Tag Archives: World War II

FREE for a short time: After the War

Three and a half years ago, I self-published the novel After the War. You can download it to your Kindle for a short time for free. Go here to grab a copy.

After the War was the first story I’d ever thought of writing. It just took me years–a decade?–and many published books to get this first tale into print.


Maybe the new cover? Maybe not?

I’m offering it for free for several reasons: first, I hope readers will grab it, read it, like it and post a review; second, I’m getting ready to redo its cover and even go through the novel to see if I want to make any refinements, so think of this as a going-out-of-print (temporarily) sale; and third, it is a story with faith elements, and I’m getting ready to have another book with faith elements, Fall From Grace, released this fall by Bancroft Press.

The faith elements in After the War center on the characters of Margaret, a nun, and her sister-in-law, Paula–their struggles with religious rules and with love, both Christian and romantic, ten years after the end of World War II. Margaret (Sister Francis Marie) suffers a nervous breakdown that puts her in the psychiatric wing of Johns Hopkins, while Paula looks for ways to start pre-baptismal counseling so she can convert to Catholicism before her husband discovers she’s not Catholic, after all.


Maybe the new cover? Maybe not?

When I first wrote After the War, I had a different title in mind: The Conversion of Paula. Pretty clever, huh? Luckily, I dropped that and focused instead on a simpler title: Margaret. That changed, too.

As I pondered how to tell you more about the story, I thought maybe just sharing my note to readers at the end of it would sum it all up best. I’ve added a few details to help explain the story and left out some spoilers. After you read it, let me know which cover design you like best. Thanks in advance!

Dear Reader,

When I first penned this story, it focused exclusively on Paula and Margaret, two women whose approach to life and whose histories were almost direct opposites. Paula, despite her good upbringing, was to be a Mary Magdalene character, while Sister was something of a zealot for whom faith and religion meant rigid adherence to a set of rules. I wanted the book to be an exploration of their approach to faith, Paula’s springing from a desire to be loved and love in return, and Margaret’s coming from a desire to feel safe.

But as I wrote it and rewrote it—I started it years ago and returned to it over time—other characters called out to me to tell their stories. The nurse Kate, who ministers to Sister in Hopkins, for example, had always been a part of my tale but way in the background, her struggle with what to do with her life after accepting widowhood playing out only in relation to Sister Francis Marie’s travails.


The old cover: I’m not sure the nun picture works so well.

Dr. Kaplan’s point of view as Sister’s psychiatrist hadn’t been in early iterations of the novel, and Father Al, the priest whom Paula consults with, hadn’t made an appearance at all.

As I included more about Kate, however, I realized I had to share more about Dr. Kaplan. And I also realized I couldn’t very well write a book that touched on faith issues and not include something about the priest to whom Paula goes for baptismal instruction.

This is when the book’s overarching theme deepened and diverged from my original goal. My initial objective, in fact, became less attainable for me as I realized I didn’t want to write a theological discussion on faith and certainly didn’t feel qualified to pen one even if my inclination was there. I wanted to show how ordinary people dealt with the doubts and assumptions about their faith, if they had any at all. I wanted to show them wrestling with their beliefs as many do today.

Each had had their faith tested, in large and small ways. But in some way, each test was related to…the war.

All the characters had, in some significant way, been affected by the war. As I wrote their stories, the book became about that effect and their reactions, their accommodations to life after the war. Intertwined is the story of faith, but binding it all together is that “after the war” theme.

When I realized this was what I was writing, I thought, “of course.” As a Baby Boomer, I grew up in the late 1950s and 1960s. World War II was still a tangible event, still something that hung over my parents’ lives and that of my friends’ parents, as well. My father’s army uniform (he served in the Philippines after the bombs were dropped) hung in our basement. He’d met my mother when he was stationed at a camp near her Indiana home. My friends’ fathers had served, some in combat. I often felt, in fact, that those years were like a long, warm summer after a bitter cold—and deadly—winter. I might not have experienced the war, but I lived through the collective sigh of relief afterward.

So the “after the war” theme felt natural and real to me, as much a part of this story as Paula’s struggles with love or Margaret’s wrestling with her vocation.

