Girl on the Leeside

An Irish Sleeping Beauty (West Coast of Ireland, present-day): This is a novel with a fairy-tale soul. Sweet and dreamy. Ancient and 19th century Irish and Celtic poetry grace its pages, as well as the hearts and minds of its three key characters, giving it a sense of timelessness, soulfulness.

The poetry memorializes Ireland’s mystical, magical beauty. Seamus Heaney exalted “lough waters.” William Butler Yeats wrote of “waters wild.” A. E. (George W. Russell) glorified “delicate dews” and a “breath of Beauty.” Yeats also wrote of a “faery” and a “beautiful mild woman”; A. E., a “long sleeping.”

Not all the poems are from the Old World. That beautiful fairy shows up as the girl in the title. Siobhan Doyle secretly composes her own poems immortalizing Ireland’s surreal beauty. She possesses a “fairy charm.” Even her watchful childhood friend, Maura (her only real friend when the tale begins), felt she “invented” Siobhan, that one day she’d disappear into her “fairy-mound.”

That’s because of her striking appearance – long dark hair reaching down to her knees – and her mysterious and unworldliness around people. Instead, Siobhan, a “poetic soul,” finds enchantment in ancient Irish poetry and the misty beauty of her pristine surroundings on the western coast of Ireland, the Connemara region. Someplace between Clifden and Galway, two miles down a coastal road outside the fictional village of Carnloe, you might find Siobhan lulled by her hallowed Lake Carnoe – or in Irish – Lough Carnloe.

The thing is Siobhan is not a girl. Though she’s quite small, she’s twenty-seven and still doesn’t know “how to stop being shy of people.” Her hulking, well-over six foot tall Uncle Kee, turning fifty, went to such lengths to protect her he “created a soul too gentle for this world.” He gave up alcohol when he suddenly became the parent of a frightened two-year old after his dear sister Maureen, Siobhan’s mother, was killed in an IRA bombing in Northern Ireland; presumably so was Siobhan’s father, a British soldier – a nod to Ireland’s anti-British history. He’d already forsaken his university dreams of studying Irish Gaelic poetry due to familial responsibilities but not his passion and knowledge, which he instilled in Siobhan.

For all he’s gone through, Kee keeps his feelings to himself whereas Siobhan doesn’t even understand hers. They both share a special bond for Irish poetry, Ireland, and the three-hundred-year old stone pub passed down six generations that Kee owns and the two run together – the Leeside.

Leeside, though isolated, is the cultural hub for this small, remote community. So it is remarkable how emotionally detached Siobhan has been despite friends and neighbors who gather here. Among them are Maura and her husband Brendon, their four-year-old daughter Triona Siobhan adores, a troublesome brother Nialle, and Maura’s father Seamus. Katie is another one of the regulars. She’s a brassy woman who raises Connemara ponies (Siobhan cherishes hers), who has had her eyes on Kee for a long time.

Connemara pony
By Olaf Kleinwegen, via Wikimedia Commons

A third devotee of Irish literature brings us to Siobhan’s sweet awakening. Tim, a professor of Irish studies from Minnesota, is on his way to visit Kee when the novel opens. Siobhan is apprehensively preparing for Tim’s visit, for her uncle has decided to re-open the pub to overnighters. That practice ceased years ago when an incident there threatened his precious girl. Tim has never been to Ireland, but Siobhan immediately picks up on his deep appreciation for Ireland’s “poetry, mythology, folklore, and history,” which stirs her delicate heart, unfamiliarly.

Tim also sees something of himself in Siobhan yet he intuits with tenderness she’s very different than any woman he’s ever known. While he tries to separate his feelings from his scholarship, the truth is he has fallen hopelessly, achingly, in love with her uniqueness instantly. Hence, the set-up in this old-fangled love story.

Tim’s romantic dilemma is how to penetrate Siobhan’s inner world without scaring her off and how to do that from afar. Could she ever leave a place she’s never traveled from, away from the waters that soothe her and the uncle she reveres?

