Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

The Dutch Wife

Historical fiction is always interesting to read, and there’s something about World War II that’s just really extra interesting. Ellen Keith’s The Dutch Wife, however, was a hard book to get in to.

It focuses mainly on Marijke de Graaf, a Dutch woman who is arrested with her husband, but separated when she is sent to Ravensbruck and her husband to Buchenwald. Marijke is given a tough decision: she can either remain in the prison camp, starving, freezing and likely to die, or, she can join a select group of women being sent to Buchenwald to staff the prisoners’ brothel.

Motivated by the chance to find her husband, Marijke decides to go, and crosses paths with SS Officer Karl Muller, who wants to be both a tender lover, and a hardened military man.

Meanwhile, more than 30 years in the future, one Luciano Wagner is abducted from his home in Argentina, and finds his own will to survive sorely tested.

I didn’t pay close enough attention to the dates, so I didn’t realize Luciano’s part of the story was taking place in the ’70s, instead of during WWII. But even knowing that, and despite the tie-in at the ending, Luciano’s story doesn’t really fit in, and Keith provides no context for what is going on in Argentina at the time, I had to do research after the fact to understand what was going on and why Luciano would have been taken. His story wants to be its own book, and despite her intentions, Keith didn’t do it justice, though I do see why she put it in this book (an attempt at a wow-factor ending).

As for the main story, while it was interesting enough, Marijke kind of comes across as weak and lacking in character, falling into a spoiled, pampered life without fear once Muller falls in love with her.

And Muller is so lukewarm, it’s almost worse than a cliche story of a man who turns his back on everything he was raised to believe in for the sake of love. He wants to love Marijke, but he acknowledges it’s wrong. When she calls him out on some of his behavior, he is angry with her and defends it, spouting off Nazi rhetoric.

All in all, the best way I can think to describe it is surfacey. The characters don’t feel like they have a lot of depth, despite the time Keith dedicated to internal reflection. It’s an interesting premise with interesting stories, but I think by giving it three perspectives, she lost what chance she had at creating one compelling story. As far as historical fiction goes, it won’t be a go-to recommendation when it hits the shelves in September.

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Alias Grace

When the holiday dust settled and I calculated how much I had in Barnes and Noble gift cards, I knew two things: first, I was going to finally buy and finish the Outlander series, and second, that I was going to buy Alias Grace.

After watching the Netflix adaptation, I knew Margaret Atwood’s book was one that I needed to read and that I would really enjoy. I was right on both counts.

Grace Marks is a condemned murderess and has been in a penitentiary since she was 16 years old. She’s also spent some time in insane asylums. Psychologist Simeon Jordan is intrigued by her case, presented to her by a committee that is constantly petitioning for Grace’s release, believing her innocent. Grace herself says she can’t remember what happened that fateful day when her employer and his housekeeper were murdered. A scientist through and through, Jordan arranges a series of interviews with Grace to try to coax the truth out of her, but what he discovers will push his scientific mind to the limits and challenge what he is able to believe.

The bulk of the book is written in first person as Grace relating her life story to Jordan, thus, it’s written in a very casual and conversational tone, which makes the reading fast, as does the desire to know, is Grace insane, guilty, or innocent?

As I was reading this book, I was reminded of Cat Winters’ Yesternight (though, of course, this was written first), in that, despite being a fictional work, it challenges what you’re willing to believe, and leaves a degree of ambiguity at the conclusion.

And though it is a work of fiction, it is based on real people and a real case, which I find quite interesting as well. Atwood’s author’s note at the end provides clarification for what she drew from historical records (however conflicting and confusing) and what is creative liberties (mostly where records and facts were missing).

Atwood’s characters, and probably the real people behind them, are complex, and the reader gets the opportunity to puzzle things out herself, which makes for an engaging story. So for those who enjoy psychology, brain-teaser books, and just plain interesting stories, Alias Grace should move up to the top of your list. You won’t be disappointed.

The Room on Rue Amelie

I’ve always enjoyed World War II fiction, so when I read the synopsis of Kristin Harmel’s Room on Rue Amelie, it caught my attention right away.

It follows American Ruby Benoit as she follows her husband to Paris. But soon after, war comes and the Nazis invade and take over.

Ruby befriends her young neighbor girl, Charlotte, who is Jewish, and when the police begin rounding up Jewish families, their lives become inextricably linked.

Finally, RAF pilot Thomas Clarke enters the picture when he is shot down over France. In saving his life, Ruby and Charlotte are drawn down a dangerous, but purposeful new path.

While it was an enjoyable story of family, friendship and love, this book read more like a Hallmark story than I had expected, or wanted. With the potential to be a moving drama, I feel like it fell a little flat, written very simply and without the depth of character I look for in this kind of book.

The ending, however, was very different thank I would have expected.

While I wouldn’t recommend it as historical fiction, for those looking for an easy read or a romance story, this would certainly fit the bill.

Keep an eye out for it when it hits the shelves in March.

Manhattan Beach

I’ve always found something inherently intriguing about the Great Depression and World War II era. So Jennifer Egan’s book immediately caught my attention.

Manhattan Beach begins by showing Anna Kerrigan’s childhood in Brooklyn during the Great Depression. She accompanies her father on a trip to visit a business associate.

Years later the memory is stuck in her mind. Her father has disappeared and the world is in the midst of war. Anna, working in the Brooklyn Naval Yard and dreaming of being a diver, provides for her mother and her severely disabled sister. But when she starts to step out from her normal routine, Anna finds herself once more introduced to Dexter Styles, her father’s business associate from so many years ago. Anna thinks Dexter must know what happened to her father, and Anna finds herself drawn toward a different kind of lifestyle that promises excitement and ruin.