A few words about Margaret’s convent life: I researched the life of nuns in various convents as I wrote this story, and I’m very grateful to Sister Ann Marie Slavin, OSF, for her insights and help. My research provided me with bits and pieces of the convent life in which I wanted to place Margaret. But the Order of Sisters in my novel, as well as their specific Rule, is entirely fictional, and not based on any particular convent or its Rule.

Libby Sternberg

So, that’s the story! I hope you pick up a free copy and enjoy this story, the first one I ever contemplated writing.




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BOOK Review: THE NUN’S STORY by Kathryn Hulme

Whenever the movie version of The Nun’s Story comes on TCM, I end up transfixed, watching until the end, regardless what else I’d planned on doing during those hours. The film, starring Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke, is beautifully shot and a magnificent piece of storytelling.

So is the book upon which it was based, which I reread recently. Published in 1956, the novel reads like autobiography, the tale of Gabrielle van der Mal, a Belgian nurse, daughter of an esteemed doctor, who enters the convent in 1927, desirous to serve God as a missionary sister in the Congo. The tale follows her early life as a postulant and novice and her continual struggle with obedience, a battle which she cannot win, ultimately choosing to leave the sisterhood at the end of World War II, when seething hatred for the Germans, who killed her father, provides the impetus for self-examination that leads her to the lonely door to the world again.

The Nun’s Story fascinates on many levels, one of which is the rich detail of convent life, the descriptions of the many silent humblings sisters embrace–everything from learning to lift the back of their habits when descending stairs, so as not to wear out the hems, to how to close doors silently and keep one’s keys from jangling. All of these actions focus on obedience to the will of God through the Rule of the convent. Simple actions, to be sure, but fraught with difficulty for a smart and eager intellect. Sister Luke’s focus from the outset is on the care of her patients, and she chafes at and even forgets rules that prevent her from ministering to their needs as fulsomely as she desires. Intellectually and medically gifted, she excels in her studies, but instead of being rewarded for her achievements, she is asked to humble herself by deliberately failing an important exam, so a less confident sister could surpass her. Mightily wrestling with this request, she cannot honor it in good conscience. She passes, but doesn’t earn the trip to the Congo she’d craved. Instead, she’s sent to nurse at an asylum.

After her asylum assignment, however, she finally wins the right to serve as a missionary sister. For many years, she nurses in the Congo, and it is during this time, under a loving Superior and a cantankerous surgeon, she feels closest to God and most in sync with her sisterhood. Nonetheless, she constantly must say “mea culpas” in front of her convent for her sins against the Rule, as nursing needs push even the thought of them from her head during exigent cases. She agonizes over these lapses, and the reader feels acutely her inner fight:

How many times in the name of obedience and for its sake alone had she asked the little permissions which she dared not even hint at to the doctor each time she slipped away, because she knew how completely meaningless, possibly slavelike, they would seem in the eyes of the world? How many times? So often that now it no longer irked what was left of her pride to ask….May I break my sleep tonight, ma Mere, and visit Monsier Diderot, who is going to die? May I skip a meal in penance for my sins of omission? Besides, I mean, doing the penance you gave me in the culpa?

She listened to her interior monologue as if she were in the world and reading a nun’s mind. It was pitiful and astonishing to note the things a nun could agonize over. You’d think their Creator had said to them, This is a way of being that must not perish from this earth and you and your sisters are the keepers of it pro tem, each one of one small part of it according to her lights and strengths.

While her obedience lags, her communion with her sisters soars. They each act individually yet in the same way, coming to the same conclusions about natives wearing fetishes, for example, after a sister is killed (they all urge the natives to keep wearing them, to show them their lack of value–a conclusion they reach individually, yet as one).

When she eventually must transport a case back to Belgium, war prevents a return to her beloved Congo, and the struggle with obedience consumes her spirit. She decides to leave.

The Nun’s Story, in both movie and book form, is great storytelling, but not just because it allows readers to peek inside an old convent, surreptitiously viewing the lives of nuns. Sister Luke’s inner conflict is universal. It is, simply, the struggle to be good, to ascertain what God wants of us, what the universe is saying to us, where we are most needed and how to use our talents to maximum effect even in the smallest of ways. How to be thoughtful and loving every second of a day.

A little research revealed that Kathryn Hulme, the author, was not a nun herself, but met a former sister, Marie Louise Habets, after World War II when they were both doing work with refugees. They stayed together the rest of their lives. When Hulme died, she left her literary estate to Habets, and upon her death, she gave the rights to several sisters and family members. Because of the confusion of who really owns the rights, The Nun’s Story has not been reprinted. This is a tremendous shame as it is a story for all ages.