For Siobhan’s part, she’s never been involved with a man. She has no idea if the emotions she feels around Tim and the “emptiness” that bears down on her once he’s gone have anything to do with love. Perhaps the “intense passions” in her poetry are guiding her, she muses, for she had a visceral instinct she couldn’t just say goodbye as he’s about to leave. So she guiltily concocts a lie that assures he’ll have a reason to stay in touch. Their twice daily email correspondences draw them closer, yet the lie shames her, stands between them, and she isn’t sure of his feelings since they’re not face-to-face, illuminating a condition of contemporary life, though so much else in the novel feels as though time has stood still.

A few more examples to make the case for the aura of yesteryear. A Prologue set in the 20th century conveys a “mystical bond between women.” The importance of female friendships being a “wellspring for each other” is a poignant theme of sharing and caring that plays through.

There’s also a nomadic caravan family that stops by the pub every September to sell their wares, including the warmest and loveliest sweaters that pay tribute to Ireland’s sheep farming history. Siobhan looks forward to seeing the merry band of travelers, especially Gwen; also her son Turf (great name given the love of the land), his wife JoJo and their children. They’re gypsies: “members of an ancient clan, ragged nobles of the road, the last strands of a vanishing way of life.”

Travellers’ Decorated Caravan
By National Library of Ireland on The Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

The concept and spirit of traveling is also expressed in the backstory of Siobhan’s mother, a restless soul; by Siobhan who is calmed by sheltering in place; and through all the armchair travelers who see the world via literature, including poetry.

It’s summertime, so we too are dreaming of traveling. Whether you’re making plans to travel from home or stay put and let fiction transport, Girl on the Leeside offers peacefulness. Peaceful like our world is not. Your trip will take you to an unhurried place of sheer natural beauty. A kinder, quieter world where life is more basic. That’s not to say these people aren’t hardworking, but they have time to count their blessings. Girl on the Leeside gently reminds us of that.

So while you’re reading, imagine yourself as Siobhan gazing into the “pearl gray” waters of her lough. Imagine glimpsing the dramatic Aran Islands a short distance away, and knowing you’re among friends who extend a “perpetual welcome.” Imagine an “untamed valley of rough beauty,” with its verdant “folds of hills and cozy knolls,” a landscape so beckoning it seems a fantasy. Then wonder like Siobhan: “How does a person really know where they are meant to be?”

Lorraine

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All The Rivers

Is love enough? An Israeli and Palestinian love story (seven months in New York City after 9/11, mostly): Thanks to Jessica Cohen’s beautiful translation of Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan’s All the Rivers, this breathtaking novel is now ours to read. If the passionate prose soars in English, what does it sound like in the deep and resonant intonations of Hebrew?

I ask because this is a novel of passion about an all-consuming love affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man converging at a time and place that’s a perfect storm: New York City in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

In fact, everything about this novel feels immediate. From the moment Liat, 29, met Hilmi, 27, at a Greenwich Village café she “felt an immediate intimacy” as though she’d known him for “a thousand years.” He felt that connection too; within three hours he was tenderly calling her Bazi, “sweet pea.” And she immediately grasped he’d be a once-in-a-lifetime love that couldn’t possibly last. An impossible love, a forbidden love, so fraught with complications, fears, and realities it threatened her identity, heritage, family at its core.

This magnetic “push and pull” romantic drama is marked by deeply conflicting emotions and the urgency of time. Liat is a visiting Fulbright scholar getting her master’s in Hebrew translation at Tel Aviv University, due home in seven months to fulfill teaching commitments. Her scholarly pursuits fit her conservatism, and highlight the importance of translation as a career. Rabinyan and Cohen’s gorgeous literary collaboration case in point.

