Friday, March 25, 2016

Lilac Girls

Title:  Lilac Girls
Author:  Martha Hall Kelly
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2016. 496 pages.
ISBN:  1101883073 / 978-1101883075

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "If I'd known I was about to meet the man who'd shatter me like bone china on terra-cotta, I would have slept in."

Favorite Quote:  "Don't waste your energy on hate. That will kill you sure as anything. Focus on keeping your strength. You're resourceful. Find a way to outsmart them."

Every time I read a fiction or non-fiction book about World War II, I learn about some new atrocity human beings committed against other human beings. Unbroken tells of Japanese prison camps. The Nightingale highlights the suffering of two women in the French resistance. A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding presents the Japanese perspective on the atomic bomb.

Lilac Girls brings to life the story of the Ravensbrück "rabbits". Ravensbrück was a German concentration camp used to house only women from 1939 to 1945. Over 100,000 women were in Ravensbrück over these years. Only about 15,000 survived. These women came for different ethnic backgrounds and different religions, although a little less than half were Polish.

The "rabbits" were 86 women whose treatment at this prison defies descriptions. What happens to the "rabbits" is at the heart of this story; so, I won't say more. Just that I am still horrified, all the more so because although the book is fiction, the history is frighteningly real. Note the book is not for the faint of heart; it graphically describes many of the atrocities committed against these women.

Lilac Girls brings this terrible history to life through the voices of three women - three completely different perspectives in alternating chapters. Two of the three main characters actual historic figures. Caroline Ferriday was a New York socialite, whose work with the French consulate led her to work with other survivors of the war. Herta Oberheuser was a German physician. Kasia Kuzmerick is a composite based on the known history of the Ravensbrück camp; this character is portrayed as a young Polish girl, who is a victim of the war.

The book starts with Caroline, but of the three, I find her story the least engaging. In fact, at times, her chapters are a jarring note in the book. No matter how different their perspectives, Herta and Kasia's share a world of despair, cruelty, and harshness. From that bleak world, the book goes to Caroline's world of social outings, good works, and even a romance. Having done a little research on Caroline Ferriday after reading this book, I learned that she is considered a hero of the war. In fact, she was awarded the Legion of Honor by the French Government for her work. It is unfortunate that her sections of the book still place such a heavy focus on parties, dresses, and romance.

I find myself rushing through Caroline's chapters to get back to Herta and, even more so, Kasia. Herta's story is one of idealism that morphs into extremism. She justifies her work in the name of patriotism. It is horrifying to watch. This young woman starts off seeking to be a female pioneer in a traditionally male profession. She turns into into a torturer and murderer. Difficult as it is to read, this evolution adds immense depth to this story.

Kasia's story is the heartbreaking one. She is a young teenager whose family, whose childhood, and whose very life is destroyed by the war. Her lost innocence and her will to survive and protect those she loves is the heart of this book.

As a book, it took me a while to get into the story. The book spends time building the three women's back stories which are unrelated. That fact and the alternating chapters give this book a slow start. However, gradually, I find myself more and more engaged and reading quickly to see what happens next. Interesting, this World War II novel does not end with the end of the War because that was not the end of the story of the Ravensbrück rabbits. The book brings that history to a close.

This debut novel is a emotional telling of a horrific history and a story that draws me in emotionally. I look forward to reading more from the author.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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