Book Review: The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

 

In 1941, during humanity’s darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Marriage of Opposites Alice Hoffman. 

In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it’s his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she’s destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.

In The World That We Knew, author Alice Hoffman brings her unique infusion of magic and nature to a store of survival during the worst of times. Starting in Berlin in 1941, the story introduces us to Hanni and her young daughter Lea. Hanni knows it’s only a matter of time until they’re captured and sent to a death camp like the rest of the Jews around them. Desperate to save Lea, Hanni begs for a miracle from the rabbi known to have mystical abilities, but instead, his daughter Ettie offers help in exchange for an escape opportunity for her and her younger sister.

Etti, having listened outside her father’s door for years, has herself grown wise in the art of Jewish mysticism, and uses her knowledge to create a golem — a powerful creature made from clay shaped into human form and brought to life through secret rituals, whose entire purpose is to protect Lea. Hanni can’t escape with her elderly, disabled mother, nor can she leave her behind, so she sends Lea away in care of Ava the golem, to seek what safety might be available to them in France.

France isn’t exactly safe for Jews either. Finding refuge with the Levi family, and joined by Etti, Lea and Ava are still at risk, and finally make their escape before their new shelter is raided by Nazis — but first, Lea forms a connection with the young son of the Levi family, Julien. Lea and Julien make only one demand of one another: stay alive.

From here, the story spirals out in multiple directions. We follow Lea and Ava from one temporary haven to another, including a remote convent where the nuns shelter the children who come to them, at risk of their own lives. We follow Etti into the forests as she seeks and then finds the resistance, desiring only vengeance. We follow Julien on his own path toward escape, refuge, and meaning. For each, and for the other characters we meet, there are dangers around every corner — and yet, there is also the opportunity to help others, to find meaning even in the middle of horror and tragedy.

Once upon a time something happened that you never could have imagined, a spell was broken a girl was saved, a rose grew out of a tooth buried deep in the ground, love was everywhere, and people who had been taken away continued to walk with you, in dreams and in the waking world.

The writing in The World That We Knew is just gorgeous. The author evokes the glory of the natural world, even as the people in it carry out horrific deeds and leave destruction in their wake. There’s magic all around, both in the form of Ava, the golem who starts as a mere bodyguard but finds her own personhood as time goes on, and in the flowers, bees, and birds that surround our characters and interact with them in unexpected ways.

Every now and then a crow would soar past with a gold ring or coat button in its beak, a shiny souvenir of murder.

The characters are lovely and memorable. I especially loved Ava, but it’s also wonderful and awful to see Lea grow up during war, having lost eveyrthing, but still clinging to her mother’s love and her connection to Julien. But really, I can’t just single these two out. There are side characters who come into the story briefly, whose stories we come to know before they exit once more, and their stories have power as well. In some ways, it feels as though the author has painted a picture through her writing of all the lost potential represented by the millions murdered during this terrible time.

And yet, the book is not without hope. Despite the tragedies, there’s still goodness, the possibility of a future, and the possibility of meaning:

What had been created was alive. Ettie did not see clay before her, but rather a woman who had been made by women, brought to life by their blood and needs and desires.

I don’t think I can really do justice to how special and beautiful this book is. The writing is superb, and the story leaves an indelible impression. Highly recommended.

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The details:

Title: The World That We Knew
Author: Alice Hoffman
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: September 24, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: HIstorical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Promised Land by Martin Fletcher

 

Promised Land is the sweeping saga of two brothers and the woman they love, a devastating love triangle set against the tumultuous founding of Israel.

The story begins when fourteen-year-old Peter is sent west to America to escape the growing horror of Nazi Germany. But his younger brother Arie and their entire family are sent east to the death camps. Only Arie survives.

The brothers reunite in the nascent Jewish state, where Arie becomes a businessman and one of the richest men in Israel while Peter becomes a top Mossad agent heading some of Israel’s most vital espionage operations. One brother builds Israel, the other protects it.

But they also fall in love with the same woman, Tamara, a lonely Jewish refugee from Cairo. And over the next two decades, as their new homeland faces extraordinary obstacles that could destroy it, the brothers’ intrigues and jealousies threaten to tear their new lives apart.

Promised Land is at once the gripping tale of a struggling family and an epic about a struggling nation.

Promised Land is an ambitious novel about family and love, set in the aftermath of the Holocaust and tracking two brothers’ lives during the early years following Israel’s independence.

As the book opens, Peter and Arie are young boys living with their family in Germany as war looms. Their parents are able to send Peter to America, but the rest of the family can’t avoid the Nazi terror, ultimately being sent to concentration camps.

Peter spends his teens with a kind American family before fighting in WWII, then ultimately moving to the new state of Israel and joining its intelligence service. Arie survives Auschwitz, but the rest of the family perishes, and Arie too ends up in Israel, where the brothers are reunited. A meeting with an Egyptian Jewish refugee, Tamara, changes both brothers’ lives. Peter and Tamara have an instant connection and a moment of passion, but Peter is sent on a mission with no communication possible for months. Meanwhile, Arie woos Tamara, and by the time Peter returns home, Arie and Tamara are married and expecting a child.

