I am very excited to be hosting Dianne Ascroft today. Dianne is the author of Hitler and Mars Bars, which I reviewed earlier this week (you can find my review here). Below, Dianne shares some thoughts on war as we approach Veteran’s Day here in the United States. Thank you, Dianne, for allowing me to be a part of your virtual blog tour.
Thanks for inviting me to Reading and Ruminations today, Shauna, to tell your readers a bit about my historical fiction novel, Hitler and Mars Bars. When I was considering what to talk about I realized that November 11 is only a few days away. Depending on the country you are in, November 11 may be known as Remembrance Day, Armistice Day or Veterans Day. Since the end of the First World War in many countries it is a day to remember and honour military personnel and civilians who died during war and other conflicts. So I’ve chosen war as my theme today and I’ll share the Second World War’s impact on my main character, Erich.
The opening chapter of Hitler and Mars Bars is set in the industrialised Ruhr area of Germany during the last few months of World War 2. The area is devastated by heavy bombing and food supplies are scarce; people are starving. Here’s an excerpt from the chapter –
The Gingerbread House
Bredenscheid, near Hattingen, Germany
“The bodies were piled one on top of the other on the hill, arms and legs flung in every direction. Jackets flapped open in the wind, blood dripped from ripped shirts. Dirt and blood covered their faces. An arm hung partially severed from its body. Erich crept closer to look at them, horrified and fascinated. There was such a huge pile. He grimaced at the sight confronting him, too frightened to make a sound.
Erich tossed restlessly until shuffling and banging in the large dormitory penetrated the images racing through his mind. The horrible scene faded as he opened his eyes. Boys pushed and shoved, scrambling under beds in search of their boots. The sky was lit with a red glow. Erich stared out of the balcony door. Sharp bangs punctuated the night. Each small explosion was answered by a larger one and flames leapt into the air. It was closer than he had ever seen before. Erich craned his neck upwards watching white sparkles popping and floating towards the ground. The sparkles marked the bombs’ course as they fell.
“Are the bombs falling on our garden?” Erich asked Karl.
“No, it’s not that close. Tante Gretchen says the oil tanks at the plant in Hattingen are on fire. Don’t they make a great bang!” Erich nodded wide-eyed as he watched the display outside.
Staff rushed to and fro, urging the boys to hurry as they herded them towards the door.
Tante Gretchen said, “Erich, get up. We must go to the shelter.” She pulled his bedclothes back.
He sat up and pulled on his boots. Tante Gretchen threw his coat over his shoulders and bundled him towards the door. The dying embers of the fire, glowing in the dark room, warmed him briefly as he passed. The boys jostled each other to be first out of the door. Pushed into the melee, Erich grabbed the doorframe to brace himself against a taller boy’s shove. Ducking down, he pushed through the doorway and stepped into the hall. A muffled pounding rose from the wooden stairs as the children descended.
Small, even for four years old, Erich could not see through the throng. His nose brushed the torn pullover of the boy in front of him as he was pushed forward by the others. On the ground floor Tante Helga stood at an open door, ushering them down the stairs into the musty smelling cellar.
Several years of heavy bombing in the Essen area made these night-time forays a familiar occurrence. The staff counted heads as the children settled wearily into whatever space they could find. Erich laid his head on the lap of an older girl, Hilde, wedged between her and his friend, Karl. Hilde leaned her head on the shoulder of the girl next to her, her hand resting on Erich’s hip.
“Maybe they’ll bomb us tonight. It might just be rubble when we go out in the morning!” Karl exclaimed.
“Don’t say such things! Where would we live?” Hilde scolded.
“No talking,” Tante Helga said firmly. “You must sleep now.”
Silence descended and only the occasional cough disturbed the regular breathing of the roomful of dozing children. Explosions were heard in the distance as the night wore on. But nothing landed near the Home. The bombs fell in the more heavily populated areas.
Dawn broke sending a sliver of light creeping under the door at the top of the stairs. Erich woke and sat up.
“Is the house still there?” Karl whispered.
“You snore so loud, Karl, that you would never hear it if we were bombed! But I think it is still there,” Bernhardt answered the younger, dark-haired boy.
“Maybe everything is gone except our house!” Karl cried.
“Even the forest?” Erich asked.
“Every tree,” Karl asserted. Erich frowned; he liked to go to the forest.
Exaggerated claims and assertions dominated the children’s whispered conversation. After what seemed an unbearable wait, Tantchen Trude led them upstairs. Erich and the other children darted around the house an out into the grounds looking for damage, grey metal fragments or bodies that may have fallen from the sky. But everything was as it had been the night before. Despite the carnage in nearby Hattingen it was another ordinary morning. With a sigh Erich trooped upstairs to his dormitory with the other children to wash and dress. He wondered if his mother would come today. Maybe she wouldn’t have to work if the railway station had been hit. Excited by this thought, he hurried to get ready.”
In any war individuals are harmed – frightened, wounded, displaced and killed. People disappear or die and their loved ones do not know what has happened to them.
Erich knows this.
He spends nights wearily huddled in the Children’s Home cellar, sheltering from the threat of bombs.
His mother disappears after a bombing raid.
Aided by the Red Cross, he leaves his stricken homeland, without finding his mother.
He settles in a foreign land, adapting to new families, strange customs and learning a new language.
During the Second World War it’s estimated that –
* 55 million people died
* Bombing raids displaced 60 million people in Europe from their homes
* For every tonne of bombs dropped on Britain, 315 tonnes were dropped on Germany
The statistics are staggering but they don’t make the horrors of war real to us. Telling a story about a single child, even a fictional one, does. While I did not write the book as an anti-war treatise, the privations and horrors Erich experiences, in the book’s early chapters, remind the reader how terrible war is – and that’s something we shouldn’t forget.
But Hitler and Mars Bars is not only a war story. It’s Erich’s story – a German boy growing up in war-torn Germany and post war rural Ireland. As Shauna has recounted in her review of the book, Erich spends his early years in a Children’s Home in the embattled Ruhr area of Germany. His mother disappears and he is left responsible for his younger brother. Aided by the Red Cross project, Operation Shamrock, after the war he is transported, with hundreds of other German children, to Ireland to recuperate from the devastation in his homeland. During the next few years he moves around Ireland, through a string of foster families, experiencing the best and worst of Irish life. Plucky and resilient, he faces every challenge and the future undaunted. Erich’s childhood is a remarkable journey through loss, loneliness, fear, uncertainty, love and hope.
If this small slice of Erich’s life has piqued your interest, you can learn more about Hitler and Mars Bars at www.geocities.com/dianne_ascroft. The novel is available to order from Amazon and other online retailers, Trafford Publishing and my website. You can also drop by other stops on my Virtual Book Tour. For the full tour schedule check my blog, ‘Ascroft, eh?’.
Thanks for allowing me to share a glimpse of Erich’s life with your readers, Shauna. It’s been a pleasure to be here today.