Title: Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves
Author: L. M. Elliott
Publisher: Catherine Tegan Books, 2022
Format/Genre: historical fiction
Themes: WWII, Virginia, Chesapeake Bay, German U-boats, tugboats, mental health, loss, grief, war, USA, coming of age
My mama has the melancholy. Always has. But recently it’s gone from the customary pinkish-grey—like dawn mist in the marshes, still hopeful and able to clear into bright blue with the right sprinkle of sunshine—to thick , storm-surge purple-black. Like rolling waves burning.
Days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Hitler declared war on the U.S., unleashing U-boat submarines to attack American ships. Suddenly, the waves outside Louisa June’s farm aren’t for eel-fishing or marveling at wild swans or learning to skull her family’s boat–they’re dangerous, swarming with hidden enemies.
Her oldest brothers’ ships risk coming face-to-face with U-boats. Her sister leaves home to weld Liberty Boat hulls. And then her daddy, a tugboat captain, and her dearest brother, Butler, are caught in the crossfire.
Her mama has always swum in a sea of melancholy, but now she really needs Louisa June to find moments of beauty or inspiration to buoy her. Like sunshine-yellow daffodils, good books, or news accounts of daring rescues of torpedoed passengers.
Determined to help her Mama and aching to combat Nazis herself, Louisa June turns to her quirky friend Emmett and the indomitable Cousin Belle, who has her own war stories–and a herd of cats–to share. In the end, after a perilous sail, Louisa June learns the greatest lifeline is love. (publisher)
Why I like this book:
The tale of Louisa June and her family narrate an aspect of WWII that I was totally unaware about, hopefully that wouldn’t be true for most Americans — i.e. Nazi atrocities and American deaths on this side of the Atlantic. The tween protagonist, Louisa June, narrates the tale of her innocence lost when her community and especially her family suffer a deadly tragedy. Nazi U-boats patrolling the waters off the Eastern seaboard shores target merchant ships and tugboats guiding ships to sea. While the lives of Virginia fishermen, seamen, and sailors are fraught with ocean perils, the waters take an extra deadly turn during the war. When a torpedo shatters her father’s boat, Louisa June and her family try to cope with the devastating loss or her sweet literary brother, and the ensuing grief, and paralyzing guilt.
The historical accuracy and evident research is impeccable, and from language and descriptions to war refrains of the time, like “loose lips sink ships”, Elliott does a great job showing how the east coast of the US in 1942, especially the boatmen, were affected during WWII. Characters in the story volunteer for different civil organizations focused on helping track Nazi boats and fend off possible land invasions. She also manages to flawlessly weave in a large variety of other topics, such as major women leaders during WWII like Lucile Atcherson Curtis and Madame Curie as well as Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio contribution to war morale.
One of the things that I loved about this story was that Louisa June’s family was steeped in the literature of the time. Poems by Wordsworth and William Butler Yeats were recited by characters. Louisa June reads some books by her namesake, Louisa May, including ones from outside the Little Women world. At one point, she is encouraged to read a recently released book about hobbits fighting an evil force to save the world (The Hobbit was published just before the outbreak of WWII).
Based on the true story of the sinking of merchant ships along the Carolina coastline, Louisa June and the Nazis in the Waves provides a different look at the war and its impact close to home. The focus on this small community shows how the horror of war can devastate a family. The supporting characters are all well-developed and pertinent to the story, which is about much more than war, and deals with weighty issues like depression and how it was perceived and treated in the first half of the 20th century. I love how the strength and WWI experience of cousin Belle support the story’s narrative and add balance to the depressive moment’s Louisa June’s mom faces.
I found the story a compelling and fascinating with beautifully lyrical language anchored in the sea and their coastal surroundings, dealing with this lesser known aspect of the war and the toll of grief and guilt of an untimely death.
There is an important author’s note at the end of the book giving more historical detail and helpline’s for depression.
On the author’s website there is more information about this historical moment, and also a Discussion Guide talking about depression and mental health in the novel.
Listen to an audio sample.
I vaguely remember hearing about U-2 boats coming near our waters, but I didn’t know the depth of what happened. I didn’t know that stories like this existed and it’s the first time I’ve seen it in a PB — not even MG novels. I remember my father taking us on vacations along the east coast and we saw the big American battle ships and toured them. I was about 8 and it was boring for me. My dad was in WWII, but I don’t remember being told stories like this. Thanks for sharing. I am like you — I can’t get enough of all of the many stories about WWII.
This is a middle grade novel about it and it is just fascinating and so well written.