Hilmi is the opposite. With his hair a “sea of frizzy charcoal curls,” in contrast to her tight ponytail, his image befits his artistry and idealism. He’s been in the city for four years on an artist’s visa, teaching Arabic and working on a “dreaming-boy” project: a series of forty autobiographical drawings consuming his Brooklyn bedroom walls and floating from the ceilings like Chagall’s “floating lovers.” Awesome, vivid, dreamy echoing their love and the prose.

How bitterly ironic Hilmi’s home is just forty miles from Liat’s, yet worlds apart. His large, loving family lives in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, one of the controversial settlements in the West Bank.

Is it any wonder, then, that the seven months Liat and Hilmi spend together are “mad and beautiful days?” The intensity and ephemerality of a love that “stunned and excited” all the time is conveyed in long, flowing, heartfelt prose. Paragraphs consume pages, structured in brief chapters, as if the author knows she must let the reader keep coming up for air:

“…moments when I can feel he understands me, that he can make his way in and out of my mind’s twists and turns, that I can look at his wise eyes and see the wheels of his mind spinning in perfect harmony with my thoughts. The ease, the satisfaction, the comfort that fills me in those moments. The curiosity and delight of pondering these things together. In those moments when we talk and talk and talk, I feel like I have been a sort of enigma to myself, a difficult riddle to solve, he has come along to know me and to answer all my questions … I feel I am almost becoming him, so close to him and infused with him that I can practically feel what it is like to be him.”

The novel stuns and excites in the way imagery and metaphors intensify emotions and themes. That might account for Rabinyan receiving the 2015 Bernstein Prize for Israeli writers under fifty (the 2014 novel was originally published in English as Borderlife), and that it was also banned from Israeli classrooms. Utterly adult, intimate, so we can see why young adults would also be drawn to it. So many complex questions, so few answers.

Lest the novel’s anxious time period of heightened suspicions does not fully register, it jolts by opening with the FBI knocking on Liat’s door in the Village (she’s apartment sitting for Israeli friends) a mere hours before meeting Hilmi. Someone spotted this olive-skinned, “Middle Eastern looking” woman, contacted the authorities.

If that terrific reality is not stormy enough a backdrop for the couple’s emotional storm, the author ups the ante by wrapping their love in a wicked winter, one of the worst on record (actually 2002 was one of the warmest). The symbolic fierceness of the weather pummels throughout: At first, the freezing weather huddles the lovers as if it’s just the two of them against the world. New York City beckons and they explore its neighborhoods, a treat for all who know and love the city. As their days become numbered and the limits of their relationship are tested, wintertime slides “gloomy and foggy like a film noir,” then so freezing “cold that it shocks your entire being and makes it lose hope.” As the couple’s heated arguments are triggered over politics, the weather ices like people’s prejudices.

The power of art is added to this tumultuous mix. Love has inspired a “golden time” for Hilmi’s creativity. An outpouring that possesses, exhausts, makes him weep.

As the conflict between their homelands erupts – the Iraq War – we feel like weeping too. For this is a novel about many kinds of passionate love, including love of country.

Do you believe in happy endings? Hilmi, the dreamer, does; Liat, the pragmatist does not. Hilmi believes peace will come; Liat, enraged, views his wishful thinking as “binational fantasies.” She’s surprised how alarmingly deep-seated her outlook is, more aligned with the right-wing posture of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As I was puzzling over Liat and Hilmi’s divergent political ideologies, not even sure if Netanyahu supports a two-state solution, The Washington Post published an excellent, lengthy piece laying out how problematic swapping land for peace has devolved, how enmeshed Israeli society is in the occupied territories.

While this is first and foremost a novel about an intense romance racing against a loud ticking clock, the burning question as to whether peace can ever be achieved in the Middle East hits us in a new light. It’s striking how improbable it seems for love and politics to be separated, no matter how profound that love. As much as we hope love overcomes, equally it feels hopeless.

Of course that’s the heart-tugging question that burns here. Will love be enough?

Lorraine

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The Whole Way Home

Triangular Love, Home, and Country Music (Nashville, present-day): The Whole Way Home sings like real country music. “A living heart in a song.” A “dance despite the heartaches.”

