You know Her Momness loves historical fiction, right?
“If historical fiction was a flavor, it’d be raspberry white chocolate cheesecake! With double hot fudge!” croweth Mom.
Why she says this, I don’t know. I do know she’s breaking out her Happy Dance. Because we’re reviewing three sturdy historical fiction titles today! All set during World War II.
Break out some extra spoons for Lilac Girls, Irena’s War, and The Orphan’s Tale:
By Martha Hall Kelly
Some stories must be told. Lilac Girls is one of them.
Based on real-life events, Lilac Girls tells the story of one of the worst chapters of human history coupled with one of the vilest villains and valiant heroines you’ve probably never heard of.
Per the author, this is the story of:
“Polish women, Catholics, political prisoners arrested for their work with the Polish underground. Held as prisoners at Ravensbruck concentration camp, Hitler’s only major concentration camp for women, and used for medical experimentation. There was a special Doctors Trail at Nuremburg, but the world has forgotten the victims, and there’s been no help or support for the ones who survived.”
The story is told through the eyes of three different women, from three different countries and contexts.
- Caroline Ferriday is a New York philanthropist, former actress and liaison to the French consulate. She champions the Rabbits* and helps crusade for justice on their behalf. (Note: In the story, Caroline’s fictional romance with a French actor seems strange and overwritten. It also makes her appear petty in some respects, making this reviewer wonder why the author included it.)
- Kasia Kuzmerick is a teenager living in the town of Lublin, Poland. She’s arrested for her work in the Polish underground along with her mother and sister. They’re sent to Ravensbruck.
- Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor. She worked at Ravensbruck as a “camp physician.” She was later tried and convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
After being liberated, Polish Ravensbruck survivors return to their homeland. But the Iron Curtain has descended on Poland and with it, “Little access to modern medical and no help from the German government.”
When New York socialite and former actress, Caroline Ferriday, hears of their plight, she’s determined that “the Rabbits’” story not end there.
Meanwhile, Kasia is still tormented by her experience and cannot put it behind her. The deep “darkness” she’s had in her chest since Ravensbruck spreads, souring relationships with her husband , child, and pretty much everyone.
Then Oberheuser has been released from prison early and has set up a family practice clinic in Germany. Appalled, Caroline leads the charge to get Oberheuser’s medical license revoked. But first she needs someone – a former prisoner – to travel to Germany and positively ID Oberheuser.
Someone like Kasia.
The first few chapters may seem a bit clunky. But the book picks up steam fast as the narrative takes readers through Poland, Germany, America, and France, over some twenty years. It’s an extraordinary achievement, especially since this is Kelly’s first novel.
Indeed, this harrowing, haunting story is so well written that you may forget you’re reading a book. You feel like you’re part of the book. Inside the story. Witnessing firsthand the horror and brutality of a Nazi concentration camp as well as the kindness, generosity and courage of those who survived and fought for justice after the war.
Hear the author talk about her book and find out more about Caroline Ferriday and the “Ravensbruck Rabbits”:
Not Easy, But Important
Lilac Girls isn’t an easy read. But it’s an important one. In fact, it’s one of the most powerful historical fiction books I’ve ever read. I finished the entire book, – all 502 pages including an Author’s Note, Reader’s Guide, and photos – in one day. You can, too. (Now would be good.)
*These prisoners were called “the rabbits” because they hopped about the concentration camp after the operations – if they survived – and also because they served as the Nazis’ “laboratory animals.”
By James D. Shipman
How far would you go to save thousands of innocents from certain death?
Irena’s War is the story of one Polish woman who refused to turn her back on those in desperate need, risking her own life in war-torn Poland in a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse where getting caught means a death sentence. Or worse.
Social worker turned Polish resistance fighter Irena Sendler smuggled some 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw ghetto during WWII, rescuing them from slow starvation or deportation to death camps. Her story of courage, resourcefulness, resilience and defiance in the face of overwhelming odds will keep you on the edge of your seat!
Irena’s War chronicles the cat-and-mouse game Irena plays with Captain Rein Klaus, Gestapo agent, following the fall of Poland and its invasion by the Germans. Refusing to be cowed despite a tightening noose of Nazi suspicions, Irena doggedly pursues her mission of mercy. But one false move or unguarded word could be her last.
This meticulously researched, high octane novel can be brutal and often macabre. (Klaus’s “tour” of Treblinka in chapter 21 is stomach-turning.) Indeed, much of this story is as dark and grim as winter in occupied Poland. This isn’t an easy read. But like The Nightingale and Lilac Girls, it’s an important one, pealing with faith, hope, and love in the end.
The author captures the spirit and fire of a complicated real-life heroine with great skill and insight while avoiding canonizing her in this taut page turner. The book pulls no punches while chronicling Irena’s difficult relationship with her mother and her lover, Adam Celnikier. The writing is intense, the story searing. This locomotive of an historical fiction novel is a fast-moving freight train you won’t want to miss! Clear the tracks!
Our Rating: 4.5
By Pam Jenoff
“Someone needs to know the story and carry it forward…, feeling the unseen hands that guide us.”
On the Run
That someone is a geriatric circus performer who shows up at a museum exhibit in 1990 New York in the Prologue. But the story of Ingrid Klemt, aka: “Astrid Sorrell,” goes back much further, into World War II and Nazi-occupied France, when the circus takes in a teenage girl and a baby. They’re running for their lives in the dead of winter…
Ingrid & Noa
A Jewish woman who’s lost most of her family to the Nazis, Ingrid Klemt is a famous aerialist and a member of a famous circus troupe stretching back over a century. She leaves the family circus to marry a German officer. But when the Reich demands all officers divorce their Jewish wives, Ingrid is cast out. Abandoned, she flees back to the only life she’s ever known: the circus. She’s taken in by the owner of a rival circus, Herr Neuhoff, and changes her name to Astrid Sorrell.
Sixteen year old Noa is kicked out of her Dutch home when a dalliance with a German soldier results in a pregnancy. She gives birth to a baby boy in a girl’s home but is not allowed to keep him. Heartsick, Noa takes a menial job at a train station. One day she hears a strange sound coming from a newly arrived rail car. Investigating, she discovers that its filled with Jewish infants, ripped from their parents and left to die.
Noa plucks one infant from the heap -a boy – and runs. Later, a circus performer, Peter, finds Noa collapsed in the snow. She and baby Theo are taken in by the circus. Astrid is tasked with teaching Noa to become an aerialist on the flying trapeze.
Seeing Noa as a danger and a liability, Astrid emanates the warmth of the Polar Ice Caps. But Noa gradually wins her respect.
Both women have been betrayed and abandoned. Both have secrets. Can their friendship survive as fear, failure, and the constant threat of arrest close in? Will Astrid find a second chance at love? And what of Luc, the son of a Nazi collaborator who has eyes for Noa?
Brisk & Engaging
The Orphan’s Tale is briskly paced and highly engaging. Although its storyline is similar to the two books noted above, the setting for The Orphan’s Tale is unique: A traveling circus.
It’s an eye-opening read as well as an inside look at not only the hard work and skill that goes into circus acts, especial aerial acts, but also the ties that bind.
Our Rating: 4.0
Spoon image credit: CC0 Public Domain