Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
I am always on the lookout for a great new book – whether it’s at the bookstore, through a Goodreads email, or when friends talk about books they love. This time around for my recommendation at GreatNewBooks.org, I went back and forth on several books, especially one that is an important recent book, which I read, but honestly did not love. For weeks I have scoured shelves and lists to find a book to recommend, and then I landed on Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, a first-time author. I bought it and devoured all 486 pages. It was that good.
Lilac Girls is the story of three women of different nationalities and circumstances throughout the decades during and beyond World War II. And though Lilac Girls travels through a dark part of history, the story is luminous.
The novel opens with a character named Caroline, set in New York City in 1939. A former Broadway actress, almost forty-year-old Caroline works at the French Embassy. Because of the year, we know what is coming—the Nazi invasion of Paris. Caroline cares about several things: a French actor Paul Rodierre who is speaking at the embassy gala, orphans in France who she often sends care packages to, and trips to Paris with her mother.
Next, we meet Kasia, a teen involved with the Girl Guides in 1939 Poland. But innocent life as she knows it ends as the Germans and Russians invade Poland, and Kasia and her friends become involved with the Underground. One wrong move lands her along with her mother, sister, and friends on a ride via train boxcar to a reform camp in rural Germany, Ravensbrück.
Then we meet Herta, a German doctor-in-training, with her mind not made up about where to stand with the new regulations about various races in Germany. When her father dies from disease, she is forced to work in her uncle’s butcher shop instead of what she has been trained to do. When a position opens for a doctor at a reform labor camp called Ravensbrück, she takes the chance to escape her awful family situation and work at what she thinks she wants to do.
From there, the story unfolds, weaving between the three very different characters in very different situations. Each chapter ends and propels the reader to the next, as each situation seems impossible and each character true. The lives of the characters collide in an unexpected way. Kelly explains in the Author’s Note at the end that two of the main characters were based on real people, as well as the operations performed in portions of the story were true.
One aspect I appreciate in Lilac Girls is the way the author humanized Herta and her choices (or lack of them). It would have been easy to villainize Herta, but instead the author painted Herta as fully three dimensional, portraying Herta’s situation and acts as a normal human being forced into a terrible environment.
The character of Kasia also surprised me. As the years pass, she must deal with her deformities and experiences from Ravensbrück as Poland falls into Russian hands and Communism. One thought-provoking statement lingers in my mind, on Kasia’s struggle in the years beyond the concentration camp: “I’d survived Ravensbrück. How could ordinary life be harder than that?”
The relationships in Lilac Girls make the story indelible, the love and struggles between sisters, mothers and daughters, and the men they love.
“I caught a glimpse of Paul in the crowd and felt a rush of retrouvailles, another one of those words that do not translate in English, which means “the happiness of meeting someone you love again after a long time.””
After recently living in Prague for four years, and after touring Terezin and hearing local stories from the same era, I am impressed with the amount of research Kelly did in the writing of Lilac Girls. Details fill each page, clearly only discovered through passionate research and authentic interest.
In the end, the theme that spoke to me most clearly was one of overcoming the past. When we can walk through impossible trials hand-in-hand with those we love, and recount those histories together later, we can move on in forgiveness, which is triumph—letting go of what tortured us for too long and reaching for the good that lies ahead. For no matter how hard our paths may be, there is always still hope. In reading Lilac Girls, it is impossible not to find hope, too.
Lilac Girls is a beautiful rendering of a period in history that must not be forgotten, and is one great new book I highly recommend.