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REVIEW: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Life-after-Life-The part I enjoyed the most about Kate Atkinson’s novel Life after Life was her note to readers after the book, in which she tells the origins of the story.

“I was born at the end of 1951,” she writes, “and grew up feeling that I had just missed the Second World War, that something terrible and tremendous had occurred and I would never know it.”

Much of Life after Life takes place during that war, following the protagonist Ursula Todd and her family and friends through some cataclysmic homefront events, most notably the bombing of London.

I can sympathize greatly with Atkinson’s feeling. Like her, I’m a baby boomer and a novelist (though nowhere near her league in popularity or acclaim), and the war called to me, too. So much so that I penned my own novel about it, and it served as something of a catharsis to write about what I’d only felt through others.

The problem with writing a novel about a war one has only known through the experiences of others, most notably our parents’ generation, is that you always feel you lack verisimilitude, no matter how much research you do, and you can worry that your story will have a certain thinness to it, even if the subject matter is serious and thoughtful.

So I understand the need, too, to dress up a straightforward war story with other devices. And Ms. Atkinson has chosen a doozy. In her story, Ursula Todd is born–or not–in 1910 with an ability to live again. She has premonitions of impending doom, of deaths experienced in the past, and she is able to “correct” her future by reliving pivotal moments.

The story is told as overlapping vignettes. Her birth itself appears numerous times throughout the book. And a shabby and tragic marriage to an abuser ends when she “dies” and is able to avoid the incident–an assault–that led her to be a passive victim to such a man later in her life.

If this sounds confusing, it is, at least at first. Once you grasp the book’s conceit, it’s easy enough to follow, and Ms. Atkinson is a skillful, beautiful writer whose prose truly does sing. You don’t just read of pre-World War I England. You feel its “prelapsarian,” “Arcadian” stillness, to use words she chooses when talking about the book in her Afterward. She’s one of those immensely talented writers who doesn’t just describe something. She yanks you by the scruff of the neck and puts you smack in the scene where you can virtually smell its scents. She does this, not with overwritten passages and purple prose, but with simple observations that have you nodding your head to the deja vu you experience at the scene-building.

All of this, though, is what leads me to disappointment. About halfway through the book, I wanted to give up, jump to the end to see how she wrapped it all up (Does Ursula manage to assassinate Hitler?). I stuck with it, and I’m glad I did–the last quarter of the novel is its best part, when she allows us to stay with Ursula for an extended period in one time period, during the London Blitz. It was only then that I began to care about Ursula and what happened to her…because she remained one person.

In the previous scenes, and their retellings, I felt as if I were reading several related short stories whose protagonists might share the name Ursula along with other plot points, but nothing else. The Ursula of those stories seemed flat, a “cipher” as one critic called her. And, even though she has one Groundhog Day after another, she doesn’t seem to learn a critical lesson, like Bill Murray’s character did in the comedic film of that name, that allows her to finally move forward. Instead, it’s as if we’re seeing a dramatic enactment of Ursula’s versions of those Direct TV ads that rest on “what if” constructs (“When you pay too much for cable, you throw things, when you throw things….”). At the end of each ad, the lesson is clear: to avoid disaster, dump cable. Ursula seems capable of only learning that simple lesson, as well: to avoid disaster, change X.

When readers are finally allowed to settle in with Ursula during the war years, the author begins to drop in some hints as to why she used this time-changing device:

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Life wasn’t about becoming, was it? It was about being.

Dr. Kellet: Time is a construct, in reality everything flows, no past or present, only the now.”

You can almost see an editor’s margin note: Kate, this is all fabulous! But could you explain to the reader more explicitly why all the time changes?

A number of nonwriters whose opinion I respect read and loved Life after Life. A couple writer friends read it and either didn’t think much of it or didn’t finish it after getting the conceit and deciding it wasn’t worth the time. I haven’t surveyed all my writer pals about it, but I do wonder if some writers might have a lower tolerance for book “gimmicks” because they themselves have left them in their own toolboxes, unused.

At any rate, I salute Ms. Atkinson on a beautifully written story, one whose war year tales speak to this writer’s heart. But I would have preferred a more linear, less “shiny” telling without the time-shifting thread.