“Good country music” – in the straight-talking words of Floyd Masters, Sarah Creech’s old-time country music legend turned radio sage who graces our airwaves from Vanderbilt’s station, 87.3 FM – “should make you feel something, should cover the entire territory of the heart.” Creech’s second novel surely does with prose that’s strong, tender, achy, spirited, sorrowful, angry, wary, honest.

Are you one of the two million fans of the country music TV show Nashville longing to relive the romantic chemistries and musicality between three country music stars before they killed off the female character centering them? Well, dazzling indie singer/songwriter Rayna Jaymes – that “rebel woman,” that “good-values kind of woman” – is back as Jo Lover! As magnetic and torn between “two different kinds of love” as Rayna was.

This time around Nashville’s Deacon Claybourne, the fiery guitar-strumming character wrapped up in Rayna’s history, returns as J. D. Gunn, Jo’s Appalachian childhood soulmate who, along with his band brothers the Empty Shells, is now a “multiplatinum-selling country music megastar;” and Luke Wheeler, Rayna’s calmer, more conservative heartthrob is now Nick Sullivan. Privileged, yet he earned his reputation as the “most sought after producer in Nashville, maybe in the entire music industry – he could play bass, guitar, pedal steel, accordion, harp, mandolin, piano, percussion, horns.”

J. D. is from Jo’s past: she hasn’t seen him in five years. Nick is her future. Until things change, in Chapter 1, The Wrong Chord.

That’s when country music’s latest inductee into the Grand Old Opry – Jo – walks onto the stage of the “mother church of country music,” the Ryman Auditorium, and becomes so unnerved seeing J. D. she misses an easy chord. Noticeable to anyone who knows the music.

Picture the set-up: Imagine Jo as a “young Emmylou Harris” (long black hair, tall, slender), strutting her signature red Ariat cowgirl boots, singing in her “trembling, lilting, Southern-accented voice.” She’s thirty-two, from a small mountain town in fictional Gatesville, Virginia, where “mountains and music make memories.” Her female fans – the ones she writes for – are screaming for her “mountain-girl style,” for the sweet sounds of her fiddle and mandolin, for her healing music.

1916 Gibson F-4 Mandolin
By Anita Ritenour (Flickr: Gibson Mandolin) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hear Jo’s down-home Appalachian twang as she rouses the crowd: “Always been a lot of guessing about who I write my songs about,” she eggs them on. “But I think what really matters is heartbreak. Anyone ever experienced one of those?”

Observe she’s not a folksy Jo when she steps onto that historic stage all made-up in her hot dress and even hotter seven-carat, Assher-cut diamond. She’s engaged to three-time Grammy winner Nick, whose father owns Asphalt Records, the indie label that’s nurtured her.

Look whose sitting in that wild-for-Jo audience! Jo didn’t expect to see him, but you can’t miss his Elvis-looks: black wavy hair and “blue eyes lit up with innocent joy like paper lanterns.” Their estrangement seems to be about Jo feeling he’s sold-out to a corporate label. Once poor as “pickup sticks,” but she hasn’t forgotten what “her mama always said … don’t get above your raising.” That musical mistake is the first sign something is still there between them. If only J. D. could get her to smile at him, “that look that always did him in like the full moon over the mountaintop.” But Jo loves Nick, he’s good for her; she wants no part of J. D. Right?

Romantic tension skips through the pages. Jo’s country music men deeply love her in their own ways, which is why the novel sings. It’s not until you’re halfway through that Jo and J.D.’s backstory becomes acutely clear; it’s not until the novel’s end that the romantic triangle reshapes to two.

Like Rayna and Deacon, Jo and J. D. have a past they can’t seem to get over. But Nick’s a really decent guy, lower-key, gracious, and he offers her a love that’s purer and safer. Like Rayna and Luke, Jo and Nick are to be married on his magnificent estate (in eyeshot of J. D.’s) in an over-the-top wedding scheduled around their tour dates.

