Pamela Schoenewaldt features an era that few novelists explore in Under the Same Blue Sky — World War 1. I’ve read dozens of World War 2 era novels, but I can’t think of a single novel of the Great War I’ve read other than a children’s book or two.
The novel begins in Pittsburgh in 1914, before America enters the European conflict. Hazel Renner is a young woman on the brink of adulthood. She’s ready to venture into the world, although she isn’t sure what that looks like yet. She’s had a comfortable, loving childhood in a German-American neighborhood.
As the war in Europe escalates, animosity toward German-Americans also rises. Hazel and her parents fall under suspicion and hatred. Neighbors turn against them as the war wages. Hazel’s father becomes obsessed and depressed over the war casualties, and Hazel’s life changes drastically as she uncovers a family secret.
Hazel leaves home to become a teacher in a small town. This whole part of the novel was strange to me. While she is in this town, Hazel discovers she has healing powers. When she touches people and touches her blue house simultaneously, she is able to miraculously heal people. This was an odd addition to the novel, and I can’t say I understand why it was necessary. For me personally, the novel would have been stronger without this foray into healing of the sick. I think the author was working toward a theme of healing in many forms, but this never jelled in my mind.
Hazel loses her healing power quickly, however, and moves to the next phase of her journey: back to the castle where she was born. This is a castle built by a reclusive German baron, who came to America to escape his tyrannical father. Here Hazel puts the pieces of her early years together and falls in love with the gardener.
But all can’t be happily-ever-after: the War rages in Europe, killing millions. And influenza rages everywhere, killing even more than the war. Those that are left behind are shell-shocked, struggling to make sense of what has happened and to forge a new life in the midst of so much loss. Hazel loses many loved ones, but ultimately she finds happiness and learns to navigate in a world ravaged by war and disease.
A lot happens within these 300+ pages. I was especially intrigued in the first half of the novel, as all my mother’s grandparents emigrated from Germany to America in the late 1800s. With very German names, they surely must have faced persecution during World War 1. My mother’s Uncle Grover fought in the war and came back disabled by poison gas. My grandfather, Uncle Grover’s youngest brother, was saved from the ravages of war only because he contracted influenza and nearly died. It occurred to me as I read this novel that those are the only two family stories I know of this time. I’ll have to see if my mother had any others passed down to her, as her solidly German family must have suffered many of the same horrors as do Hazel’s family in the novel.
This is a great read, especially if you enjoy delving into a bit of history that doesn't get much attention.