The best books with characters who preserve—or discover—their humanity in war

Who am I?

Growing up in postwar Germany, I have always been fascinated by how people survive wars emotionally and retain their humanity. In my extensive research for Captives, I came across an account of a German soldier in North Africa, whose tank had been hit and was engulfed in flames. A human torch, he jumped from the tank, expecting to be killed by British soldiers who were nearby. Instead, they rolled his body in the sand to extinguish the flames and called a medic, saving his life. This act of humanity moved me and inspired me to make the preservation of one’s humanity in war the central theme in my novel.


I wrote...

Captives

By Reiner Prochaska,

Book cover of Captives

What is my book about?

In September 1944, Florian Schneider, a code breaker for the German Army, is interned at the Frederick, Maryland, POW Camp. His fellow inmates mistrust the soldier, whose rank belies his excellent command of English. Once Schneider earns the trust of his peers, he proposes a plan for escape: On New Year’s Eve, a group of German soldiers will steal a car and head for the New Jersey coast. 

Schneider knows that two spies are scheduled to be delivered via submarine to the coast of Maine around New Year’s Day 1945 and believes that he can radio the sub to pick them up off the East Coast. When the escape attempt fails, the men blame Schneider and convene a Court of Honor to decide his fate.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of All the Light We Cannot See

Reiner Prochaska Why did I love this book?

My father was a teenager when he fought in World War II. All my life I have tried to reconcile the dichotomy of my gentle father with the boy who joined the German military when he was 15. Werner Pfennig, the novel’s teenaged German protagonist, illustrates simply and powerfully that, even in a war, our moral compass allows us to make decisions to preserve our humanity.   

In one of the book’s final chapters, Marie-Laure, the blind French protagonist, admits to Werner she is not brave: “I have no choice. I wake up and live my life. Don’t you do the same?” Werner implies that we all have a choice when he replies, “Not in years. But today. Today maybe I did.” 

By Anthony Doerr,

Why should I read it?

37 authors picked All the Light We Cannot See as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WINNER OF THE 2015 PULITZER PRIZE FOR FICTION
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR FICTION

A beautiful, stunningly ambitious novel about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II

Open your eyes and see what you can with them before they close forever.'

For Marie-Laure, blind since the age of six, the world is full of mazes. The miniature of a Paris neighbourhood, made by her father to teach her the way home. The microscopic…


Book cover of War and Peace

Reiner Prochaska Why did I love this book?

Pierre Bezukhov is one of the most fascinating characters in all of literature. Pierre—the socially awkward, illegitimate son of Count Besukhov—inherits the family fortune but struggles to find his identity. He finds it, late in the novel, in an unlikely place. After saving the life of a French officer who has invaded his house to find shelter, Pierre attempts to assassinate Napoleon but is sent to prison.  

There, he meets Platon Karataev, a simple peasant, who shares his food with Pierre. Platon embodies everything Pierre has searched for all his life: generosity, integrity, and a keen understanding of human existence—giving Pierre a feeling that “the world that had been shattered was once more stirring in his soul with a new beauty and on new and unshakable foundations.”

By Leo Tolstoy, Aylmer Maude (translator), Louise Maude , Henry Gifford (editor)

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked War and Peace as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'If life could write, it would write like Tolstoy.' Isaac Babel

Tolstoy's epic masterpiece intertwines the lives of private and public individuals during the time of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia. The fortunes of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, are intimately connected with the national history that is played out in parallel with their lives. Balls and soirees alternate with councils of war and the machinations of statesmen and generals, scenes of violent battles with everyday human passions in
a work whose extraordinary imaginative power has never been surpassed. The prodigious…


Book cover of Cold Mountain

Reiner Prochaska Why did I love this book?

Cold Mountain chronicles the “odyssey” of W.P. Inman, a deserter of the Confederate army from a hospital near Raleigh to his fiancée, Ada, who lives on a farm in a rural mountain community in North Carolina. 

Although the story of Inman’s adventurous journey is filled with moments of human kindness, I felt even more connected to the storyline about the unlikely friendship between the sophisticated Ada, who is out of her depth on the mountain farm, and the homeless but resourceful Ruby, who joins Ada’s household, clarifying, “Money’s not it… I’m saying if I’m to help you here, it’s with both of us knowing that everybody empties their own night jar.” Their humanity allows both women to help the other to survive the daily challenges of war.  

By Charles Frazier,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Cold Mountain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1997, Charles Frazier’s debut novel Cold Mountain made publishing history when it sailed to the top of The New York Times best-seller list for sixty-one weeks, won numerous literary awards, including the National Book Award, and went on to sell over three million copies. Now, the beloved American epic returns, reissued by Grove Press to coincide with the publication of Frazier’s eagerly-anticipated second novel, Thirteen Moons. Sorely wounded and fatally disillusioned in the fighting at Petersburg, a Confederate soldier named Inman decides to walk back to his home in the Blue Ridge mountains to Ada, the woman he loves.…


Book cover of Doctor Zhivago

Reiner Prochaska Why did I love this book?

Yuri Zhivago, a physician and a poet—strives to adhere to his ideals of integrity throughout his tragic life—though not always successfully. His medical skills allow him to heal others, and his poetry lets him explore truth in the volatile world of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War. 

Although he is in love with Lara, a married woman with whom he has a passionate affair, his sense of duty and honor allow him to remain devoted to his wife, Tonya.

His belief that humans should be true to themselves and maintain independent thoughts ultimately makes him a target for the Bolsheviks. 

As a writer who believes in the importance of truth—and as a flawed human being who makes mistakes and regrets them—I relate to Yuri.

By Boris Pasternak, Richard Pevear (translator), Larissa Volokhonsky

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Doctor Zhivago as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

First published in Italy in 1957 amid international controversy, Doctor Zhivago is the story of the life and loves of a poet/physician during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. Taking his family from Moscow to what he hopes will be shelter in the Ural Mountains, Zhivago finds himself instead embroiled in the battle between the Whites and the Reds. Set against this backdrop of cruelty and strife is Zhivago's love for the tender and beautiful Lara, the very embodiment of the pain and chaos of those cataclysmic times. Pevear and Volokhonsky masterfully restore the spirit of Pasternak's original—his style, rhythms,…


Book cover of Parade's End

Reiner Prochaska Why did I love this book?

Parade’s End has been described by Mary Gordon as “the best fictional treatment of war in the history of the novel.” 

What made me truly connect with the story is its protagonist, Christopher Tietjens, who serves in the British Army during the “Great War.”

A member of a prominent, landowning family, Tietjens is driven by a strong sense of duty and commitment to marriage and country—whatever the cost to himself. Although he is in love with Valentine, he remains married to his promiscuous wife, Sylvia, and accepts as his son a child who may not be his.

But Tietjens’ experiences in the trenches on the Western Front eventually teach him that truth and happiness are more important than societal duties.

By Ford Madox Ford,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Parade's End as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Ford Madox Ford's great masterpiece exploring love and identity during the First World War, in a Penguin Classics edition with an introduction by Julian Barnes.

A masterly novel of destruction and regeneration, Parade's End follows the story of aristocrat Christopher Tietjens as his world is shattered by the First World War. Tracing the psychological damage inflicted by battle, the collapse of England's secure Edwardian values - embodied in Christopher's wife, the beautiful, cruel socialite Sylvia - and the beginning of a new age, epitomized by the suffragette Valentine Wannop, Parade's End is an elegy for both the war dead and…


You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…


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