Whomever you’re rooting for, whoever wins Jo’s uncertain heart, with the TV visuals and sounds running through your head, the whole reading experience is even more immersive and satisfying.

Connie and Deacon at the Bluebird Café

Nashville – No one will ever love you – Connie Britton et Charles Esten

The plot does bubble with some “thinking like a businessman” bumping up against “thinking with his heart.” How else could this be a candid look inside the country music industry from the standpoint of the singer/songwriter/musician as well as the business executive’s?

The authentic thread continues with storylines about up-and-coming young talent like the Flyby Boys band, amplifying what it’s like to get noticed, picked up, make it in Nashville. It feels like the whole gamut: from the local “dive bar circuits” such as the imaginary Thirsty Baboon, to yearning for a gig at the legendary Bluebird Café where dreams can come true, to the heavy drinking and lusting on tour, to hearing your songs on the radio, to going viral, to the make-or-break publicity in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, American Songwriter, the tabloids, paparazzi, to 360 contracts, to the “post-Napster world” of digital streaming. The author’s research hums like she’s from this world.

The Whole Way Home also pays tribute to country music greats, names we all know and some we may not: Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Reba McEntire, Gillian Welch, Alison Kraus, Kitty Wells, Bessie Smith, Phil Dolby, Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Deford-Bailey, Charly Pride.

Don’t be fooled by the list of female artists or the sole black virtuoso who made it big. The author also doesn’t shy away from the industry’s prejudices. It’s far more profound than “country music was still a man’s world,” that it still sees women as “one-dimensional.” It doesn’t embrace a whole lot of diversity.

Racially, discrimination is illuminated in the stories of two black artists. The one that affects the plot the most involves Alan, a member of J. D’s band, who works at the Black Country Music Association, founded to address the inequities. He hails from the Bahamas but his “songs felt so true to country.” Creech invents contract deals to bring home the shame of racism, yet she imbues a moral conscience in her writing and has a poet’s way of easing the pain.

One of my favorite evocative lines recalls memories of Home, a major theme. Jo, as we’ve established, has ambivalent feelings about J. D. In one poignant scene, she:

“felt time fold in like an accordion. J. D. smelled like red clay earth, like composing leaves on the floor, like the honeysuckle vines and Confederate jasmine blooming in June, like wild roses growing on the side of the road and fresh honey from the hive and barn straw and his daddy’s cow pasture after a spring rain, like the metallic air before the storm. He smelled like home.”

Another moving scene takes place on stage, when Jo and J. D. are pressured to play together for the good of the record label. They choose an old song they wrote and sang a long time ago called “Glass Hearts.” It’s a beautiful title, one that epitomizes the novel. “Great songs don’t lose their power with age.” Neither should The Whole Way Home.

Lorraine

PS Could the novel’s release be timed any better? Tonight at 9PM on the cable channel CMT, Nashville returns with some new characters. Will they be as good as Creech’s?

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’Round Midnight 1

Connecting four female characters to one unique place over sixty years (Las Vegas, 1957–present): You know a novelist has created compelling characters whose stories you care about when you close the last page with tears in your eyes.

’Round Midnight is a heartfelt novel deftly tied to a strong sense of time and place. The emotional highs and lows of the lives of four very different women over a span of sixty years cleverly parallel the booms and busts of Las Vegas by Las Vegas author Laura McBride, her second novel set here.

Write what you know is lyrically on display as Vegas looms as large as the characters. Like them, it bears secrets, good times and bad, fortunes and mistakes – “pain and glory.”

“Vegas wasn’t for the weak and it wasn’t for the cowardly,” McBride tells us. So you’d rightly expect her women aren’t cowards. Take June, for example. Her chapter, the first, opens with the grabbing line: “To celebrate victory in Europe, June Stein dove headfirst off the Haverstraw Bridge.”

