The Correspondents: Six Women Writers on the Front Lines of World War II

Written by Judith Mackrell
Review by Trish MacEnulty

This is one of the most fascinating and engrossing books I’ve read in years. Mackrell weaves together the narratives of six heroic and talented women as they pursue news stories in Europe and North Africa shortly before and during World War II. Each of them faced unthinkable danger and overcame enormous obstacles in this pursuit. Bearing witness to the madness around them, they were often lone voices crying out warnings that went unheeded.

These correspondents weren’t merely passive recorders of events. They sacrificed the pleasures of home and family and suppressed their own revulsion and fear to go into terrifying battle zones. And they did more than write the news. Clare Hollingworth, a former peace activist, helped save thousands of refugees in Poland; Virginia Cowles managed to get an interview with Mussolini; Sigrid Shultz, who headed up her own news bureau, surreptitiously helped Jews flee Germany; Martha Gellhorn worked tirelessly to warn others of the dangers of fascism; Helen Kirkpatrick was awarded the American Presidential Medal of Freedom; Lee Miller, with calm deliberation, forced herself to face the horrors of the death camps and photograph the “faces that were little more than skulls, but which were still a reminder of all those individual lives which had been disposed of like so much trash.”

The book is organized around the different areas of conflict where these women’s paths often intersected, beginning in Berlin as the city transformed from a hedonistic pleasure capital into a grim prison; to Spain where the loyalists fought against Franco’s nationalists and Germany tried out its weaponry; to the invasions of Poland and France; to the assault on London and to the skirmishes in Athens, Cairo, and Algiers. Each chapter is filled with conflict, heartache, and heroism. I couldn’t put it down.