Set during the horrors of World War II, Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel, LILAC GIRLS, confronts the Nazi regime from three different angles through the lives of three incredible women --- two real-life characters and one fictitious combination of several real women. Beginning in September 1939, the book guides readers through World War II and beyond, with each woman offering her side of events. As they tell their stories, readers are given a profound, in-depth view of the effects of Hitler’s power, both in Europe and in our own country.
The first character introduced to readers is New York socialite and former actress Caroline Ferriday. Left single after a shocking breakup, Caroline devotes her life to working with the French consulate in New York City. Although her life is busy, she thoroughly enjoys attending to French citizens living in New York and overseeing the French Families Fund --- a charity project dedicated to sending comfort boxes to orphans overseas. When first we meet her, she is frantically trying to secure a gala keynote speaker for an important event. In a pinch, she settles on Paul Rodierre, a handsome, devilish French-born actor. Although he is married, it is easy to see that he is taken with Caroline’s no-nonsense attitude and humble dedication to her cause. She, too, is swept away by his passion, and the two strike up a comfortable friendship marked by shared lunches and secret outings. Although the two enjoy their fleeting time together, their lives suddenly change when Adolf Hitler invades Poland, beginning one of the worst tragedies to ever befall humankind.
The second of the three women is the fictitious Kasia, a young Polish girl whose life has only been recently affected by Hitler’s invasion. When we meet her, however, she is just a teen and unconcerned with the future implications of Hitler’s regime. In fact, when we first see Kasia, she and her best friends, Pietrik and Nadia, have spent the night observing Polish refugees who have set up camp at a nearby field. Although they recognize the horror of the situation, it has not yet marred their lives, so they are still hopeful that help will come. Soon, however, the field is bombed and reality comes crashing down on Kasia, effectively ending her childhood.
"LILAC GIRLS is truly an incredible novel, and I commend Kelly’s bravery in sharing her characters’ stories past the point where many authors would conclude.... This is easily the most affecting book I have read about World War II and the Holocaust..."
The third --- and perhaps most chilling --- character is Herta Oberheuser, a young German girl desperate to become a doctor, even at the risk of her own humanity. Initially, Herta is a sympathetic character, as she is a strong, passionate lady living in a time when women are expected to remain quietly in the home. Her distaste for the Jewish people is quickly apparent when her sick father takes her along on a visit to a Jewish doctor. Although she is disgusted by the doctor’s comfortable home and impressive collection of books, it is clear that she is only a young girl who has been brainwashed by her nation. When the Jewish doctor allows her to borrow an important medical book, it seems as though her worldview may soon change. As Hitler’s armies become more violent, however, it becomes clear that there some people who are simply beyond saving.
As the war begins to take over, each woman is faced with a major dilemma. For Caroline, it is Paul’s urgent need to bring his wife to America or, if this proves impossible, travel to France himself. In German-run Poland, Kasia quietly joins a resistance group as a courier. Although Pietrik tries to protect Kasia, her willingness to take on ever more dangerous assignments soon lands her in the direct sight of S.S. officers. Herta, meanwhile, desperate to realize her dreams of becoming a doctor and stuck with two aging parents, takes on a role at Ravensbrück, a women-only “re-education” (read: concentration) camp for Polish prisoners, German criminals and many other women. The horrifying extent of her brainwashing is revealed as she quickly rises in rank as a German official. Kelly’s careful handling of Herta is one of the book’s greatest strengths, as few authors could write a character so evil without turning her into a caricature.
The women’s storylines converge seamlessly when Kasia --- and her sister, mother and Pietrik’s sister --- are captured by Germans and taken to Ravensbrück, where they meet Herta. In America, meanwhile, Caroline has completely lost track of Paul, who returned to France against all advice. It may sound difficult to keep these storylines straight, but Kelly does a remarkable job of ending each woman’s section on a suspenseful note, keeping their lives separate but parallel. At the end of each chapter, I found myself hurriedly racing through the next chapter to return to that woman’s storyline, only to get completely swept away by the next character’s story. This is not a book one puts down easily.
Any reader with even the slightest knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust can imagine what Kasia endures while at Ravensbrück, but Kelly’s vivid descriptions and careful research will stun even the most informed reader. Kasia and her sister are both sedated while their legs are cut and infected with bacteria, dirt and even broken glass, all in an effort to improve battleground medical techniques. Readers may recognize this practice as a sulfonamide experiment resulting in 74 Polish “rabbits” --- or test subjects --- being permanently disfigured or killed. Kelly’s decision to relay the same events through the German eyes of Herta, their surgeon, only adds to the terror. Every time Kasia and Herta interacted, I wanted so badly to believe that Herta would see the errors of her ways, but, as in history, this was simply not the case. At the same time, Herta suffers her own misfortunes as the stress of her job begins to wear on her mentally, making her wild and self-destructive. Still, even as she begins to break down, she continues to justify her actions as they are “for the good of Germany.” Kasia, meanwhile, is starved and tortured and still manages to maintain some semblance of a life, bolstered by the courageous women around her.
When the war finally comes to an end, Kelly makes the inspired decision to continue sharing her characters’ stories, bringing the women together in a way that, while perhaps somewhat predictable, is no less satisfying. LILAC GIRLS is truly an incredible novel, and I commend Kelly’s bravery in sharing her characters’ stories past the point where many authors would conclude. Even more incredible is Kelly’s extensive author’s note, which includes her discovery of Caroline, a woman she quickly recognized as an unsung hero. This is easily the most affecting book I have read about World War II and the Holocaust, and I recommend it to any reader.
Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 7, 2016