That’s just one of many literary hooks that keeps us turning pages. Actually, by the time you’ve read the back cover you’re already hooked by McBride’s summing up her four women with catchy phrases that make us curious about them, and how they interconnect, collide. For they must, we assume, as this is not a short story collection, rather a novel with a lot going on above and beneath the surface. So we start off with June cast as “The One Who Falls in Love;” Honorata “The One Who Gets Lucky;” Coral “The One Who Keeps Hoping;” and Engracia “The One Whose Heart is Broken.”

Next come the hooks beautifully composed in tantalizing Prologues, with an alluring clue or tidbit planted. If you read too fast, you might miss these. In June’s case, it’s the mentioning of a “fateful night.” Honorata’s overture follows, misleading us with a tip that she won over a million dollars at a Megabucks slot machine so we think her life will be charmed but take notice for she also “could almost smell the sadness in the place.” All the money in the world can’t make up for what she endures.

On the surface, a nightclub is the nexus to all four women. Each of their chapters opens there, at different time periods. Their kinship, though, is more profound, which is why the novel is so arresting.

’Round Midnight opens in the late fifties in The Midnight Room; it’s a presence until 2010 when renamed the Midnight Café, a nod to Vegas’ severe economic downturn. Attached to a casino/hotel owned by June (and her husband Del) that’s fictional, yet McBride’s Vegas is inspired by history. Since June is introduced first, we follow her the longest, from her late twenties to her eighties. With its “pin-up feel,” the El Capitan was never one of the newer, flashier hotels on the Strip but when Del bought and remodeled it and June had the vision for its success, gambling wasn’t the only game in town. Entertainment was.

It was June’s idea, a gutsy move, to hire Eddie Knox, an exotic black singer fresh from Alabama. He’s a prime illustration of how the real Vegas is woven into the characters’ stories. Vegas was known as the “Mississippi of the West,” a hotbed of racism until 1961 when the casinos and hotels became fully integrated. Big name black entertainers like Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and others may have performed there back then but that’s about all they could do alongside whites. The “Moulin Rouge pact” is mentioned: the only casino/hotel integrated at the time June sought Eddie out. We like all of McBride’s women. June, a white Jewish girl from New Jersey, warms our heart with her lack of prejudice.

June symbolizes so many “young and old, wanting to start a new life” in Vegas. She not only sensed “Las Vegas as the future,” but that “casinos were all about people and how many hours you could keep them in your joint.” So she, Del, and later their son Marshall, all enjoy business prosperity, but there’s an undercurrent of emotional unraveling that pervades.

Coral, a black music teacher, is the character native to Vegas, although we meet her after she’s come back home from California to live with her sweet Mama Augusta after her marriage ended in divorce. By then, her father had died and her siblings were gone. Back in her childhood home, she’s flooded with memories as early as seven when she’s first asked about her “caramel” skin and overhears something whispered at home. In scenes of togetherness over the years, we see a wonderfully loving family but Coral’s uncertainty about where she comes from poignantly shows us how deeply ingrained and deeply felt our identity is.

Honorata is Filipino. She makes her way to Vegas as a mail-order bride to a repulsive Jimbo. Launching her character in 1992 is a keen choice of timeframe as the Philippines enacted a law in the 1990s against this practice. Presumably, illegal schemes persisted. Since her uncle made the arrangements, her story begins with betrayal, and worsens.

Engracia is Hispanic, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. She’s the mother of a ten-year-old son, “perfect” Diego; her husband Juan is in jail back home. She’s a waitress and a housekeeper in her twenties, but her actions manifest as someone much older.

As it turns out, Engracia’s heart is not the only one broken. All McBride’s women experience heartbreak, for different reasons. And yet, the novel also sends the message that “joy was possible even if there was also a great deal of pain.” Yes, there’s the love and pain of marriage or the longing to be. But it’s the joys and heartache of motherhood – being a mother, doing whatever it takes to protect your child, the bond between mother and child, yearning for your mother – that transcends. The commonality of the women’s emotions, and how the choices they made in a fleeting moment had such lasting consequences is what makes this novel rise above.

