by Martha Hall Kelly
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length: 502 Pages
Release date: April 5, 2016
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.
“But it’s fitting in a way—Father loved the fact that a lilac only blossoms after a harsh winter.”
Lilac Girls follows the stories of three women during World War II who come from very different circumstances. The author expertly strikes a very difficult balance in this novel in the sense that the villains of the story are fleshed out and feel more human than monster, without the tone ever veering into the territory of feeling too sympathetic towards them. This exploration of the inner thoughts and feelings of one of the worst people in the novel, uncomfortable as it was at time, was incredibly interesting to read.
Herta Oberheuser (based on the real woman of the same name) gets drawn into working at a concentration camp with the hopes of advancing her medical career. (No spoilers here, by the way; this can be inferred pretty easily from the blurb and I will not delve into details surrounding specific plot points.) Martha Hall Kelly uses Herta as a window into the thinking of the “ordinary people” of Germany who got swept up into complicity during the Holocaust.
Herta, as well as those who work with her, engage in a variety of psychological defense mechanisms to cope with what they do, but one thing that seemed to come up over and over was the point that, if they did not do what they were asked to do, then the German government would find someone else who would. Consequently, they seemed to be able to view their participation in atrocities as an almost value-neutral decision. I often found myself reminded of the old quote, “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” Because Herta was not capable of stopping what was happening, her own sense of personal responsibility for her complicity was practically nonexistent.
I also liked that the history felt realistic, as I’ve read so many WWII novels which seem to view the US through rose-colored glasses. Hall doesn’t shy away from addressing the fact that antisemitism wasn’t exclusive to Germany, nor the fact that a lot of Americans viewed what was going on in Europe as someone else’s problem. Caroline, the New York socialite/charity worker, provided a window for exploring these themes. The novel extends well past the end of the war, and Caroline is horrified at the indifference she sometimes faces when trying to raise funds for camp survivors. This is not to say that it was all bad; I actually think the tone was remarkably hopeful at times considering the subject matter, but Hall isn’t afraid to show the ugly side of all parties.
Kasia, the Polish teenager, was by far the most engaging of the characters to me. She starts the story as a young and naive teenager, who seems to view the danger of the resistance as glamorous in a way, and she is forced to grow up quickly and become a survivor above all things. I won’t say much about her because it’s difficult to go into detail about her without giving away major plot points, but her story involves an exploration of anger, trauma, survivor’s guilt, and the struggle to find peace and acceptance.
The three women’s stories cannot possibly be more different, but they are interwoven expertly throughout this novel. Lilac Girls is a must-read for fans of historical fiction like The Alice Network (Kate Quinn)and The Nightingale (Kristin Hannah). For fans of non-fiction who are interested in reading about the real women behind this novel, there is Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women, by Sarah Helm.
Thank you for reading! Have you read Lilac Girls? Martha Hall Kelly has a prequel due to be released April 9, 2019, Lost Roses!