Will justice triumph over evil? (Soviet Union, Poland, Austria, Germany, and Boston 1937 – 1950; 1959 epilogue): Confession:The Huntress took me out of my comfort zone, but I could not put it down. Superbly crafted and thrilling, yet uncomfortably up-close to the evil perpetrated by Nazis. Kate Quinn’s point: we must never forget.
Consider these chilling facts. The plot – about a fictional female Nazi war criminal being hunted down – combines aspects of two real Holocaust killers. One caught in Queens, New York where I grew up. The other murdered six innocent Jewish children, heinous cold-blooded cruelty that netted her the name Die Jägerin, which means the huntress.
Three characters in the novel do the hunting. Ian, a well-known British war correspondent, and his sidekick Tony, a Jewish-American from Queens. Nina from Siberia joined the team after navigating and flying Soviet bomber planes to defend The Motherland when Germany invaded her country. All in their thirties, all with deep personal anger to hunt down Nazi war criminals with a “hunger so vast it could have swallowed the world.” Their obsession reflected in intense prose that brings history intensely alive.
Yet this is still fiction, so the reader doesn’t know whether the huntress will be found and captured, especially after the Nuremberg trials when the world wanted to move on. Consider another chilling fact: dozens of Nazi war criminals are estimated to still be alive, perhaps hiding out right before our eyes.
Alarming and morally disturbing facts that are powerfully timely as anti-Semitism has dramatically resurged in the US and around the globe. The Anti-Defamation League reported that in just one year (2016-2017) the US jump – the largest jump in two decades – approached 60%.
Also eerily timed is the novel’s depiction of America in the fifties preoccupied with Communists not Nazis. Given today we’re in the throes of Russian investigations rightfully aimed at saving our democracy, the novel warns we must not be so overwhelmed with one enemy that we don’t pay enough attention to other dangers.
The existential writer Franz Kafka was recently quoted in the article What Books are the Most Shocking and Disturbing? as saying “if the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” I imagine he’d be giving the author a standing ovation, if alive today.
Still, it takes a masterly writer to keep hitting us in the gut over 560 pages and we don’t put the book down. We can’t because it’s action-packed, racing back and forth over time and many places, blending WWII atrocities and realities with a post-WWII hunt that feels like everything is happening at once. Time and place are structured so questions you may have about events that occurred during one time period are addressed in another in the chapter that follows. And this pace is delivered through the voices of six characters whose alternating stories are all interesting to the end.
The two other main characters who make up the six cited above (the huntress plus the hunting team) live in Boston where the hunt is set and tracked month by month. They are sensitive, seventeen-year-old budding photographer Jordan, and her mysterious new stepmother Anneliese, an Austrian widow from the war. That’s four compelling female characters who overpower the men, striking a feminist theme about powerful women who make consequential choices. Only two, though, are good and courageous. Of the other two, one is absolutely abominable while the other might be too.
How difficult and exhausting was all of this to put together? Perhaps if I’d read Quinn’s bestselling 2017 female spy novel, The Alice Network (on my TBR list for sure), the answer would be clearer. So much historical research must have gone into developing a novel that spans so many countries including the Soviet Union’s Siberia, Moscow, Engels, and Northern Caucasus region. How hard was it to transform WWII flying adventure movie-like scenes into blow-by-blow, high-wire prose? The image of Nina and her partner in the cockpit of the Soviet fighter biplane Polikarpov U-2 as vivid as watching on the screen.
Dialogue is plentiful and key to visceral reactions. Sometimes it moves so briskly we can’t read fast enough. Sometimes because we’re caught off guard, as it’s laced with Nina’s crude Russian slang (shocking to even Ian whose “chased two wars across the globe”); Polish and German words, translated or not; offensive ethnic slurs toward many nationalities and identities; and numerous unfamiliar historical references. The gritty language helps us feel the rage and bewilderment of a weary, battered world. A world where too many wanted the horrors of the past to stay in the past. Some, of course, could not. We cheer their bravery and moral convictions.
Ian’s founding of a documentation center to track Holocaust criminals reminds us of Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal’s renowned work, but it’s actually another survivor and war hunter, Fritz Bauer, the author tells us in her fascinating notes who inspired Ian’s doggedness. Most of the fictional characters are drawn from historical figures.
For a blog called enchanted prose it must be said that The Huntress is by no means enchanted as in charming. Rather, it’s bewitched in the sense that Quinn has cast a spell over us.
In fact, witches are everywhere, most notably in mythology about water. Nina grew up in a witch-like place by the mystical Lake Ruselka, “the world’s deepest lake at the world’s furthest end,” haunted by an evil fable about lake witches. Her brutal childhood indelibly scarred by this icy blue body of water that matches the huntress’ icy blue eyes. Water is the only thing she fears. Flying, the furthest away she can get from the sea, becomes her passion, her salvation. Nina’s WWII flying story historically represents the first group of female aviators in the war, outperforming the men. Known as Night Witches, they flew at night.
A lot about “wolverine-mad,” razor-toting Nina’s otherworldly toughness will make you cringe, but she also has the capacity to love, can be fiercely loyal, and is incredibly fearless in the skies, modeling herself on her Soviet idol, famous aviatrix Marina Raskova.
Two more lakes are featured. One in Poland where the Nazi witch being hunted did her destruction; the other outside Boston where an ugly accident (?) occurs.
To be fair, Tony’s role is to be a charmer so he can butter up witnesses to get them to talk. He also charms Jordan McBride, the observant photographer and daughter of a widowed father who owns an antiques shop in Boston.
The McBride story kicks off the plot. Chapter 1 opens with Jordan discovering she’ll soon have a stepmother (Anneliese) who does everything to assimilate including changing her name to Anna. Jordan’s quick to snap a picture of her, revealing a coldness only she sees through her lens. Some other things happen early on that lead Jordan to believe “this woman is hiding something.” Suspicions about Anna’s truthfulness burn through Jordan’s story as she grows to love her stepmother. Tormented, she wonders if she’s jealous of the woman who took away her father’s attention. Then again “cameras don’t lie.” Either way, Jordan’s instincts are admirably protective of her new little stepsister Ruth, picking up on how sad a child she is. She wonders why.
Jordan’s character touches us. Her evolving relationship with Tony, and a wagging tail dog sweeten the pot but these cannot compete with the darkness.
An epilogue wraps things up, but we’ll never be able to wrap our heads around the inhumanity. Something even the finest research and writing can’t possibly find the words for.