Las Vegas was, and is, one of the fasting growing cities in the U.S. While we can watch videos of vintage versus contemporary Vegas and, of course, visit its attractions, if you want an authentic feel for Vegas through the decades, ’Round Midnight gives us that and more.

Las Vegas in the Mid Fifties 16mm film by H.G. Mueller

Las Vegas then

Dean Martin – Las Vegas

Las Vegas now

Drive outside of Vegas and you can still find the “barren earth,” the “rock and hill and sky,” and a “million mysterious stars above” that Coral is nostalgic for. But the mysteries evoked in McBride’s Vegas aren’t earthly, they’re man-made. Each of her women harbor mysteries. The one that may affect you the most isn’t even resolved until the final page. Still, the greatest mystery, the elusive one, is how an author can weave a tale that makes us cry.

Lorraine

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Lilac Girls

Unspeakable Horrors, Unsung Heroism – WWII history you might not know (Manhattan & Connecticut; Lublin, Poland; Fürstenberg, Germany; Paris, France, 1939-1959): “It’s not so much you should remember the name. We should be living every day with the standard he set,” says The Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers about “the greatest reporter of our time,” David Halberstam, unknown or forgotten these days. I cite this because Lilac Girls was inspired by a real life WWII humanitarian most of us probably never heard of. Thanks to Martha Hall Kelly’s ten-year effort to bring Caroline Woolsey Ferriday to life, the standard she set – her philanthropic legacy, compassion, doggedness, and resourcefulness – is now out there to inspire.

Chances are you might also not know about the plight of over 200,000 dislocated children in France cared for in mansions converted to orphanages; what went on inside the Ravensbrück concentration camp – the only camp solely for women, intended for 7,000 but rose to 45,000 “living skeletons” by 1945 – far less infamous but equally sickening; and that of the six million Poles who perished during the Holocaust, three million were non-Jewish.

Which makes Lilac Girls a remarkable novel among a bumper crop of remarkable Holocaust novels capturing us of late. A novel of stark contrasts: A heartwarming do-gooder’s story of tremendous generosity, advocacy, and benevolence to aid and comfort WWII orphans and Ravensbrück survivors pitted against monstrous, cold-bloodedness perpetrated by Hitler and his evil followers. It’s a testament to the author’s rendering that we come away celebrating humanity at its most exceptional rather than have our spirits broken.

One reason the novel is so compelling is that all the important characters are based on real historical figures. It’s unusual for so many novelistic characters to come from history. In the hands of this skilled writer, these characters engage us so authentically they come alive, palpably. In so doing, they convincingly make their stories even more unbelievable.

Contributing to this is the author’s tight, revealing dialogue. Though her debut novel, Kelly’s clearly brought her top-notch advertising copywriting skills with her penning dialogue that’s engaging, cinematic, and spot-on in imparting the personalities, beliefs, and prejudices of three females – all drawn from history – our narrators.

Since this is fiction, we can’t be sure everything we read about them is 100% true but it doesn’t matter. Kelly’s extensive research (take a look at her fascinating, detailed website after you’ve read the novel) and talent enables us to step into the shoes of these three women, giving us three perspectives to examine the war and a realistic sense of what it might been like to live through an insane era we’ll never really be able to grasp entirely. Who could?

Contrary to today, back then everyone knew someone affected by the war. If you’ve ever wondered why your grandparents or parents never spoke of the horrors, Lilac Girls answers why. Would we have found the super-human strength and courage to endure the torture in the camp like the survivors did? How would we have gone on afterwards? Would we have sustained Caroline’s “positivity” selflessly for twenty years in spite of personal losses and longings? Are these ponderings why we can’t get enough of Holocaust novels?

