Book Review: Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers by Sara Ackerman

There are days when I feel like the secret is growing inside of me, and wonder if I might explode like a popped balloon. But I have to keep Mama safe, and not let the words out. Words the could ruin everything and put us all in danger. At first all I wanted to do was run to her, screaming, to paint the story in giant red letters across the wall. But it was a year ago, and writing didn’t come easily. I still got the b and the d mixed up. Nowadays, I keep the cane knife close. But not for the coconuts.

In Hawaii in 1944, WWII is in full swing and the people of Honoka’a are struggling to find security as soldiers flood their beaches and their Japanese neighbors and friends come under unfounded suspicions. Meanwhile, Violet and Ella are dealing with their own personal tragedy—Herman, Violet’s husband and Ella’s father has disappeared, leaving no trace. Violet is determined to find him, holding out hope and persevering through weekly visits to the local sheriff’s office. Ella, on the other hand, is suffering from severe anxiety as her world is turned upside down by air raid drills, her father’s disappearance and the secret she has kept buried that is slowing burning her from the inside out.

So the two lean on their friends—other women and children whose lives have changed dramatically as the war devours their men. They form a makeshift bakery in Violet’s kitchen, turning out pies of exotic origin: purple sweet potato and coconut and chocolate honeycomb. The goal is to sell them at the local market in order to scrape together meager wages to pay for the necessities that are becoming more difficult to come by. What they unexpectedly find is camaraderie with the newest arrivals to the island—Marines stationed on the Hawaiian shores—biding their time until the was decides their fate.

In the midst of the lazy day at the beach, Violet wanted to pretend that this was life. That Ella was recovering, and the soldiers and Roscoe would always be here. But beneath the dinners, the pie selling and the outings, the ache of war still found a way in. You could see it behind the men’s eyes, in how they immersed themselves in the seconds and the minutes. Looking for a quick brand of living. Everything here was a by-product of war. And war was messy.

These men, including the brother of Violet’s friend Jean, his handsome friend, Parker and their furry companion, Roscoe, quickly find a place in the heart’s of Violet and Ella. Parker serves as a distraction for Violet, reawakening within her feelings she has suppressed since the disappearance of Herman—feelings she refuses to act on until she knows for certain what happened to her husband. Ella admires Parker, but it is Roscoe that holds the key to her heart. A lion cub raised by humans, Roscoe is loving and affectionate which gives Ella the peace she deeply desires.

Funny how love came in so many forms. Motherly love was steadfast and larger than life. Not up for debate. Friend love made you feel like you were never alone in the world. Love with men was different. With Herman it has been simmering coals and security. Parker a raging forest fire that would never go out. She was coming to realize that that was okay. Love was love, no matter its slant.

Together the soldiers and the women of Honoka’a are able to forget, if for only a moment, their troubles and the dangers awaiting them outside the walls of Violet’s home and beyond the shores of Hawaii. However, when the time comes for the Marines to deploy and the circumstances of Herman’s disappearance slowly reveal themselves, the group is forced apart and it remains to be seen if they can survive the certain hardship.

But not everything is bad. We made pies, we made friends. We fell in love.

I just hope it ends well.

Balancing the uncertainty of war and the tension of loss with the heartwarming satisfaction of friendship and love, Ackerman has penned a valuable addition to the historical fiction genre. Island of Sweet Pies and Soldiers is a unique perspective of WWII which shows yet another side of the racial tensions that pitted neighbor against neighbor and the endless scarifies men and women made to protect one another and rest of humanity at large.

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A review copy of this title was provided by MIRA Books (Harlequin Publishing) and BookSparks.

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