By Christina Stock
I chose this book for a full book review because it is a fictional story about World War II, fitting as this year is the 75th anniversary of the end of the war. “Teddy’s War” reaches beyond a mere fiction thanks to the intensive research the author did, which brought him to the major battlefield of WWII on the European front, one of them being Normandy, specifically Omaha Beach.
The author paints an accurate picture of the haunting history of the famous beaches of Normandy and today’s bright touristy attention to tourists, seen through the eyes of a son, Elias Gunnarson, when he first visits Omaha Beach, which is the introduction to the story.
One of the most haunting questions asked in the book is “Why do children know so little about their parents?” This question arises when WWII veteran Teddy Gunnarson dies, leaving a treasure chest of letters and memories to be recovered and relived. The family described gives a very intimate glimpse into their mourning, written fluently and in a charming way that makes the reader connect with the characters right from the start.
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The reader is on the journey with the family, finding out about Teddy’s brother Jake’s sins and regrets of the past and the journey through war-torn Europe to the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau. Willerton’s description of tactical movements, battle scenes to the horrors that await allied forces in German Nazi prison camps paint a poignant picture. The description is almost clinical were it not infused with the reactions of Teddy and the other characters.
For any historical novel, the most difficult part is to describe sentiments of a country; the why and how; Willerton has no problem with that. On pages 157 and 158, his explanations on why Red Army soldiers were more “protected” than the other allied forces, being moved to more secure POW camps if there was the danger that allied forces might free them, is perfectly aligned to the stories I heard talking to German, French and American veterans of WWII, when I lived in Normandy in 1985.
Hitler and the officers in charge of the POW camps knew that the Russians would wreak havoc and brutal destruction on the German countryside and its people. When Hitler betrayed the pact he had with Stalin and invaded, its army was without mercy. The hatred that came out of it, including the deploringly bad conditions in the POW camps of the Nazis, made a dangerous foe out of any freed Red Army soldier — a thousand freed soldiers would be a nightmare.
The book pays an homage to the humanity of The Greatest Generation — who returned not knowing how to handle their experience at war. Though doctors knew about the “1,000 yard-stare” — an early World War I description of shell-shock or PTSD, the veterans of World War II didn’t have any support. Their families being helpless and so many stories have been buried; never being shared or written down. The story of Teddy Gunnarson and his family may be fictional, but it carries the heart and soul within the pages of this Greatest Generation.
I like the uplifting end, “As he (Teddy) saw hate oozing out of the ground, we should sow love in its place.”
The last chapter of the book offers a unique gift: an interview with the author, whose father died in 1986 at age 66. Finding his father’s handwritten notes about his experiences in World War II inspired the story, though all characters and the story itself are fictional he wrote. In addition to the interview, a chapter for book club discussions with questions is added. I would go farther though, especially during these days of homeschooling and virtual lessons, this might very well be a great book to have older students research the facts of World War II to figure out what is fact and what is fiction, to learn more about history.
The true point of the story, however, is to ask questions before it is too late. After all, there are so few people like “Teddy Gunnarson” who keep their notes and letters and tell their story on video before they die.
Donald Willerton is part of the New Mexico Author Coop and lives in New Mexico. Willerton has a degree in physics from Midwestern State University in Texas and a master’s in computer science and electrical engineering from the University of New Mexico; he worked for Los Alamos National Laboratory for close to three decades. Willerton’s fascination with history and storytelling is one of the reasons that this story — his 12th book — appears so real.
The book will be released Dec. 1 on Amazon, but may be currently purchased online through the Los Alamos Historical Museum at losalamoshistory.org.
For more information, visit donaldwillerton.com.