The three female narrators who help us to understand are:

Caroline Ferriday: A former actress whose New York high-society “set” mingled with the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys yet she’s not the stereotype of her uppity, self-indulgent friends. Rather, a delightful carbon copy of her endearing mother, who latches onto “charitable opportunities in the way some eyed a plate of pastries.” Both are Francophiles (her mother owned an apartment in Paris; also a summer house in Bethlehem, Connecticut, now an historic landmark you can visit like the author did), so her mother’s connections got her a meaningful position (volunteer) at the French Consulate assisting French families in the U.S. and orphans in France. The moment war breaks out in 1939 when Hitler invades Poland which happens in Chapter 1 (chapters superbly chronicle the enormity of Hitler’s aggressions), Caroline jumps in to assuage the chaos on both sides of the Atlantic. As war deepens, so does Caroline’s involvement.

At thirty-seven, when we meet her, she’s the only one of the three who brings us some respite – a romance – with delicious prose like her opening line: “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.” She charms us, certainly not what we’re expecting! We’re grateful for this balance in a novel of this magnitude. Her love affair with Paul Rodierre, an “achingly beautiful” married French actor with a “Cheshire Cat smile” is, in keeping with the novel’s authenticity, based on a true relationship; only the man is fictitious. The early stages of their playful liaison enable flirty, sharp-witted, self-deprecating humor, but once war explodes the lighter-heartedness darkens as Paul feels compelled to return to France to find his estranged wife, Rena, whose father is Jewish.

Kasia Kuzmerick: Inspired by the real Nina Ivanska, from Lublin, Poland. At sixteen, she joins the resistance movement. Kasia will change the way you think of organizations like the Girl Scouts. We meet her when “Poland no longer exists as a country.” These brave teenagers played a significant role in Poland’s active underground. We learn a great deal about the victimization of Polish women during the Nazi regime through Kasia and her best friend Nadia (whose grandfather was Jewish); Matka, her mother (a former nurse and artist); and her sister, Zuzanna, inspired by Nina’s real sister, Krystyna (also a nurse). That’s because all end up at Ravensbrück.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp
Photo by ho visto nina volare from Italy (ravensbruck, il lager delle donne)
[CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

(After Hitler, the Soviets oppressed the Poles until 1989. Lilac Girls brings your closer to this country’s repression more than I’d ever appreciated.)

Dr. Herta Oberheüser: While far fewer pages are consumed by one of the only female doctors at Ravensbrück, her psychopathology up-close is still mightily hideous and heinous. A fervent German nationalist who craved respect and power in a society that treated women as inferior to men, she applied for a position as a medical doctor at the concentration camp under the guise it was a women’s “reeducation camp” for prisoners. Though she had good reason to escape her home in Düsseldorf, Germany, needed the money, and a former classmate, Fritz Fischer, worked there, she disgusts us regardless. Early on, when it was obvious what “not for the squeamish” really meant, she could have left. Instead, she not only willingly participated in the cruelty to the bitter end, but was proud to earn the War Merit Cross, a distinction she shares with Adolph Eichmann and Albert Speer.

Lilac Girls abounds with strikingly contrary images. For instance, Ravensbrück was built in Fürstenberg, a resort town described as “a scene from a Black Forest box.” Yet inside: a “special kind of terror we would grow used to.” Herta sees the camp as a “place of superior value.” She says: “how nice to see immature linden trees, the hallowed “tree of lovers” in German folklore, planted at regular intervals along the road.” When in fact that farcically named Beauty Road was satanic. The absurdity of calling notices mailed to families whose loved ones were wiped out at the camp “comfort cards” versus the “comfort boxes” Caroline painstakingly and lovingly pieced together (from former, exquisite costumes she saved) and went to great lengths to send to the orphans is repulsive. What to say of the guards enjoying music amidst barbed wire buzzing?

So you might be thinking: How could Lilac Girls possibly lift us up with all the chilling ugliness? Kelly wisely lets the lives of these three women play out after the war. That answer comes in the unfolding and the ending, when the title becomes clear. The contrasts are stunning.

Lorraine

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