For those like me who want such a read about England’s homefront stories during the war, try Elizabeth Jane Howard’s excellent series on the fictional Cazelet family.

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TGIW: If you like Downton Abbey, you might like this

by Libby Sternberg

Years ago, my daughter and I became entranced by a short series shown on PBS called The Cazalets. The actor who played the older brother in the show was none other than Hugh Bonneville, who went on to great name and face recognition as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, in the popular Downton Abbey series.

cazaletsBut the two stories have more in common than just a lead actor. Both tales involve the struggles of a British family and their servants through the life-changing experience of war. In Downton Abbey’s case, it was the First World War that played a pivotal role in the first two seasons.

In The Cazalets, the family is immersed in the fear and tension of British life before World War II. While The Cazalets ended its run with the actual outbreak of war, the books upon which it is based took the families through the global conflict and beyond. So, if you’re craving a Downton Abbey “fix” while waiting for the series to return for its next season, I recommend losing yourselves in the following excellent books by Elizabeth Jane Howard:

DowntonAbbeyI only became aware of these books on the recommendation of my sister. After I’d expressed my enjoyment of the PBS series, she pointed out that they were based on a series of novels. The author, Elizabeth Jane Howard, might not be a household name, but she’s written more than a dozen novels and is the mother of novelist Martin Amis.

The cast of characters in her Cazalet books is as varied and numerous as those in Downton Abbey–maybe even more so. The Cazalets, however, are not members of the aristocracy but rather, successful British industrialists. Each book includes at the beginning a family tree as well as a list of the servants and the households to which they are attached.  These come in handy as Howard moves seamlessly from story line to story line, following everything from the cook’s romance with a chauffeur through marriages and romances for the estate owners themselves.

A notable difference between the Cazalet series and Downton is the inclusion of the viewpoint of children. At the outset of the series, the Cazalets’ brood of children is large and ranges from infants to preteens. By the time the books finish, the teens have matured into adulthood. We follow their lives, as well, including the troubled and talented Louise Cazalet, who aspires to be an actress. Louise’s narrative arc makes one wonder if the author was telling her own story–they both share a birth year, and Elizabeth Jane Howard herself was an actress and model before settling down to writing.

Period detail enhances Downton Abbey. It permeates the Cazalet series, too, in small and significant ways. The author didn’t need to do historical research–she was writing about a period she’d lived through. So you, the reader, are given a window to peer through at the ordinary lives of British citizens as they struggled with rationing, air raids, shopping for underwear, getting perms for their hair, dealing with parents, children, and the meaning of their lives in the midst of upheaval.

Howard doesn’t focus at all on the battles of the war. They are scarcely mentioned. Instead, her narrative is about the effect of the war on families. Her observations in this regard lift the books from mere melodramas into something more, as in this passage when the beautiful and cossetted Zoe Cazalet goes to see her mother and reflects on her visit on her way back to her Cazalet home:

She had thought that a weight would be lifted once she had got into the train with the visit behind her, but the pall of boredom and irritation was quenched now only by guilt, as she thought of all the ways in which she might have given her mother more pleasure, been kinder, nicer, more patient. Why was it that, in spite of all these years during which she felt that she had grown from being a spoiled and selfish girl into a thoroughly grown-up wife and mother and responsible member of a large family, she had only to be with her mother for a few minutes to revert to her earlier, disagreeable self?

These insights abound, as do wonderful revelations about life in Britain in the 1940s. These books are a must-read for any author wanting to pen a tale set in that time and place–no amount of research on the time would provide you with as much useful detail of everyday life.

Sad to say, but the books appear to be out of print, so they’re a bit pricey as you try to find good used copies. But if you pick up the first book, you will likely be hooked.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Buy her books so she can buy more books, too!

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How easy it is to judge the past

by Libby Sternberg

hitlerland-largeI’m fascinated by the pre-World War II period of history. Or rather, by history of what was going on in Germany in the ramp-up to the war. My fascination springs from a desire to answer a question that many ponder: How could a civilized country such as Germany, home to writers, authors, composers of the highest cultural achievement, succumb to the savagery that was Naziism? A concomitant question that might arise in individual minds is: What would I have done, had I been a German at that time?

