Book Review: When We Had Wings by Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris and Susan Meissner

“The human brain simply wasn’t built for these conditions; for the relentless attempts to save limbs and lives, to feel responsible for the flurry of telegrams sent to love ones decimating worlds with a measly piece of paper…”

Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris and Susan Meissner, When We Had Wings

Title: When We Had Wings
Author: Ariel Lawhon, Kristina McMorris and Susan Meissner
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 13 hrs, 4 mins (Audiobook)
Publish Date: October 18th, 2022

My Rating: ★★★★★
Read: 9/28/2022 – 10/3/2022


Hands down, When We Had Wings is the best WWII novel I have read this year. Based on the real-life experiences of the Angels of Bataan, this book is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Though certainly a story of war, it’s foremost a story about friendship, self-discovery, and the capacity of love humans can have for each other in a time of turmoil.

Starting off in Manila pre-the attack on Pearl Harbor, we follow Penny, Eleanor, and Lita, three nurses who form a bond early in their assignments. At first, their stay almost feels like a vacation. Their work is light and Lita, local to the area, gets the opportunity to play tour guide. However, after the attack, things change drastically, eventually leading to new assignments that force the friends to part ways. When Japan turns its hostility toward the Philippines, it’s only a matter of time before the three women find themselves in various internment camps. They have to do whatever they can to survive all the while worrying and wondering where the others have ended up.

Along with Penny, Lita, and Eleanor, there are several equally as wonderful supporting characters; friends, colleagues, priests, children, love interests… confined in prisons with captors who have no regard for international human rights laws, we get countless glimpses of people banding together to help one another survive. 

All three of the storylines were a delight to read and flowed together nicely with each other. The pacing was on the slower side but immersive. There were some points in the book where it took me a few minutes to realize I was crying because I was so engrossed in the story and was surrounded by it in my mind. Kudos to all three of the authors! Another kudos to Saskia Maarleveld for her marvelous narration of the audiobook.

Thanks to Harper Muse and NetGalley for providing a free audio ARC to read and review!

Likes & Dislikes:

What I liked:

  • The friendships. The bond between Lita, Eleanor, and Penny was so touching.
  • The contrast between humanity at its worst and humanity at its best.
  • Please pardon me if I’m spelling her name wrong (a downside of audiobooks…), but Newt! What a darling (and a little stinker when she wants to be).
  • The Resistance side plots.
  • The overall acknowledgment of the Angels of Bataan.
  • The emotion the writing was able to convey. A lot of times with multiple authors, there are inconsistencies with tone and detail. This trio did an amazing job with their collaboration.

What I didn’t like:

  • This is likely a personal issue not having the visual, but it took me a long time to remember which storyline belonged to which character. Even as I write this I am still mixing up Eleanor and Penny in my mind. I’m a visual person, so following three storylines while listening to the audiobook without a written copy to compare it to was tricky.
  • There was a lot of vivid medical content. Again, this is more of a personal issue than an issue with the book itself. It certainly added to the atmosphere, though.


I’m going to be counting the days until this book is published. I absolutely need to buy a printed copy so I can tab all of my favorite passages (and learn the spelling of some of the names…). I’ve read some incredible books this year and this one is going to be battling the others for top rank. Perhaps this in part due to my recent WWII reads being more on the ‘lighter’ side, but the emotion and scenery in this one really was outstanding.

In a lot of ways, the story compares to Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein which also centers on female friendship and is largely set in a prison camp during WWII. Given that’s one of my all-time favorite books, it’s no wonder I adored this one so much.

Where to buy the book:

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