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Resistance Women

Review

Resistance Women

The blending of fact and fiction is absolutely seamless in Jennifer Chiaverini’s latest novel, RESISTANCE WOMEN. Three young women are introduced in the fall of 1929: Mildred Harnack, Greta Kuckhoff and Sara Weitz. Only Sara is fictional, included here because Chiaverini wanted the conversations to be among four ladies, and she is based on the young women of the Rote Kapelle. A fourth woman, Martha Dodd, daughter of the Ambassador to Berlin, comes onto the scene in 1933 when President Franklin Roosevelt wanted “an American liberal in Germany as a standing example,” and William Dodd accepts. The Dodds travel to Berlin, and the associations among Martha, Sara, Greta and Mildred begin.

The warnings about the rise of the Third Reich come early. When Mildred and her husband, Arvid Harnack (a native German), are reunited in Berlin in 1931 after being separated for nearly a year, they see the brawls and street fights between Communist Reds and Nazi Browns. She comments on her lack of surprise any longer, and Arvid stops her short: “Darling, you must never become accustomed to the extraordinary and the outrageous. If you do, little by little, you’ll learn to accept anything.” Mildred understands. She knows that evil is happening and will do whatever she can to stop the insidious build-up of the Third Reich.

"Although we know the outcome of WWII, and the fates of Mildred, Greta, Martha and Sara, Chiaverini is masterful at maintaining the tension and danger of real-life espionage."

The resistance takes many forms, one being distribution of pamphlets late in 1942 meant to encourage the people’s disapproval of the unpopular war with the Soviets. The pamphlets challenge the infallibility of the Third Reich and aim to break apart the idea that the German people are united as one to support the Führer. In response to these subterfuges, Joseph Goebbels arranges for a cultural exhibition ironically entitled “The Soviet Paradise,” which shows the depravity and impoverishment of Russian life. As the young women tour the exhibit, Greta is sickened and understands that after the German people see the pictures and hear the narrators’ lies, they will mistakenly believe that Germany had to go to war with the Soviet Union in order to save those desperate individuals.

Meanwhile, Sara sees her former fiancé, Dieter, now wearing a military uniform. She has not worn her Judenstern (a yellow identification badge) to the exhibit, but she is a Jew. She knows that she can rely on Dieter’s love for her to keep her secret safe, and he proves trustworthy. Several days later, members of the resistance group print hundreds of stickers mocking “The Soviet Paradise” as “The Nazi Paradise” with the added question: “How much longer?” Under the cover of night, a few volunteers plaster the stickers on walls, windows, street signs…any visible surface.

Two mornings later, Sara is told that the exhibit had been partially bombed, but it was quickly repaired and open for business as usual the following day. The fallout of the explosion leads to the arrest of many Jews and Jewish sympathizers, and an assassination in Prague is supposedly linked to the bombing. This domino-effect episode is representative of actions that occur over and over, in increasingly sinister and fatal ways, throughout the novel. Although we know the outcome of WWII, and the fates of Mildred, Greta, Martha and Sara, Chiaverini is masterful at maintaining the tension and danger of real-life espionage.

She is also a master at showing the human condition. Each young woman is brave and intelligent and reckless at times, of course, but she also shows their passion and love of life. A bright red apple and a loaf of rye bread for a shared breakfast. Advice from a sister to “Cherish love. Only love will sustain us in these dark times.” The translation of Goethe in an early morning jail cell. These touches of humanity make RESISTANCE WOMEN all the more an extraordinary story of ordinary women.

Reviewed by Jane Krebs on May 24, 2019

Resistance Women
by Jennifer Chiaverini

  • Publication Date: May 14, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 608 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0062841106
  • ISBN-13: 9780062841100