While the book was engaging and well written, I definitely expected a little more intrigue from this story. It was certainly more about Anna learning to make her own choices and deal with the consequences, as well as a story of achieving a dream through hard work and dedication. But with her father mysteriously disappearing, I thought perhaps this would be more of a plot anchor, a piece that drives the story forward. Instead, more than anything, Anna stumbles onto pieces of information related to her father’s history. Finding the truth isn’t something that really drives Anna, but it felt like it could have.

I wanted more of the “noir thriller” promised in the synopsis. While I enjoyed reading it, the book was still a disappointment, in terms of what I thought I was getting. For historical fiction, it was excellent. For intrigue, it was lacking. Even still, when this book comes out in October, it’s worth the read if you’re into historical fiction.

Yellow Crocus

Despite having my first copy eaten by the dog, I managed to read both my birthday books within 10 days of receiving them. Yay me!

Yellow Crocus is Laila Ibrahim’s debut novel, set in the early 1800s it follows the life of Elizabeth Wainwright and her mammy, Mattie, who is forced to leave her own infant son to take care of Elizabeth.

As a consequence of being essentially raised by Mattie, Elizabeth doesn’t quite buy into slavery in the way expected of her, and it is just one seed sown in her heart that makes it hard for her to fit in to her southern belle life.

As Elisabeth enters adulthood and stands on the brink of life changes, Mattie’s encouragement to follow her own path rings in Elizabeth’s ear, and she must make hard choices about her future.

Yellow Crocus was a good book with an engaging storyline. It was a heartfelt story of a girl and her mammy, and the hard choices both must make for themselves.

That said, it was also very clear that this was Ibrahim’s first book (rich coming from someone who isn’t too keen on sharing her own work with others, I know). The dialogue was stiff and unauthentic. For example, most people use contractions (don’t, won’t, can’t), and even if adults spoke properly, a 4-year-old would not be speaking complete and flawless sentences without contractions. And of course because I’ve been looking at dialogue for a few weeks, that was the first thing that jumped out at me. But it also felt like moments of tension and climax were rushed through. I wanted Ibrahim to paint a picture of the turmoil the women felt at different times, or maybe allow a monologue to speak to the wrestling back and forth over decisions.

Overall, however, I think it was a good book, and a good first novel. I think that, if Ibrahim wanted to, she could continue writing historical, multicultural fiction, and be very successful at it.

Sarah’s Key

I’d heard of Sarah’s Key before, but until I had the chance to bring a copy home, I don’t think I knew what it was about, but it made sense to read it shortly after finishing the Book Thief.

Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay, is a story about Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in France. On the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ de’Hiv roundup, Julia is assigned a story, to find out about it. She discovers that Vel’ de’Hiv refers to the days in July 1942 when the French police rounded up Jewish families–men, women and children–and herded them into the stadium before shipping them out to other camps and, ultimately, to Auschwitz and other death camps.

In her research, Julia discovers the apartment she is moving into with her husband and daughter was the home of a Jewish family that was rounded up during Vel’ de’Hiv. Thus begins her quest to find out all she can about the family that lived there, despite opposition from her husband and in-laws. What Julia discovers is tragic.

Throughout the Julia’s narrative we get a snapshot into the life of Sara Starzynski, the daughter of the family whose home Julia is moving into. Sarah, at age 10, leaves her home on July 16, 1942 with her parents. Her younger brother, only four, hid in the secret cupboard, and Sarah, expecting to return soon, locks the cupboard door and takes the key with her.

De Rosnay writes a moving tribute story to the children who survived the French round up and the holocaust. Her characters experience ups and downs, in a break from what seems to be traditional approaches to this kind of story, where it ends in utter grief or else complete triumph. For de Rosnay’s characters, you wrestle with the same dilemmas they do, the moral obligations and the emotions. It’s a story that let’s you know what’s coming, but makes you unable to believe that it will–and to me, those are some of the best kinds.

If The Book Thief deserves a place in school literature for depicting the Holocaust, I think Sarah’s Key should be on the shelf right next to it. They are vastly different books, showing opposite ends of the spectrum. And yet, they are moving, and Sarah’s Key gives some insight into the challenges survivors must certainly face–survivor’s guilt, rebuilding a life when everything has been destroyed.

Based on a true event, I think de Rosnay is successful in creating a touching tribute to all the children who were involved.

The Stars are Fire

Sometimes, it’s just nice to sit down with a book and know within the first few pages or chapters that it will be a quick read.

That’s how it was with The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve.

The story follows Grace Holland, a woman in her mid-20s who is married with two children. Her life has settled into a predictable and respectable routine when it’s upset by fire. In October 1947, fire breaks out on the coast of Maine, where Grace and her family lives. In its aftermath, she must find her inner strength, not just once, but day after day.

Based on true events, Shreve weaves a story of deep emotion. With Grace, we experience sadness and joy. We can understand how trapped she feels, and how scared. And we can understand the freedom she gets when she discovers there is more to her than she knew.

The story is written in present tense, but in third person, a unique style that, at first, I wasn’t sold on. But the way Shreve writes, almost as though you’re sharing consciousness with Grace, makes the writing style really work. We’re not just observing everything that happens, we’re experiencing it with Grace, but with the liberty to form our own opinions.

Though it is a quick, relatively short read, the amount of growth we see in Grace is a testament to Shreve’s writing and character development. In the beginning, Grace is a meek housewife, focused on pleasing her husband and rearing her children. By the end of the story, we find a strong, independent woman who, though scared, has the courage to do what she must, for herself and for her children.

A heartwarming book with bits of romance, suspense, adventure and comedy, The Stars are Fire is great for anyone who just wants a good book to read. Be sure to watch for it, hitting bookshelves everywhere this May.