Four Books That Staggered Me

Books that take me into the darkest times in history, where human beings treat other human beings with unimaginable cruelty, both enlighten and horrify me. When the stories are told through the eyes of the young, they also reveal pain, hope, and strength in ways no other novels can.

Four such books that I highly recommend are noted below. Each has passages that dip into the past with utter vividness through memories and flashbacks—and each depicts the story’s present period without restraint. I’ve chosen to provide the opening lines to these literary works, for the lovely language in such novels is one thing that keeps me going through the roughest parts. These books are not easy reads. But I feel better for having read them. Mustn’t we know what came before us, so as to prevent atrocities in the world from recurring? And, is it not good to be reminded of the feelings we humans share, no matter the time and place . . . feelings of love, joy, fear, or regret?

Mischling tells the story of two little girls in “The Zoo,” the place where a doctor performed experiments on sets of twins in Auschwitz.

“We were made, once. My twin, Pearl, and me. Or, to be precise, Pearl was formed and I split from her. She embossed herself on the womb; I copied her signature. For eight months we were afloat in amniotic snowfall, two rosy mittens resting on the lining of our mother.”

A girl comes of age during the Cambodian genocide in In the Shadow of the Banyan.

“War entered my childhood world not with the blasts of rockets and bombs but with my father’s footsteps as he walked through the hallway, passing my bedroom toward his.”






The Pulitzer Prize-winning Underground Railroad follows a young slave’s escape from a cotton plantation in Georgia.

“The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.”





The Kite Runner centers on two boys from different backgrounds who live through devastation in Afghanistan.

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”

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