The best books on WW1 with insight into the time and place through multiple perspectives

Mary Francois Rockcastle Author Of Rainy Lake
By Mary Francois Rockcastle

Who am I? Why this topic?

Both of my grandfathers served in WWI. Growing up on their stories, I had a keen interest in WWI. A lover of history, I attended an exhibit at the Smithsonian called The Faces of War that focused on prosthetic masks made by artists during WWI for men whose faces had been mutilated by war. Having always wanted to write a historical novel, I merged my interest in WWI with a newfound passion for these faces of war and wrote Day Lights the Bone (not yet published). The novel is set in a military hospital in Wandsworth, England, during the final months of WWI. I am a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN, where for many years I taught and served as Director of The Creative Writing Programs.


I wrote...

Rainy Lake

By Mary Francois Rockcastle,

Book cover of Rainy Lake

What is my book about?

In Rainy Lake, author Mary Rockcastle invites the reader to savor the sights, sounds, and smells of summer at her parents' lopsided lakefront cabin during the 1960s. From the landscape of her memory, Danielle Fillian paints a sensitive and wise family portrait of summers filled with fly-fishing, swimming, water-skiing, new friendships, and a deepening first love. But with the intrusion of the Vietnam War and the rumblings of the civil rights movement growing steadily nearer, this sheltered vacation community is forced to acknowledge the harsh realities of the wider world.

The books I picked & why

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Regeneration

By Pat Barker,

Book cover of Regeneration

Why this book?

In all three novels Barker does a masterful job depicting the physical and psychological effects of war on human bodies and minds.  Real-life Doctor W. H. R. Rivers, a psychiatrist at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, is a character in all three.  Dr. Rivers was a pioneer in studying nerve regeneration and using talk therapy to unlock buried memories and help heal the shattered minds of soldiers suffering severe neurasthenia. Regeneration focuses on Dr. Rivers’ work with soldiers recovering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder. In the process the reader is introduced to the range of other therapies also being used at the time, techniques that seem useless and cruel to contemporary eyes.  A major character is real-life poet and war hero Siegfried Sassoon, a conscientious objector who has been sent to Craiglockhart to discredit him. Dr. Rivers experiences the painful irony that comes from convincing a man who is ambivalent about warfare to enter combat.  In her novel, Barker also explores how society defines and responds to masculinity and homosexuality.


The Eye in the Door

By Pat Barker,

Book cover of The Eye in the Door

Why this book?

The Eye in the Door continues Barker’s exploration of the morality of war through its impacts on human beings.  While she continues the journeys of Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and Siegried Sassoon, she explores in great detail the experience of Lieutenant Billy Prior, a complex character who works as a domestic intelligence agent.  Prior is torn between his own antiwar feelings and his working class and bisexual identities as he spies on pacifists, homosexuals, and government critics.


The Ghost Road

By Pat Barker,

Book cover of The Ghost Road

Why this book?

The culmination of the trilogy, The Ghost Road, continues Barker’s exploration of the morality of war as the war draws to an end.  Dr. Rivers’ successful treatment of Billy Prior has resulted in Prior’s return to the front where he prepares to enter the war’s final battles, detailing his experiences in a diary.  Rivers’ himself continues to care for patients while revisiting pivotal scenes from his own past.  


Testament of Youth

By Vera Brittain,

Book cover of Testament of Youth

Why this book?

Testament of Youth is a beautifully written memoir of Brittain’s life between 1914 and 1925, depicting the impact of the war on Brittain, her family, and colleagues.  Poised to study literature at Oxford University when war breaks out, Brittain decides instead to volunteer with the Red Cross as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment).  The memoir provides a close-up view of her experience working as a nurse in England, Malta, and France.  It also explores her acute suffering and disillusionment at the losses of her fiancé, brother, and several close friends.  A film version of the memoir made in 2015 is worth seeing, but the memoir itself is the prize.  


The Daughters of Mars

By Thomas Keneally,

Book cover of The Daughters of Mars

Why this book?

The Daughters of Mars provides a unique account of war through the lens of two sisters from New South Wales who serve as nurses on an Australian ship carrying soldiers wounded at the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey.  After the ship is sunk, the sisters end up nursing on the Western Front.  The novel is a page-turning, authentic account of the personal and professional experiences of Australian nurses dealing with the horrific impacts of war.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in World War 1, psychiatrists, and family secrets?

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