BookBin2010: War on the Margins

Something quite serendipitous occurred thanks to my review of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I received an e-mail from Libby Cone, a radiologist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who happened to have published a book similar in scope to Shaffer and Barrows’ book. Cone’s book, War On the Margins, also dealt with the Nazi Occupation of the English Channel Islands, this time focusing on the residents of Jersey rather than Guernsey. She asked if I would be interested in reading her manuscript and posting a review, whether good or bad, here at the lair.

Of course, as I stated in my review of Shaffer and Barrows’ book, I was slightly embarrassed by the fact that I had never heard anything about this particular aspect of World War II, never had any clue that the Nazis had ever gotten so close to England as to actually occupy the islands in the English Channel. So I was very interested in reading Cone’s account of this historical event.

War on the Margins, although in some ways a companion piece to Shaffer and Barrows’ book, is quite different in approach. Whereas the previous book has a certain degree of whimsy (as one would expect from a book with such a whimsical name), Cone’s novel is austere in its approach to its subject matter. Perhaps it is because I am naturally drawn to darker and more severe tones, I think I preferred this approach slightly more than Shaffer and Barrows’ book. While I think that embracing a certain degree of whimsy helps to make difficult topics a bit more palatable, I also think that there are some things, particularly those things that are entrenched in the more horrific truths of our global history, that shouldn’t be sugar-coated.

Cone presents her story directly, providing very little padding to protect us from the events that transpire within her book. I did find that the writing style was a bit…institutional. However, I realized once I was finished and reading the acknowledgments toward the end of the book that this actually grew from Cone’s thesis for a master’s degree in Jewish Studies from Gratz College. Although the text has obviously been massaged to sound more like a literary work rather than a scholastic work, it still reads very much like a thesis in many ways.

Another thing that I didn’t realize until the end of the novel was the fact that many “characters” throughout the story were real people. For example, Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe, two of the protagonists, were real people. Their love was real, their resistance was real, and what they endured at the hands of the Gestapo was real as well. To be honest, I think this information should have appeared toward the front rather than the back of the book. Knowing that Lucy and Suzanne were real made their stories so much more impactful.

Regardless, however, this is a strong novel, replete with a mostly healthy balance of historical information as well as personal accounts of what the residents of Jersey survived at the hands of the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands. I do believe that it is still predominantly an academic effort (which is not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely something to keep in mind if you are tempted to approach from a purely fiction viewpoint), but I also think that it’s a strong historical offering about people and an event that time should not forget.

Final Verdict: I’m very glad that Libby Cone contacted me with her manuscript. I found this to be another enlightening glimpse into a bit of world history that I only recently discovered. I will be keeping this manuscript as part of my collection.