The name fell like a sword slicing through her soul. Anna whimpered and slumped in her chair -- then lost control.
She jumped to her feet, and the metal chair clattered to the floor. She ripped the folder out of the stunned officer's hand and swatted him in the face with it. "You g*****n sick bastard," Anna screamed. "Go to hell! Go to hell and be damned!" She flung the folder across the room and sank to her knees sobbing.
Hauptsturmfuhrer Koenig stared at her for a minute, not saying a word. Then he picked up the folder, retrieved his hat and gloves and left the room. (from Night of Flames, page 253)
Night of Flames is a novel set primarily in Poland and Belgium that spans much of World War II. It opens in Warsaw in 1939 at the start of the war, with Anna Kopernik waking up to German bombs. Douglas W. Jacobson begins the story in the midst of the action and never lets up. From the very beginning, Anna is fighting for her life. After her father, a college professor, is taken to a death camp, she fears his ties to a budding resistance group make her a prime target of the Gestapo and SS, so she attempts to make her way out of Poland with her close friend, Irene, and her young son, Justyn, both of whom are Jewish.
Meanwhile, Jan Kopernik, Anna's husband, is serving as an officer in the Wielkopolska Cavalry Brigade. He sees his fair share of battles as the Germans invade and occupy Poland, and he narrowly escapes death on several occasions. Eventually, he makes his way to Britain and goes on several undercover missions to Poland and Belgium and forges ties with the resistance. Neither Jan nor Anna know where the other is, and as the war creeps on, they have no idea whether the other is even alive.
Night of Flames is a well-written, well-researched novel, and Jacobson's passion for the subject matter shines through. The plot is very detailed, with chapters shifting from Anna's experiences as a civilian dabbling in resistance work to Jan's experiences as a military officer and undercover agent. Jacobson also focuses on several members of the Belgian resistance and their attempts to derail the German war effort.
Jacobson doesn't delve deep into the characters, and readers don't get to fully know Anna or Jan, but it's important to note that the characters are never seen outside the context of war. Still, I grew attached to the characters, mainly their passion and their selflessness. I'm partial to strong female characters, so naturally, I liked Anna. It takes a one feisty lady to scream at and smack a creepy SS officer!
In many parts, particularly the resistance missions, Night of Flames reminded me of one of my favorite television shows, Hogan's Heroes (well, minus the POWs, anyway), but of course, it went deeper to show the stresses and weariness of war. Jacobson does a great job showing how ordinary people can become heroes in times of distress, and without going into graphic detail, he shows just how horrific war can be for both soldiers and civilians. Night of Flames ranks among the best World War II novels I've read thus far, and I had to slow myself down to savor the story and make it last. I highly recommend this book, and I think even readers who are not WWII history buffs can appreciate it as a story of courage, survival, and enduring love.
Night of Flames is the 21st book I've read for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations. (I can't help myself...there are too many good books in this genre!)
Douglas W. Jacobson visited War Through the Generations in January to discuss the Comet Line, a real-life resistance organization that transported Allied soldiers out of Belgium. In Night of Flames, Anna goes on missions for the Comet Line. Click on these links to read Jacobson's essay: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3
Disclosure: I received a free copy of Night of Flames from McBooks Press for review purposes.