Helena Schrader was destined to love history. Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, she began traveling internationally with her family at the age of 2, living in Japan, Brazil, and England before eventually settling in Maine, where she grew up. Having retired from research and diplomacy in 2018, Schrader now lives in Greece with her husband, on the island that was once part of ancient Sparta. 

Her novel Moral Fibre isn’t Schrader’s first book—it isn’t even her 10th. In the turgid landscape of the publishing world, she’s found an audience in self-publishing; she’s won awards and often gets fan mail from veterans who lived her stories. She was 4 when, during a stint in Rome, her father took her on a personalized tour of the Colosseum. His gory recounting of arena fighting probably wasn’t age-appropriate, but it made the perfect kindling for a lifelong affinity for fiction rooted in the past. 

“He took me [on] a tour [that] basically consisted of him walking through the Colosseum with me and saying, ‘This is where they fed the Christians to the lions.’ My 4-year-old mind freaked out—it was like this imagination ignited,” Schrader says. “That’s where my whole interest in historical fiction started. Because from then on, wherever I went, there was always this question of ‘How did people live here?’ ‘What was it really like, what could they do, and what did they wear?’ ”

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history at American universities, she relocated to Germany and eventually earned her doctorate from the University of Hamburg in 1993 with a dissertation on German resistance during World War II. Before she retired, Schrader also lived in Nigeria and Ethiopia as a diplomatic reporting officer. All the while, she was writing stories, reaching back into the past to spin tales of the Battle of Britain, the Crusades, and ancient Sparta.

Moral Fibre, her latest work, was partially inspired by her Uncle Ken, a navigator who was shot down in 1944. The novel follows the lives of two characters, Christopher “Kit” Moran and Georgina Redding, as they cope with grief, guilt, and the costs of nationalism in the last year of World War II—he in training as a bomber pilot with the Royal Air Force and she, as a teacher’s apprentice to disenfranchised children in Lincolnshire.

The book opens with Kit’s evaluation by a military psychologist. His friend and comrade Don Selkirk died on their last mission, and Kit refuses to get back in a plane for the next one. The book’s title takes its name from a weaponized, nonmedical diagnosis the military used at the time to punish and shame aircrew who no longer wanted to fight: “lacking moral fiber.” Schrader framed the book around this term to demonstrate the disconnect of individual bravery and suffering in the face of a global crisis. Because nonpilot aircrew were volunteers, the RAF couldn’t prevent them from leaving. So they used LMF to ruin reputations and retain volunteers regardless of the traumas those men experienced. 

Lack of moral fiber was a term the RAF devised to find some way of dealing with this phenomenon they hadn’t expected. The reputation of the term in the postwar era is associated with a horribly cruel, insensitive treatment of people who had serious PTSD,” Schrader says. “And that doesn’t mean these people [were] fundamentally lacking in moral fiber; it simply means they needed to rest. These young men were under incredible pressure in a society that didn’t officially recognize their right to break down.” 

Don was also Georgina’s fiance, and this shared grief begins to reshape their lives and perceptions of the world. As they mourn Don and commit themselves to uncertain futures—Kit as a pilot and Georgina at her first teaching position away from her vicar family—love blooms in quiet moments. Their connection bears the clarity only loss can bring.

But Moral Fibre is more than a period-piece love story. Kirkus Reviews praises the book’s “confident job shifting the action of [the] story from the very separate war experiences of her two main characters,” who both demonstrate how hard it can be to maintain one’s sense of right and wrong during a global conflict. Rather than set up these lovers to yearn from afar through letters, they see each other regularly; their proximity and contact allow for scenes between them and with their families, which make the book’s conclusion all the more wrenching.

Both Kit and Georgina must rethink the values that make up their respective moral fiber, Schrader says. Kit, who has African ancestry from a Zulu grandmother, must relearn how to work as a member of a team and protect his tarnished reputation. His new crew illustrates the spectrum of army life, from the seasoned Scottish engineer Gordon MacDonald, called Daddy, to the teenage Nigel Osgood. Meanwhile, Georgina must reckon with her sheltered ideals of love and what educating her country’s next generation demands of her. Everyone experiences disillusionment at one point or another. Schrader uses an outburst by Adrian Peal, a new recruit who flies with Kit, to vocalize this: 

So much has been written about how the Londoners “took it”—and, of course, they did. But it hurt and it made us angry, too. At least it made me angry. What bloody right did the Germans have to blow up our city and destroy our way of life? What right did they have to disrupt our simple, peaceful pleasures—shopping, walking in a park, going to the theater or out to dinner? What right did they have to shatter our homes, shops, workplaces, and churches? 

Without the imposition of publishing deadlines or a schedule dictated by work, Schrader has more novels in the works. She recently held a literary event with the mayor of Sparta, who lauded the accuracy of her series on Leonidas. While she hopes readers enjoy Kit’s and Georgina’s journeys, she also hopes they recognize that human resilience is timeless and that there is always more of the past to uncover.

Amelia Williams is a writer living in Brooklyn with bylines in the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay City News, and Leafly.