Poetic. Mystical. Spiritual. Mysterious. All of these adjectives could be used to describe N. M. Kelby's novel, IN THE COMPANY OF ANGELS, but none of them would do it justice. I read this slim, well-written first novel expecting another Holocaust story. What I read was much more.
Marie Claire is a five- or six-year-old French Jew who has been living with her horticulturist grandmother in a small village near the border with Belgium. The grandmother has spent years cultivating and breeding rare irises, especially prized black irises. When the Nazis come with their guns and bombs and terror, everything and almost everyone --- except Marie Claire --- is destroyed.
The child hides in a root cellar and waits. After what could have been hours or even days, two nuns from a nearby convent start searching the ruins for survivors of the Nazi rampage. The mother superior and Anne, a young novitiate, find the grandmother buried under the shattered glass of the greenhouse and her non-Jewish lover dead on the front steps from bullet wounds to the chest. Something drives them inside the house where they discover the cellar door. Prying it open, they find Marie Claire buried almost up to her neck in the damp earth. They rescue her, feeding her chocolate that Anne keeps in the pocket of her habit. The two nuns work to save the child and get her to safety, risking their own lives in the process.
The only major flaw in the novel is the characterization of Marie Claire. There is no sense that she is Jewish, nothing to identify her as such, either in thinking or dress. Even young Jewish children had a strong sense of identity and of being Jewish during the Nazi regime --- the Nuremberg laws forced them to always be conscious of their religion. They always had to wear a yellow Star of David visible on their clothing. They couldn't go to school or play or shop with non-Jews. If a Nazi walked by, a Jew had to jump off the sidewalk, out of his way, or face punishment ranging from a slap to being shot on the spot. None of the fear and terror of the times was present in the wooden depiction of Marie Claire. I would have liked to have seen this characterization, so integral to the story, fleshed into a real child.
Part of the charm of the book is that the reader never is sure of what is a dream and what is reality, who is alive and who is dead, what is real and what the characters imagine. While some of this could be attributed to a person's defense mechanism in the face of severe trauma, some of it was confusing and disconcerting as well. Yes, there are some images created by the horrors of that period, but this is more a novel of a few individuals helping a few others, and what makes a person take such a risk.
Reviewed by Debbie Ann Weiner on April 24, 2002
In the Company of Angels