Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls
by Martha Hall Kelly
Release Date: April 5th 2016
2016 Ballantine Books
Kindle Edition; 487 Pages
ISBN: 978-1101883075
Genre: Fiction / Historical
Source: Review copy from publisher

4.5 / 5 Stars

Inspired by the life of a real World War II heroine, this debut novel reveals a story of love, redemption, and secrets that were hidden for decades.
New York socialite Caroline Ferriday has her hands full with her post at the French consulate and a new love on the horizon. But Caroline’s world is forever changed when Hitler’s army invades Poland in September 1939—and then sets its sights on France.

An ocean away from Caroline, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, senses her carefree youth disappearing as she is drawn deeper into her role as courier for the underground resistance movement. In a tense atmosphere of watchful eyes and suspecting neighbors, one false move can have dire consequences.

For the ambitious young German doctor, Herta Oberheuser, an ad for a government medical position seems her ticket out of a desolate life. Once hired, though, she finds herself trapped in a male-dominated realm of Nazi secrets and power.

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten.

My Thoughts
Lilac Girls was a fantastic read, and I enjoyed it very much. I actually did not know a whole lot about the background to this novel until after I finished it, and I was surprised to discover it was inspired by real-life heroine Caroline Ferriday and her work in helping a group of women who survived Ravensbruck. I have definitely added Bethlehem, Connecticut, Caroline Ferriday's home, to my bucket list of things to see when I visit the United States again this summer.   

First of all, it was definitely Kasia's story that tore my heart.  Having watched many of her friends and family disappear when Hitler invades Poland, she becomes embroiled in the underground resistance movement, only to be caught, and sent away with her sister, mother, and friends.  The hardships these women experienced as they journeyed to Ravensbruck, and then at Ravensbruck itself was heartbreaking and emotionally nerve-wracking.  And yet, while the story is emotional and disturbing, which it should be considering where they were, it was the frienships and the loyalty that really stood out for me, the way the women helped each other and protected each other, especially when Kasia and her sister were selected as part of a medical experiment that brought nothing but horror and pain.  I have to say I liked the descriptions way better than Mischling where I felt too distanced from a lot of the events and the characters, while in this book, I felt really close to the characters, their pain, their suffering, their horror, although I would truly never be able to understand it. The actual events and descriptions are definitely disturbing and are still with me now even though it's been weeks since I've finished the novel.  

I like how the plot is told from different POV; being able to take a break from Kasia's story was definitely needed and I looked forward reading Caroline's story as you got a completely different perspective of the war, from a woman who is struggling to help in a country that seems to be somewhat indifferent to the plight of people in Europe.  Caroline was a remarkable lady, courageous, strong, confident, in a time when women were meant to marry and have babies.  My only disappointment with her story is that not enough of her work for the women of Ravensbruck was really mentioned, more just in passing and knowing that it was Caroline who pushed to enact some of the laws in parliament to help Holocaust survivors.  It doesn't discredit what she did, but I thought it was more important that her so-called romance, which I think would have been better left out of the book. 

As far as Herta goes, I didn't like her character right from the beginning.  Although a victim of sexual abuse, which I think was supposed to make you feel sorry for her, she was a cold woman, who didn't really empathize with the other characters in the novel, and because of this, I didn't empathize with her at all, or with her position.  There were moments when she questioned what she was doing, but her whole demeanor was all about proving that a woman could do what a man could, and that won out over ethics and morals.  I get that she was in a tough position, but some of the other doctors left because they couldn't deal with the situation, so why did she stay?  Being responsible for some of the ghastly medical experiments set up by her supervisor, Dr. Karl Gebhardt, I felt no empathy towards her whatsoever.  Putting nails, glass, sand, wood, dirt, etc...into open wounds to simulate combat wounds is just part of what she did. Horrible, horrible!!  And this doctor, Herta, is a real historical figure, the only female defendant in the Nuremberg Medical Trial.

Lilac Girls is an amazing story of resiliency and courage, told from the perspective of three characters, which gives you an idea of how different things were depending on what side you were on, or on what side of the ocean you were on.  I liked the different POV because it gave you much needed relief from the more intense concentration camp scenes and what was happening with Kasia and Herta.  It is beautifully written, and the amount of research that went into this book is clearly evident.  While the author definitely portrays the horrors that people can do to one another, it also shows how people can be resilient, courageous, and loyal despite these horrors.  I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in WWII or to anyone who just enjoys good, solid historical fiction.