This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Bethany House
Released on November 13, 2020
Small Town America during WWII becomes a hot bed of unease, intrigue and accusations when a POW camp is placed there and one of their own- a fiery, independent prodigal- returns to work at the camp as a translator. A debut epistolary novel captivated and I will feel the effects for some time to come.
Johanna Berglund is a brilliant linguistic student at the University of Minnesota with dreams of going to Oxford for further language studies. She is impulsive, outspoken, and can be abrasive with her abrupt social skills, but no one can doubt her abilities. This is why her professor is approached by the army and he easily recommends Johanna as does her great Japanese American friend, Peter Ito from over at the Ft. Snelling Language School. Johanna is being recruited to act as translator at the new POW camp of German prisoners being put up outside her home town for the purpose of the POWs put to work in the fields to replace the young men who went to war leaving farmers in a bad place for food production. The commander hopes that the fervor against the camp will die down if a home town girl is brought in to act as sensor for the POW mail, liaison with the POW rep, and as translator who can also keep an eye on what the prisoners are saying. Johanna does agree easily and has her private reasons for never wanting to go back home again. Too bad her parents, her friends, and even her anonymous scholarship sponsor are all set on her doing this. In the end, things go very wrong and lives are at stake.
Things We Didn’t Say opens with a startling reason for why the heroine is gathering and reading through all her correspondence. Though, it’s at the beginning, I’m not going to reveal what is going on so if others choose to read the book they get the full effect like I did. The reader gleans the story from these various pieces of correspondence- letters, memos, newspaper articles, reports, and notes.
There is a reason this epistolary form is not the most popular writing style for stories. It is tough for all the usual story elements to shine through to the reader without distraction, detachment, or under-development being issues. A few writers, however, shine in this format and this one just dazzles. Johanna is the main character, but her closest friends, Peter and Olive, her parents, and others back home, and the people at the camp are brought to vivid life as is the historical background and the setting. The big conflict gives an urgency to the story from the opening page and the reader knows to what all that is being written is leading to, but in the meantime, the story leading up to this takes over and the reader is plunged into Johanna’s world.
I’ve read several WWII homefront stories and even a few set in and around internment camps, but this was my first that dealt with a POW camp that was there to work the local farms. I was fascinated by that part alone, but then this was paired with the linguistics side of the war effort and how Japanese Americans from the American mainland and those from the Hawaiian Islands studied and trained to be used in the Pacific Theater of the war. The author didn’t pull punches on how it was for those who looked and sounded like the enemy, but were as loyally American as anyone else.
Johanna might be all sorts of prickly, but she had the generous gift to see past that stuff and embrace Peter Ito as dearest friend just as she saw those German prisoners as people and not monsters. This advocacy gift gets her into trouble really quickly when she begins working at the camp. So that editorials in the newspapers and whispers in town follow her.
At the beginning, I felt there was something of a mystery about the way Johanna was acting toward the Lutheran preacher and his daughter and I was curious what was behind it. It seems that the past with this family was at the crux of why she wanted nothing to do with her home.
Johanna was spunky and impulsive and lord did she get up a head of steam, but she’s likeable and even when I wanted to snag her before she could go off half-cocked, I thought she was a game gal. I also felt her pain and what was holding her back. I loved seeing her private journey to peace and understanding herself happen along the way.
And, yes, this is an inspirational fiction so forgiveness, understanding, compassion, and relying on God as comfort and strength is woven into Johanna story. Peter was such a well of wisdom for her and the kind of friend who said the hard things in a gracious way. Johanna might have been far from God, but she could respect the advice and truths Peter shared particularly since he of all people couldn’t be doubted when he talked of forgiveness and being understanding of others.
As the reader, I could see the train wreck coming for Johanna when she was blithely in ignorance and ignored warnings from others because she thought she knew best. And, to be fair to her, she was often the only one championing certain people so it was easy to see why she went on instinct and got a few pivotal people very wrong in their motives and actions. I had no idea how she was going to get out of her tight spot, but loved how it happened- what got her into the mess was also what got her out of it.
All in all, a brilliant, sparkling story full of all the good things including a subtle romance, a journey of the heart, and an intrigue during the WWII years. Those who enjoy historical fiction, light inspirational fiction, light historical romance, and suspense should give this one a try.
I rec’d this book through Net Galley to read in exchange for an honest review.
New Release #210
Historical Fiction #133
About the Book
Headstrong Johanna Berglund, a linguistics student at the University of Minnesota, has very definite plans for her future . . . plans that do not include returning to her hometown and the secrets and heartaches she left behind there. But the US Army wants her to work as a translator at a nearby camp for German POWs.
Johanna arrives to find the once-sleepy town exploding with hostility. Most patriotic citizens want nothing to do with German soldiers laboring in their fields, and they’re not afraid to criticize those who work at the camp as well. When Johanna describes the trouble to her friend Peter Ito, a language instructor at a school for military intelligence officers, he encourages her to give the town that rejected her a second chance.
As Johanna interacts with the men of the camp and censors their letters home, she begins to see the prisoners in a more sympathetic light. But advocating for better treatment makes her enemies in the community, especially when charismatic German spokesman Stefan Werner begins to show interest in Johanna and her work. The longer Johanna wages her home-front battle, the more the lines between compassion and treason become blurred–and it’s no longer clear whom she can trust.
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