Promised Land takes place over a roughly 20-year period, from Israel’s birth in 1948 through the Six Day War in 1967. As the brothers and their families build their lives, we see the country also build and develop. Peter rises in the ranks of the Mossad, known for his operational expertise and sense of honor, while Arie becomes an astute businessman, always ahead of the curve in seeing opportunities for making money and profiting from the growth of the nation. Peter marries a lovely woman, a fellow agent, and has a good life with her; Arie and Tamara, while becoming fabulously wealthy, have a rocky marriage due to Arie’s excesses and infidelities.

Eventually, the love triangle between Peter, Arie, and Tamara explodes, which isn’t surprising… the only surprising element is how long it takes to reach that point.

In terms of my reaction to the book, I was hooked from start to finish, but at the same, I felt that the emotional set-up of the relationships in the story was somewhat flimsy and not well-developed. Arie is a terrible husband, no two ways about it, and just isn’t a particularly good guy. Why Tamara chose to stay with him really makes no sense, and neither does his reaction to learning the truth about Tamara and Peter, other than demonstrating Arie’s possessiveness and selfishness.

Peter really is a good person, a devoted family man and brother, and he acts in Arie’s best interest even when Arie is engaging in shady, criminal behavior. He is a good loving husband to his first wife, and (spoiler alert) after her untimely death, denies  his love for  Tamara well past the point when there was a reason for either of them to think that her marriage was worth saving.

What this book does very well, and what makes it a deeper read than a typical love triangle story, is the positioning of these characters at such a distinct and eventful moment in history.  The author, a former news correspondent, uses his well-researched knowledge of the events of the time to paint a portrait of a people’s psychology.

We come to understand the underlying needs, fears, and guilt of a Holocaust survivor. While despising much of Arie’s actions, I could also sympathize with his pain and understand why he acts the way he acts and what drives him to pursue wealth, power, and admiration.

We also learn about the psychology of the early Israelis, coming from the horrors of genocide, knowing that their new homeland may not be a safe place, and wanting desperately to find the security so long denied. The author does not sugarcoat the more unpleasant aspects of Israel’s creation, but does show a context and depth of understanding that’s often missing in today’s narratives.

At the same time, as the characters live through Israel’s cycles of war, we get a more in-depth look at the political machinations behind the scenes, thanks to Peter’s role in the intelligence service. It’s fascinating to read about the hidden reasons for Israel’s actions, the lingering impact of Nazi scientists on Middle Eastern politics, and the ways in which Cold War politics play into Israel’s strategies.

Overall, I found myself immersed in the story, fascinated both by the historical setting and the characters’ lives. Yes, I found the characterizations a little formulaic (good brother, bad brother, exotic love interest), but the story progresses in a way that kept me engaged and made me care about these people and their lives.

I did find the ending somewhat abrupt. The story seems to just end. I think even one more chapter, perhaps an epilogue, might have helped to create a better sense of completion and satisfaction.**

**While doing a final proofread of this review, I popped over to Martin Fletcher’s author page in Goodreads and discovered that this book is the first in a trilogy! I guess that explains why it ends when and how it does, and why I was left feeling that there was more of the story to be told.

Despite a few drawbacks that got in my way here and there, I’m glad to have read Promised Land. For anyone interested in Israel’s early years, this is a fresh take on the history of the time, and the characters in the story are memorable and relatable – you won’t soon forget them or their struggles.

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The details:

Title: Promised Land
Author: Martin Fletcher
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publication date: September 4, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Storyteller

The Storyteller

(Goodreads): Sage Singer befriends an old man who’s particularly beloved in her community. Josef Weber is everyone’s favorite retired teacher and Little League coach. They strike up a friendship at the bakery where Sage works. One day he asks Sage for a favor: to kill him. Shocked, Sage refuses… and then he confesses his darkest secret—he deserves to die, because he was a Nazi SS guard. Complicating the matter? Sage’s grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.

What do you do when evil lives next door? Can someone who’s committed a truly heinous act ever atone for it with subsequent good behavior? Should you offer forgiveness to someone if you aren’t the party who was wronged? And most of all—if Sage even considers his request—is it murder, or justice?

How do I even begin to describe a book as powerful and devastating as The Storyteller? While I knew the basic premise, I had no idea what I was in for when I first started reading it.

At the outset, we meet Sage, a reclusive young woman bearing scars of a tragic accident that cost her her parents. Sage lives alone in a small town in New Hampshire, where she works nights — again, alone — baking a miraculous, marvelous assortment of breads for the small bakery that employs her. Baking is both Sage’s passion and an escape, providing her with distraction and a focus, as well as a good excuse to avoid almost everyone.

It’s silly to anthropomorphize bread, but I love the fact that it needs to sit quietly, to retreat from touch and noise and drama, in order to evolve.

I have to admit, I often feel that way myself.

Sage is forced out of her comfort zone only when she attends a grief support group, where she meets and befriends a newer member, Josef, a sweet old man in his 90s who seems to be just as lonely as Sage. Gradually, the two connect and begin to share bits and pieces of their lives, but Sage’s pleasure in the friendship grinds to a crashing halt when Josef confesses his Nazi past to Sage and asks her to help him die.