As with all history, it’s easy to look back at that time and think smugly that we would have recognized Hitler’s evil, even if we’re unsure of our inner courage to resist in the face of brutality. But what is black-and-white to us now had many shades of gray as it occurred, with bright minds looking past the horror to conclude that Hitler wasn’t a menace, that, to the contrary, he was a force for good.

My fascination with this period led me to the book Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster 2013), recommended to me by my journalist son. This volume deals almost exclusively with American journalists who covered Hitler and his rise to power, with some stories of diplomats and other Americans’ experiences at the time, as well.

(The diplomatic story, by the way, was covered very well in Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, which I reviewed here.)

What’s striking about the Hitlerland story is how many journalists got it wrong, thinking, as the Baltimore Sun’s S. Miles Bouton did, for quite some time, that “Germans supported Hitler for the same ‘patriotic’ reasons, and Americans shouldn’t be swayed by the anti-Nazi accounts of his colleagues in the American press corps.”

The Bouton tale is revelatory because he was no rookie reporter sent to cover Germany just as tumult began. No, Bouton had been writing about the country since before World War I. He seemed to sympathize with the German position that the Versailles Treaty was retaliatory and cruelly punitive to the Germans, and he even seemed to believe that the real story that needed to be reported was how the Weimar government was attempting to silence the Nazis.

He, like others in the book, eventually came around to seeing Hitler and his Nazis for what they were, but his story begs the question: if a long-time paid observer of Germany got it so wrong at the start, how can one expect others with less information to get it right?

That question leads me to another book that I read several years ago called Defying Hitler by haffnerSebastian Haffner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2000). This slim volume is the posthumously published memoir of a German who came of age during the Nazis’ rise to power. Because it was written when the author was young and passionate, it is also sometimes a rambling account of his life. But it is that very quality that gives it an immediacy, a you-are-there angle that allows you to experience with the author what it felt like to be German in the interwar years. Witness, for example, his crushing disappointment upon learning his country had lost the Great War when, due to propaganda efforts, he’d thought Germany would win:

“How shall I describe my feelings–the feelings of an eleven-year-old boy whose entire inner world has collapsed?”

From there, you live with him as he watches his family deal with hyperinflation, immediately cashing the father’s paycheck and heading to the market to buy as much as possible before their money lost more value.

And then it’s on to leader after leader briefly on the political stage, knocked off or assassinated outright. When Hitler and his Nazis finally do come on the scene, you at last understand how even this bright young man could view them with a certain cynicism or at least nonchalance, expecting them to topple like the others gone before, or at least be as meaningless and useless.

But topple they did not, and eventually Haffner confronts the oozing evil that Naziism has unleashed. One of the most moving scenes in the book is when he realizes that, by answering a simple question, he has betrayed his conscience. As a young law clerk, he is at work studying briefs when brown shirts disrupt the office, throwing out all the Jews.

Meanwhile, a brown shirt approached me and took up position in front of my worktable. “Are you Aryan?” Before I had a chance to think, I said, “Yes.” He took a close look at my nose–and retired. The blood shot to my face. A moment too late I felt the shame, the defeat. I had said “Yes!” Well, in God’s name, I was indeed an “Aryan.” I had not lied, I had allowed something much worse to happen. What a humiliation, to have answered the unjustified question as to whether I was “Aryan” so easily, even if the fact was of no importance to me! What a disgrace to buy, with a reply, the right to stay with my documents in peace! I had been caught unawares, even now. I had failed my very first test.

He left Germany in 1939 and went on to write several books about Nazi Germany, including the insightful volume The Meaning of Hitler, well worth the time.

Both Hitlerland and Defying Hitler are absorbing stories, providing useful background for the questions I posed at the outset of this essay. For those who think it would have been easy to first recognize and then fight the threat posed by Naziism, they make for uncomfortable reading.

But if you still think you’d have been one of those who wouldn’t have succumb to Naziism, go on over and read this 1941 article by Dorothy Thompson, one of the journalists covered in Nagorski’s Hitlerland.  Its title, “Who Goes Nazi,” describes a parlor game she regularly played, trying to decide, based on her experience in Germany, who at a dinner or cocktail party would be likeliest to rationalize away the brutality of National Socialism and go along with the crowd. Read to the end of this politically incorrect piece. Her conclusions might surprise.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, After the War, is available in print and digitally.

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