Historical Fiction. A lot of people do not like this genre because they do not consider it “real” history. I quite enjoy it because I read a tremendous amount of “real” history every day for my work and personal growth. Sometimes it is nice to get lost in a historical fiction book, even if it is WWII based, and be exposed to new ideas. I appreciate it when the author does her or his homework and provides a bibliography or additional titles within their Author Notes. I know I am not the only person who explores things they had not heard of because they read about it in a historical fiction book.

The Paris Orphan by Natasha Lester

I read The Paris Orphan on Thanksgiving. It’s almost 450 pages and I could not put it down. I even stayed up late to finish it because I had to know how it ended, even though I had an idea, though hoped I was wrong.

This book is historical fiction inspired by the life of female model and war correspondent and photographer, Lee Miller.

The main character Jessica May is a model for Vogue and a photographer, who chooses to join the war effort and has to deal with discrimination, rape, abuse from the men in the military, a desire to do more than “be a pretty face” or someone’s “sex doll”. The author brings in real-life female correspondents like Martha Gellhorn, Hemmingway’s wife, Lee Carson, Iris Carpenter, and others as she weaves her magic with words.

Jess, like all other women during the war, had to prove themselves over and over. To constantly beg or demand for the opportunity to do the job they were hired for. To go where women had not gone before and help men realize they were fully capable of doing so. Jess and her colleagues also had to deal with traumatizing topics of life and war.

Jess is confronted during the war with the issue of not only hearing the Russians went through and raped German women, but also knowing the American soldiers were doing the same to French, Belgian, Dutch, and German women. We would all like to think none of our soldiers/family members could have done this, but we might be surprised at just how many did if the truth came out. Jess debates writing an article about this after being unable to stop a rape from happening. In the end, to avoid being kicked out of her job, she opts to wait until the war is over to write this particular story. The author raises a question in her reading guide about whether or not this was cowardly or brave.

She also fights her own battle with her male superior officer who tries in every way to make her life a living hell. Sadly, he usually succeeded. She and the other female correspondents all have to deal with his ego and imagined superiority. I wonder how many of our female ancestors, whether in military service or who worked any job outside the home during the war, dealt with these issues and never spoke of them.

While I have done a lot of reading and research on women in WWII – WACs, WAVES, WAPS, Nurses, etc. and knew of the discrimination they were up against, knew the rumors men spread about them being “easy” or “sluts”, the sexual abuse some endured, and how they had to fight for every opportunity even when they could do it better than a man, I knew very little about female war correspondents. I have researched some male war correspondents and photographers and have some books about them. It wasn’t until I read this book that a whole new world of research opened up for me. Thankfully the author provided several books in her notes that I can read.

Why are these topics and this book important?

The more I read this book, the more I admired the women who came before me. The struggles, abuse, trauma, and other things they endured to provide new opportunities for women in the future. I also realized there are many topics I still need to learn more about. Also, as I read, I felt sad because we still have a long way to go in how we view, respect, and treat women.

In 2019, women are still, around the world, fighting for rights, equal pay, and to not be viewed as sex objects because men can’t always control themselves. We are still fighting to be seen as equals. We are still fighting to have our bodies protected and not be told by men what we can and can’t do or how we can or can’t operate our bodies, and who can and can’t touch us. I sometimes wonder, how far have we really come since WWII? Sometimes it does not feel as far as we think we have.

This book and it’s topics also made me wonder what stories are within my family, like Jess’ that were hidden. Jess ends up enduring terrible things during the war, things she keeps secret until almost her dying days. Things she felt would protect her family and those she loved. I’m aware of the abuse that runs through the female ancestors in my family and I wonder if we acknowledge it happened and can work on healing it – how much we can change the world and ourselves.

My Invitation To You

I invite you to explore the deeper, darker, secretive stories of your family. To see if it is possible to discuss these topics with older family members and find out what their experience was. Knowing these things may help you better understand why family members are or were the way they are. To better help you understand the blessings and burdens you carry through your DNA and lineage. I also invite you to write the stories about this for your family. This doesn’t mean you have to share publicly, but get them down on paper so they aren’t lost. There are many lessons to be learned and healing to be done if we are brave enough to start the conversation.

Author’s Suggested Books – Further Reading

These are a few books the author put in her Author’s Note at the end of the book. She also included a reading guide which makes this book a great book for book clubs.

  • The Woman War Correspondent, the U.S. Military, and The Press by Carolyn M. Edy.
  • No Woman’s World: From D-Day to Berlin, a Female Correspondent Covers World War II by Iris Carpenter.
  • The Women Who Wrote the War: The Complete Story of the Path-breaking Women Correspondents of World War II by Nancy Caldwell Sorel.
  • Lee Miller’s Way edited by Antony Penrose.
  • Lee miller: A Life by Carolyn Burke.
  • Martha Gellhorn: A Life by Carolyn Moorehead.
  • Women War Correspondents of World War II by Lilya Wagner
  • Women of the World by Julia Edwards.
  • Where the Action Was: Women War Correspondents in World War II by Penny Colman.

What Do You Think?

What do you think about these topics? Have you explored them within your own family history? How have you been able to move beyond and heal the trauma of the past?

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