Another WWII Novel: All the Light We Cannot See
There are worse writing teachers than a Pulitzer winner. I approached this year's, All The Light We Cannot See, as a curious student. After all, two of the novels in my "to write" queue share a lot of features with All The Light -- diverging dual-protagonist plot lines that later intertwine and a setting in World War Two, to name a couple.
When you want to write a book about WWII, I don't think it's strange to ask (perhaps a bit cynically, both in terms of your own writing as well as the general public's taste in novels) if it isn't a little overdone, if it's almost cliche or twee or opportunistic to write about this colossal tragedy. Indeed, it's a crowded field. There are loads of books on the subject. 1,328 results come from searching "WWII novel" on Amazon.com, versus 388 for "WWI novel." I'll admit, I started All The Light with no small amount of weariness and irritation, wondering if I shouldn't just set my book in 1912 rather than 1939. What's the difference?
Examining my own reasons for setting my book in WWII rather than WWI, I can say that half of my motivation is, easily, personal. I lived in Berlin for several months with a German family, one for which the war was not a distant memory but the subject of stories featuring people I knew, visited, lived with. Real people who, for a variety of reasons, joined the Nazi party. Fought. Lost. Had lives after. That is a fair-enough reason (if you need fair-enough reasons to write what you want to write, that is -- and I am not confident enough yet that I don't question my gut's rationale).
The other part of my desire to write during WWII is the part I really shouldn't trust, and that is my authorish tendency toward the dramatic, toward the ease and simplicity of Good versus Evil. I don't know about you, but when I was taught about WWI, I learned that war was evil. When I was taught about WWII, I learned that Nazis, that Germans, that people were evil. And there, I think, is the difference, and why we writers flock to WWII. In the West we don't have another story in recent memory that is so completely anchored around opposites. Us v. Them, Light v. Darkness. Not to mention the fact that, as Americans, we find ourselves so steadfastly on the side of the light in this particular conflict.
What makes All The Light different among WWII novels, if not entirely unique, is its author's avoidance of creating characters and a plot that are centered around these diametrically opposed forces. It can still be considered distasteful to write about a Nazi without deep condemnation, nevermind a sense of understanding or compassion. In fact Werner, one of the book's two protagonists and arguably its hero, is a Nazi soldier. Brought up an impoverished orphan in German coal country, he is identified as a mechanical genius and is invited to attend an elite Reich academy.
Werner leaves home to pursue personal opportunity, and you know what: I couldn't exactly blame him, especially considering he is a naive 14 at the time and that his alternative is to work for the rest of his life in the same exact mine where his father was crushed to death (!). If that isn't a seed sown for what German Hannah Arendt called "the banality of evil," I don't know what is.
But author Anthony Doerr heightens the tragedy by allowing us to love Werner and his innocence, his dreams and ambitions. To follow his logic out his front door, finding ourselves approving the initial choices that set the wheels of his life in motion, and therefore implicating and discovering ourselves in what happened back then to many young men like Werner. We would love to think we could make heroic choices, but would we? It is the universalism of this question, and the nuance of this character's experience, that makes All The Light a book about people and which happens to take place in 1934-1944, rather than being a book about WORLD WAR TWO which HAPPENS to be told THROUGH two people who happened to live through IT.
Don't get me wrong: I don't mean to excuse anyone for anything (my ideal job description, outside of "novelist" would be "Nazi hunter circa 1950"). I only mean to point out that the inherent goodness of Doerr's novel lies in his ability to remind us of every person's humanity. After all, forgetting this was what allowed the war to happen in the first place.