Friday, September 9, 2016

Historical Fiction: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Despite my desire to steer away from historical fiction that deals with World War II, here I am covering a book that does exactly that. Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly follows the lives of three women as Hitler takes over Poland, and then sets his sights on the rest of the world. I suppose what ultimately interested me was the fact that the story doesn't stay in one place, and offers a variety of perspectives.

The Situation: It's 1939, and Caroline Ferriday is volunteering for the French Consulate in New York City. As a woman who is officially considered a spinster, she occupies her time garnering support and donations for French orphans across the pond, especially as it looks like Hitler won't be stopped anytime soon, and in fact seems to be gaining power by the day. In Poland, a young teenage girl named Kasia has come face to face with German occupation, and her family must think fast if they want to stay alive and not have everything taken from them. And then there is Herta Oberheuser, a young German female doctor who wants little more than to be recognized for her medical and surgical ability in a male-dominated field.

The Problem: Once WWII officially starts and Hitler lays claim to both Poland and France, getting donations to French orphans becomes near impossible, but Caroline and her mother press on, even using their own resources when necessary. But in Poland, Kasia must fight for her own survival as she, her mother, and her sister Zuzanna are taken prisoner and placed in Ravensbrück, a concentration camp for women. Here is where they will cross paths with Herta, who gets her chance to advance her career by performing awful and horrifying experiments on the prisoners, all in the name of serving Germany and giving punishment to people the Nazis view as good as dead anyway. Eventually the war will end, but will Caroline's orphans get what they need to survive? And will Kasia survive the daily horror she is put through for the cause of the Nazis? And when things do finally end, will Herta be held responsible for her part in that horror?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in various locations during and after World War II. Caroline's story remains mostly in New York City and Connecticut, while Kasia remains in Poland and at Ravensbrück, later making a trip to the states. Herta is staunchly loyal to Germany and the Nazi cause, but what she really wants more than anything is to practise medicine and be recognized for it. She actually has no desire to stay at the concentration camp when she first arrives, but the opportunities for advancement and recognition become too good for her to pass up, a decision that makes her a target once the war ends and people are arrested for war crimes. In Herta that reader is given a look into how easily people can justify their actions in the name of loyalty to their country. Both she and Caroline Ferriday were real people in history, while Kasia and her sister were based off of a different pair of sisters that ended up at Ravensbrück. Naturally, Kelly took some liberties with the story, but what happened at Ravensbrück is real. And while Caroline may not have had first-hand experience with the war and could never really know the suffering that was endured by Kasia and administered by Herta, even her life is effected as friends back in France become victims of Hitler's occupation. The events of WWII were not confined by either geography or time, as many of the horrors didn't end with Hitler's death, especially for Kasia. Most books about WWII end once the war does, but Kelly continues telling Caroline, Kasia, and Herta's stories well into the 1950s.

My Verdict: Even though for me this is yet another book about WWII, I have to say that it is a good one and I am glad I picked it up. It certainly helps that Kelly chose to tell the story through three different women in three very different situations in life. Even though Kasia's story in particular was hard to read at times, due to her imprisonment at a concentration camp, the book still managed to not be a difficult read. Herta's story could also be hard to face, but mostly because of her unfeeling, calloused, almost uninterested view of the prisoners she was in charge of. While she was completely sold on what Hitler was trying to do, it was still clear that she was out to advance her own career, and would have had zero interest in serving the Reich if it didn't involve making her a better or more well-known doctor. The nuances of her character made her more than just the evil Nazi doctor whose demise the reader looks forward too. Just like Kasia is more than just a Polish prisoner, and Caroline is more than a bleeding heart from New York. Lilac Girls is a WWII story that isn't ever set on the battlefield or in the air, but lives are often still at stake and the damage just as real.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* When Herta is found guilty for her crimes against humanity.

Favorite Character: Zuzanna is Kasia's older sister who manages to remain hopeful and full of joy, while also remaining practical and realistic, even in the most tragic of circumstance. Her and her sister support each other through their imprisonment, but somehow Zuzanna manages to come out the less bitter of the two, even though she physically suffered the most. 

Recommended Reading: For another novel about WWII, told from the point of view of different women who live through it, I recommend The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.

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