The Good Fight

There’s a category of books I sometimes choose to read. I won’t say that I like them, even though I recommend them to friends. These books never leave me feeling better; most of them lack catharsis or even schadenfreude. They are full of terrible, violent things happening to undeserving people, and these events are so far in the past that no fundraisers or awareness campaigns or angry letters can ameliorate them.

When I was young, this category was manifest through Holocaust literature. There are a surprisingly large number of juvenile and adolescent works about the Holocaust (and the Second World War more generally). Some of the best are Number the Stars, The Devil’s Arithmetic, and The Book Thief. Perhaps so many exist because so many people were affected, so there are many stories that can be told. Though they have good and brave heroes, (including real historical figures such as Corrie Ten Boom and Anne Frank) all are, at some level, stories of fear and cruelty and death.


Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet - click through for source.

Image obtained from Hashtag the Planet – click through for source.

In college I discovered the Soviets. I had intended to introduce myself to classic Russian literature (i.e., Dostoevsky, et al.) and instead got Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And while Russian literature is often characterized by suffering, the writings of anti-Soviets are particularly gut-wrenching because the suffering is a result of deliberate persecution by those in power. The Gulag Archipelago and The Bridge at Andau depict systemic victimization of populations within and outside of Soviet Russia, respectively. They depict a populace hurt, angry, and bitter. At their best moments, they leave me sobbing.

My shelf of terrible books has continued to expand, encompassing more of the world’s tragedies and shames. It now includes more contemporary stories of child soldiers (Never Fall Down), violence against women (Girls Like Us, Half the Sky) and more. Why do I do this to myself? Why do I read these books, not only despite but because of the discomfort they cause me? Why do I recommend them to my friends and family?

I read these books because the horrors they describe need to be known, and they need to be felt. I need to be familiar with this darkness so that I can recognize and fight it in the world around me. I need to see the effects lone people can have through deliberate moral action in the face of injustice. While it is far too late to save the victims of the Holocaust, the world still has cruelty and persecution I can fight.

What else should be on this shelf? What else do I need to read and know? Leave me your recommendations in the comments.

  • Bonnie T.


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18 responses to “The Good Fight

  1. I agree, these sort of things need to be read. I must admit I’ve been putting reading them off though, I need to work up the courage.

  2. How about Eli Weisel’s ‘Night’….?

  3. Very good point. I delve into literature of the atrocities humans have perpetrated on fellow humans for the precisely and reason. I want to recognize it and fight it before it becomes another tragedy on the pages of history.
    One book I read this last year I highly recommend is The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng.

  4. I have a similar need to read books about First Nations issues. I both love and hate reading these books. I want, and need, to know so that I am knowledgeable enough to try to make a difference.

  5. As a kid and into young adulthood, I must have read 50 different books on the Holocaust. It started with something like Number the Stars or Anne Frank and grew to things like The Nazi Officer’s Wife and so on. I visited the Holocaust Museum multiple times, and couldn’t get enough of reading about it. No wonder I had nightmares for years. But as you say, it was like a need — a need to know, to feel, to understand. Now at 30, that type of “terrible” books reading is much more limited in my life (although I have read The Book Thief and some other more recent ones), but it made an enormous impact on me as a reader, writer, and person.

  6. Scott

    I would add _No Friend But The Mountains_, a book about the tragic history of the Kurds, one of the bravest, and alas, most beleaguered groups of people in history.

    Great post!


  7. Another reason I think these books should be read is that it helps us appreciate the lives we have and the conditions we live in. (Usually if people are in a position to read this type of literature, that’s an indication that their life is far better than the life of the people in the book.) Every time I finish a book like “The Bridge at Andau,” I say over and over again, “I have a very good life. I am so blessed.” And it helps me understand the atrocities that others in the world may be facing right now.

  8. I was the kid reading all of those Holocaust books too! OMG. Glad to know I wasn’t alone.

    My recommendation to you is “Reading Lolita in Tehran.” It’s a Memoir about the power of literature being taught to women in cultures where they are oppressed. Read it in college; It was life changing.

  9. Great post, thank you for sharing.

    During one semester in college, I took Asian American Literature, China Through Literature” “African American History” and Holocaust Literature in the same semester. It was emotionally harrowing (which of course is nothing compared to the actual experience that real people lived through), but I learned a lot.

    One book I often recommend on Chinese history is Wild Swans, which follows three generations of women through Chinese history, including the Cultural Revolution:

    Another great read is Farewell to Manzanar, a YA read about Japanese internment camps during WWII:

  10. Call me Cordelia

    I, too, have the same reaction to these books… but I can’t stop reading them. Another adolescent/juvenile book about the Holocaust that shook me to the core: “Daniel’s Story” by Carol Matas. I haven’t read so much as watched stuff on Child Soldiers and the Soviet/Russian novels and short stories (other than Chekhov, whom I love) are on my to-read list. I wish I had more to add to your list, but I thank you for adding more to mine! :)

  11. Sarah Louise

    I read these books for clues. We are all fighting, every day, different dragons. How Malala deals with hiding her identity as a blogger, how “you” starts over at the end of “bright lights, big city,” these all give me courage to take the next step, and the next, and the next.

  12. Pingback: Weekly Round-Up | hls

  13. “The boy in the striped pajamas.” “I never saw another Butterfly,”
    anything by Eli Wiesel
    “A Long Walk to Water” by Linda Sue Park

  14. Annie

    A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, is a beautiful but heartbreaking book about how ordinary people get caught up in warfare they have no stake in–in this case it’s Chechnya. I recommend it constantly because it’s to very, very good.

  15. What is the What – the autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng as told by Dave Eggers is a powerful book about a young man who was kidnapped and made to become a child soldier in Sudan. It is sometimes billed as a novel, but Valentino is a real person. He and Dave Eggers spoke together at the New Hazlett Theater in Pittsburgh several years ago. So, even if it is a fictionalized account, it is heavily based in reality and is painful and difficult and hopeful and beautifully written.

  16. Beth L

    I would recommend the documentary War Dance which is both tragic and uplifting as the child soldiers learn to let music & dance heal them. Also Half of a Yellow Sun which, through fiction, tells the story of the Biafran separation/war.

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