Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly***-****

lilacgirlsLilac Girls is the story of three women during World War II. I received a DRC for this book courtesy of Net Galley and Random House Ballantine in exchange for an honest review. I rate this novel 3.5 stars.

The story centers around Caroline Ferriday, an actress and New York socialite that volunteers at the Consulate organizing clothing and other essential items for French orphans; Kasia, a Polish teenager that is active in the resistance movement; and Herta Oberheuser, a doctor given one opportunity to practice medicine under the Nazi regime…at Ravensbruck. All of these are based on people that existed, though the story is a fictionalized account.

Kelly’s debut novel is strong in historical detail and setting. Here she describes Kasia’s home town in Poland:

 

Lublin rose beyond them in the distance, like a fairy-tale city, scattered with old

red-roofed pastel buildings as if a giant had shaken them in a cup and tossed

them on the rolling hills.

 

Whether it’s at Ravensbruck, which was a Nazi concentration camp, at an orphanage in France, or in a glittering nightclub, Kelly nails setting. I would like to see her rely less on crutches such as famous people of that time period that pop into the scene—this device signals a lack of confidence to me, and Kelly can get by without these props.

I also would have liked to see less brand name identification, which looks a lot like product placement. The whole advertising jingle for a particular brand of cookies, and a particular New York department store whose name may actually have appeared some thirty or forty times hindered the novel more than it helped; Kelly will do well to leave her advertising career behind when she sits down to write fiction. But this is her first  novel, and given what I see here, I think we can expect great things from her in the future; she is just getting warmed up.

In addition to crafting resonant settings, Kelly does the world a favor in telling about the experiments done on members of the Polish resistance, known as “the rabbits” because of the way they hop around rather than walking after their legs have been experimented on surgically, often done to them in ways that further medical knowledge in no way at all. Though it is critical to remember that what Hitler and the Nazi regime did to the Jews was real—and it’s more important than ever now that most World War II veterans have died and revisionists would like to rearrange the historical record and count the camps as an exaggeration of the facts—few know of the extent to which other groups were also sent away, often to die before the end of the war. The author makes an important contribution to historical literature by doing this.

That said, I have to confess that I am a little bit disappointed because I have wanted to read more about the resistance movement itself, and when I read the teaser for this story, I thought that one character’s life within the story would center on this aspect of the war. Instead, Kasia is arrested almost immediately, and once inside the camp, her story is in many ways like other Holocaust stories.  It’s horrific, and if you have not read any other stories set during the Holocaust, then you will certainly want to read it. I have read enough Holocaust stories, and this character never stops being fictional for me.  And the same is true for Caroline, who seems shallow and superficial despite her sacrifices and tireless effort.

The character that makes me sit up and take notice is Herta. I can’t recall having read a Holocaust story in which a Nazi speaks to us in the first person, and the gutsy depiction of this opportunistic woman mesmerizes me. The offhand remarks that Herta makes to rationalize her choices as she slides down that slippery slope ethically, letting her standards be eroded in order to further her career and increase her own standard of living, are chilling and immediate. I believe in this character. Kelly is deft in the way she depicts this ambitious but morally pliable, solipsistic individual. There are a hundred chances to make her into a caricature, but Kelly’s subtle finesse steps back every time this might occur, and the result will leave you breathless with horror.

Whether to invest the full jacket price of this novel depends on how deep your pockets are and whether you have read a lot of Holocaust literature. If you haven’t, you’ll want to add this title to your collection. And come what may, Kelly will be a writer to watch in the future.

 

Hitler is Alive!: Guaranteed True Stories Reported by the National Police Gazette, edited by Steven A. Westlake**

HitlerisaliveI was invited to read and review this compendium of articles from long ago by my friends at Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley. I appreciate the invitation. The articles in the collection were really published in a tabloid by the title above during the period after World War II ended, and they are presented here as a bit of humorous nostalgia, rather like the spirit of Punch or The Onion. These articles will tickle the funny-bone of some of its readers, but it wasn’t a good match for me.

It appears that Hitler did indeed have a man-made island set up as a place of retreat; most likely, word of the USA’s nuclear weapons program had filtered through and so an alternate location was devised for him and those he needed with him. In the end, his defeat was so clear and so absolute that even he could see there was no point in going there. However, between the Allied leaders’ claims that he was dead before anyone really knew what had happened and a few other intriguing details, journalists had a great deal of fodder to chew on for the period that followed. The overall tone at times nears hysteria, and because of this, it seems comical now.

Because it was not written initially to be humorous but instead was regarded by its writer as hard journalism, there is a lot redundancy, with old facts being repeated and new ones added in. I suspect that a much more amusing novella could be written using these articles as their basis; on the other hand, Hitler has been the subject of so much other historical fiction that it would have to be unique indeed to stand out from the crowd.

Those considering purchasing this collection might do well to go to a retail site that offers a chance to read sample pages first. If it works for you, go ahead and make the purchase. I have to confess I made it about halfway through and then bailed.

This collection was published Jan 12 of this year and is available for purchase now.

Goebbels, by Peter Longerich ****

goebbelsLongerich has established himself as a scholar who specializes in writing about the Nazi thugs who surrounded and supported Hitler’s regime in the 1930’s and 40’s. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House for the ARC.

The fact is, despite my strong preference for meaty, well-documented, detailed historical works including biographies, I really struggled with this one. At first I thought it was my own fault for asking for 992 pages (about a third of which is documentation) about such a rotten guy, but that isn’t the reason I kept setting it aside. I devoured John Dean’s recent tome on Nixon, who while not actually a fascist was a really dirty guy, and that was really interesting reading. This colossal volume on Goebbels, on the other hand, is dry, dry, dry.

Longerich’s thesis, if such a large work can be boiled down to its essence, is that while Goebbels was a villain and a sociopath, he wasn’t nearly as important a player in Hitler’s regime as he considered himself to be. He was emotionally dependent on Hitler and the reverse was also true, but his scope and authority were not as great as many people may believe. Longerich makes his case thoroughly and carefully, using Goebbels’s own journal entries and other primary documents, often citing works in the German language to back his assertions. And maybe that is where part of my ambivalence lies, because what he sets out to prove, isn’t what I wanted to know. I wanted to know—just as we always do when something really calamitous occurs or a really monstrous person draws the public eye—what the hell happened to make someone participate in, and even initiate, the things that Goebbels did. I don’t care about his love life, and would just as soon see a good portion of the first 200 pages edited, since the interesting part of his story is later in his life, once the fascists assume power. However, Longerich has written about at least one other top Nazi, and he followed the same basic format, relying on the man’s early life to demonstrate the formation of his character, and he’s had success and acclaim by doing so, and perhaps that isn’t entirely the reason I found this work to be so unexpectedly dull.

For those who are pursuing research projects that involve Nazi top officers, Goebbels is bound to be a valuable resource. For general audiences it might have been more interesting to see him from multiple perspectives. We see Goebbels through his own eyes, and we see what Longerich has discovered to be fact in terms of the authority he was given and the positions he held. I wonder, what about what others who worked with him thought about him? What about how the German public perceived him? I think it might have livened up the text to include more vantage points.

I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the most thorough biography of Goebbels that is widely available and written in English. For scholars seeking information for purposes of research, I highly recommend it. For the audience that seeks an accessible and interesting history and biography that relates to the Holocaust and Nazi officers, I recommend Six Million Accusers: Catching Adolph Eichmann, by D. Lawrence-Young.

In short, Goebbels is more appropriate for a niche audience than as a general read.