Sage is aware that her beloved grandmother Minka is a Holocaust survivor, and remembers catching a brief glimpse of the tattoo on her arm. But Minka has never said a word about her experiences and refuses to answer questions. Sage doesn’t know where to turn. Josef is a well-respected member of the community, a man known as an excellent teacher, kind to all, a man who always did his best to help the town. How can he be a Nazi? In desperation and disgust, Sage tries to connect with law enforcement, and is finally directed to the Federal agency which investigates alleged war criminals, where an agent named Leo Stein takes Sage’s call. Leo encourages Sage to get more information. It’s not enough to know that Josef has claimed to be a former SS agent. In order to take any action, they’ll need to be able to tie him to the historical records through facts, witness reports, or other details that can’t be fabricated.

Why is this book called The Storyteller? Within the novel, we get story upon story. The book opens with a scene that seems like something out of a different world — a tale with a folkloric flavor set in a small Polish village, in which the main character is the baker’s daughter, who feels a growing attraction to a strange young man who’s just arrived in the town, which is also beset by strange animal attacks. It’s not obvious, at first, how this tale, which weaves in between chapters of the contemporary story, actually fits into the main narrative, but it does, and is worth paying attention to.

After the initial section of the book sets up the story of Sage and Josef, we move into the heart of the book, which consists of two more sets of stories. First, we hear from Josef, who tells Sage that he is not Josef Weber after all, but Reiner Hartmann, an SS officer whom Leo is able to find in the historical record. Josef relates the story of his life to Sage, from his childhood in a typical German family to his growing success in Hitler Youth, to enrolling in the SS and becoming a part of the death machine that rolled through Poland. His story includes unflinching looks at the horrors in which he participated, slaughtering men, women, and children in village after village, and finally becoming a lead officer at Auschwitz, overseeing all female prisoners.

Josef’s confession to Sage isn’t enough, though. In order for Leo to take legal action and start the long process that could lead to extradition, deportation, and facing trial for his crimes, they need to be able to tie Josef’s story to something contained in the secret files on Reiner Hartmann, something that couldn’t have been gleaned from the public record. And at this point, Sage takes Leo to meet Minka — and Minka breaks her decades of silence by relating the terrible story of her girlhood, the fate of her family, and her own experiences in Auschwitz.

Minka’s story is the true center of the book, and Minka herself most aptly fits the role of the title, The Storyteller. Minka’s tale is lengthy, detailed, heartbreaking, and horrific. This is the longest section of the book, and is simply devastating to read. I won’t go into detail here; on the one hand, anyone who’s read the stories of Holocaust survivors will recognize some of the common elements here, yet on the other hand, Minka’s narrative is so personal and closely-observed that each loss and each degree of suffering feels like it happened to people we know. Within Minka’s narrative of what she lived through are more bits and pieces of the village tale that’s sprinkled throughout The Storyteller, and we finally discover the link between the book’s characters and the events of the tale.

The central question in The Storyteller is one of forgiveness and atonement. Can someone truly be forgiven for past crimes? Whose job, and whose right, is it to forgive? Can someone who’s committed evil acts ever make up for them? Do 50 years of helping others erase a heinous past? Does it make sense to prosecute a 95-year-old man for the crimes he committed almost seventy years earlier?

I don’t know what this person did you you, and I am not sure I want to. But forgiving isn’t something you do for someone else. It’s something you do for yourself. It’s saying, You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me. It’s saying, You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.

There are no easy answers here. Sage does what she feels to be the right thing by bringing in Leo and cooperating in the investigation, yet she feels a moral obligation toward Josef too. When she looks at him, she sees the horrors he committed, but at the same time she see a lonely, frail old man who loves his dog and mourns his wife of fifty years. Can she feel sorry for him even while feeling repulsed by all she knows? And how does hearing her grandmother’s story affect her ability to listen to the request Josef continues to make of her?

While painting a vivid portrait of a period of history that must not be forgotten, the author is also making an important statement about the power of stories:

Fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Secrets, lies, stories. We all tell them. Sometimes, because we hope to entertain. Sometimes, because we need to distract.

And sometimes, because we have to.

Jodi Picoult’s fiction tends not to come with easy answers. Of the four or five of her books which I’ve read, all include moral quandaries — people put in difficult or almost impossible positions, where the path forward is murky and ethical questions abound. The same is true of The Storyteller. There’s much food for thought here, and no matter what you think of Josef himself, his request, and Sage’s actions, you’ll definitely find yourself replaying scenes in your mind over and over. I’d imagine that the ending will be controversial for many, and there are certainly plenty of arguments to be made as to why it is or isn’t the right ending, or what the characters should or should not have done.

Ultimately, The Storyteller is a tale of pain and loss, but at the same time, it inspires hope simply by allowing the reader to bear witness to the courage and sacrifice that accompany all the horrors which Minka shares through her story. The Storyteller is not a light or easy read, but it’s an important one, and I applaud the author for creating a work of fiction that explores such a horrible piece of history with grace and honesty.

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The details:

Title: The Storyteller
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: February 26, 2013
Length: 460 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased