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Book Review: War, Spies and Bobby Sox: Stories About World War Two at Home

War, Spies and Bobby Sox: Stories About World War Two at Home. Libby Fischer Hellman. Red Herrings Press, February 27, 2017, Trade Paperback, E-Book, and Audiobook, 310 pages.

Reviewed by Wayne Turmel.

When we think of the Second World War, we often think of the faraway battlefields of Europe or the Pacific. In her new story collection, War, Spies and Bobby Sox: Stories About World War II at Home, Libby Fischer Hellman brings the war much closer to home in a strong new book, which includes two novellas and a short story all set in wartime Illinois.

Chicago and northern Illinois were home to a large refugee population. The early days of the Manhattan project brought other people and POW camps housed Italian and German prisoners through the end of the war, providing rich opportunities for stories we haven’t been told a hundred times.

The first novella, “The Incidental Spy,” is the story of Lena, a young German Jew forced to flee both her home and a budding love affair to travel to Chicago just as research into the atomic bomb was beginning at the University of Chicago. She is quickly swept up into a clever story of espionage, guilt, and betrayal.

The most successful of the stories, “POW,” shares three individual perspectives as they relate the story of a young farm girl who falls under the spell of a German prisoner of war sent to work on her family’s farm. By moving between the different points of view (an American teenager and two German prisoners—one a good-hearted soldier weary of the fighting and one a dedicated Nazi officer), we get insight into how both civilians and combatants viewed the war and those caught up in it.

The final short story, “The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared,” examines wartime through the eyes of a young Jewish man coming of age in Oak Lawn. It takes a look behind the curtain at issues of class, sex, and crime as well as what it was like to be young during that period in Chicago’s history. It also offers a peek at the seamier side of immigrant life, which will be eye opening to many people not familiar with Chicago’s Jewish communities. As with all immigrants, it’s hardly as homogenous a group as many outsiders assume, and Fischer Hellman illuminates those distinctions.

The author looks at Chicago life in the 1940s through a kaleidoscope, rather than a single lens. The stories are well researched, and the author’s past success as a crime novelist is evident, as the stories are fast-paced and fun to read.

Readers interested in historical fiction set in Chicago and exciting stories of love and espionage should check out this collection of stories not likely heard before.


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