documentaries and read all the first-hand accounts, but when you know that all is more or less right at the end, how do you feel the uncertainty ... and conversely, how do you fully appreciate the incredible resilience and bravery of those who lived through this terrible war?

This is where Connie Willis comes in. Passages like the above make me tear up, honestly, because Blackout/All Clear was the first time in all my WWII reading that I think I started to get a glimpse of the strength of those people who sat in shelters night after night, waiting for the bomb that might kill them to fall. Not just because Willis has the writing chops and the research to bring this era vividly to life, but because of this important plot point: the drops that should have taken the historians back to 2060 Oxford aren't working. No retrieval teams have come. Something has gone terribly wrong, and all signs point to the fact that they have inadvertently changed the course of history.

Which means the war could be lost. There might be no V-Day. Hitler might win.

They might all die.

It's fiction, sure. But for the first time, I didn't know the outcome, and I felt a bit of the fear and terror the real-life heroes must have lived through.

And you wonder why this was the best thing I read in 2011?



( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 7th, 2012 12:46 pm (UTC)
Bummer. You posted this just a smidgen too late for me. ;) I just went to the library in search of new good books and found a stack. I looked to see if this was a downloadable book from the library so I could read it instantly, but no luck. I'll just have to wait until the current stack has dwindled and I'm off to the library again. Because I definitely want to read this!
Jan. 7th, 2012 02:22 pm (UTC)
I hope you're able to find and read it eventually - I can't praise this book (or this author) highly enough. And I'd love to be able to talk to you about it!!
Jan. 9th, 2012 06:12 pm (UTC)
Yay, more converts!
Jan. 7th, 2012 03:51 pm (UTC)
You are so right. I couldn't have said it better myself. LOVE CONNIE WILLIS!
Jan. 7th, 2012 11:45 pm (UTC)
Good thoughts. I always remember a comment by an American remembering back to the days during WWII: "For a while there, we really weren't sure that we were going to win this thing."

We later learned that Hitler had already assigned and trained up certain young people to take up leadership in certain geographic regions of the U.S.--had them memorizing the geographies of their promised sectors.

And then there is my mother's comment, which is so true, which I also never forget: How awful it was that we in the United States let poor England--begging for help--try to fight it out and hold out by herself for so long.
Jan. 10th, 2012 02:37 pm (UTC)
We later learned that Hitler had already assigned and trained up certain young people to take up leadership in certain geographic regions of the U.S.--had them memorizing the geographies of their promised sectors.

Wow, I didn't know that. I'm finding there's a lot of WWII info I wasn't taught in school!
Jan. 10th, 2012 03:41 pm (UTC)
I wish I remembered where I learned this and who testified to it--and more of the details--so that I could better verify this piece of history. It was a first-hand account from an American who had interaction with German POWs in the U.S. There was a German POW who was fluent in English and, conversing with the American, asked where s/he was from and then declared that, coincidentally, this was an area the German was thoroughly familiar with. The German POW proceeded to describe all about the creeks and rivers and industry and other geographic features in this region of the Northeast which the German had never actually seen before, but had studied in detail in order to be prepared to take leadership in that area once Germany took over. The German seemed to know as much or more about the place than the American who lived there.

So, I have to say that the story is somewhat unverified, but I have no reason to doubt the main fact that the American met a German who had been assigned to study and know a particular geographic area for some intended future purpose.
Jan. 9th, 2012 02:20 pm (UTC)
Wow. I've had similar thoughts, about WWII and other conflicts and hard times. Now I want to read these!
Jan. 10th, 2012 02:37 pm (UTC)
DO ITTTT. They are worth the read. :)
Jan. 9th, 2012 06:12 pm (UTC)

<3 <3

<3 <3 <3
Jan. 10th, 2012 02:37 pm (UTC)
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )