Monday, April 17, 2017

The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

I want to talk to you about a book that is sometimes so horrifically sad I almost gave up on it several times, and it is with some hesitancy that I recommend it to you. While it is a really good and important book, I feel somehow responsible for recommending reading experiences of this sort. The book has a disarmingly sweet title, Lilac Girls; it is very well researched and based on historical figures. There are three central narrators: Caroline Ferriday, a New York socialite and liaison to the French Consulate; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager; and Herta Oberheuser a young German doctor. The story begins in 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Kasia becomes involved in the Polish underground as a courier, which eventually leads to her arrest along with the arrests of her sister Zuzanna and her mother. After being introduced to Kasia and her girlfriends in the Polish town of Lublin, very soon the action switches to Ravensbruck, the German concentration camp for women, allegedly a re-education center where women are to be corrected and repatriated.

In fact, the conditions at Ravensbruck are deplorable from the beginning.  Beneath a façade of pretty flower boxes and rows of linden trees, the sadistic woman guards with their ferocious Alsatian guard-dogs do as they please with the women prisoners. Herta Oberheuser is an ambitious and bright young doctor, but in spite of Hitler’s claim that men and women professionals will be equally respected, Gerta is sent to Ravenbruck almost as a punishment, and she vows on her first day there that she will be gone by sunup. Instead she decides to wow her male bosses and to show them she is the most accomplished doctor at the camp. 

Without dwelling too long on the horrendous experiments carried out at Ravenbruck, let me say simply that in attempting to mimic traumatic battlefield injuries, many of the women and young girls were operated on, without sulfonamide drugs and with intentionally introduced foreign objects and bacteria during the surgeries, and then simply observed to see how many would die and just how some recover in spite of the horrible infections in the wounds. The women who are operated on in this barbaric way are called rabbits, both because of the way they hop and and limp around the camp after the operations and because they are treated as experimental animals. 

The novel covers twenty years in the lives of the women who survive the camp and of Herta who is eventually the only woman doctor who is tried for war crimes at Nuremberg. Carolyn Ferriday becomes a champion for the rabbits both during the war and in its aftermath. Kelly, the author, talks in an afterward about her many years of research in writing Lilac Girls. 
I moved from Connecticut to Atlanta in 2009 and began writing at first sitting in the concrete and chain link dog kennel behind our home, hoping it would evoke what it was like to be imprisoned, to feel what the Ravensbruck Ladies felt. But as I read more firsthand accounts of the women’s stories, I realized I didn’t need to sit in a cage in order to feel their story. They brought me there all too well. The terrifying uncertainty. The rip of losing their friends and mothers and sisters. The starvation. I found myself eating constantly, trying to eat for them. 
Fortunately, the last section of the book is about the lives of these women after the war when Caroline brings a group of them to the U.S. for restorative surgery and to treat the after-effects of their experimental surgeries. And while the entire novel is tough on the reader, the bravery and camaraderie of the women is inspirational. And while there are incredible hardships for the women, there are also times of laughter and dancing and deep love. 

Some of the women are able to forgive and move on after the war, others not. In a conversation between Kasia and her older sister Zuzanna (both part of the experimental surgeries).
“At least now Herta Oberheuser is in a cold cell eating beans from a can,” I said.
“You might think about a letting it go Kasi.”
“I’ll never forgive them, if that’s what you’re saying.”
“It only hurts you to hold on to the hate.”
My sister seldom bothered me, but her positivity could be irritating. How could I forgive? Some days the hate was the only thing that got me through.

While I am grateful to have read this incredible story of courage and sacrifice, it is not likely I will pick this book up again. I recommend it to you as an excellent historically based novel, but also a ‘Handle with care’ injunction.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

I only discovered Colm Toibin last year when I read his superb novel, The Master, a novel about the life of Henry James. In his short, exquisitely written 2009 novel, Brooklyn, he creates such a quiet masterpiece that the reader is left wondering at the end how he did it. This novel is about a young Irish girl who leaves her home in a small village to venture to Brooklyn. The girl, Eilis, has completed a course in bookkeeping and is known to have a good head for figures, but there is no work for her in the village in which she grows up.  Through the efforts of her older sister, Rose, and a Catholic priest who takes an interest in her, she books third class passage on a ship bound for New York where she will come of age isolated from the only people she knows. 

Eilis doesn’t really want to leave her mother and sister, and yet she would not dream of telling them that as it would appear that she is ungrateful for their attempts to give her a better life.
She has already packed one case and hoped, as she went over its contents in her mind, that she would not have to open it again. It struck her on one of those nights, as she lay awake, that the next time she would open that suitcase it would be in a different room in a different country, and the thought came unbidden into her mind that she would be happier if it were opened by another person who could keep the clothes and shoes and wear them every day. She would prefer to stay at home, sleep in this room, live in this house, do without the clothes and shoes. The arrangements being made, all the bustle and talk, would be better if they were for someone else, she thought, someone like her, someone the same size and age, who maybe even looked the same as she did, as long as she, the person who was thinking now, could wake in this bed every morning and move as the day went on in these familiar streets and come home to the kitchen, to her mother and Rose.
The story of her voyage and the horrible seasickness that strikes all the third-class below-deck passengers, and of her eventual arrival at a boarding house run by a kindly Irish woman is so patiently and slowly told that is almost as if it is only between the lines that the reader learns of her terrible homesickness. Again, Eilis is unwilling and unable to express her loneliness even in letters home, since to do so would make her seem ungrateful for all that has been done for her. 
Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday. Nothing maybe except sleep, and she was not even certain she was looking forward to sleep. In any case, she could not sleep yet, since it was not yet nine o’clock. There was nothing she could do. It was as though she had been locked away.
Already my rendering of the story is much more sentimental than Toibin’s. Even the pathos of the story is so patiently and quietly spun out and the language so plain and simple that the tremendous emotional effect comes almost as a surprise. 

Although the story develops very slowly, it does build to a kind of climax and with an element of mystery in it that I would not think of divulging to you. 

The only novel I can compare this with in terms of its quiet profundity is Julian Barnes’ masterpiece, The Sense of an Ending. Despite the loneliness and homesickness of Eilis, and the fears that lurk just below the surface, this is also an uplifting and positive work. In many ways a historical novel about old New York, I believe readers will remember it most for its intricate portrayal of a young woman caught between two worlds, or as The New Yorker put it in a review:
Toibin creates a narrative of remarkable power, writing with a spareness and intensity that give the minutest shades of feeling immense emotional impact…Purging the immigrant novel of all swagger and sentimentality, Toibin leaves us with a renewed understanding that to emigrate is to become a foreigner in two places at once.

This is probably the best book I have read so far this year, and I have read a lot of excellent novels. I think you will love it for its slow intensity and its intricate detail about a lived life.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Quicksand by Nella Larsen

In honor of Black History month, I want to talk to you about an author I suspect most of you (even the avid readers) have not heard of, Nella Larson, and her short but powerful novel, Quicksand. Associated historically with the group of artists grouped together as the Harlem Renaissance, I suspect that this novel made a lot of people, both people of color and white, quite uncomfortable. The title is singularly appropriate, for Helga Crane saw her life (and the lives of many, perhaps most) Blacks as lives caught and slowly sinking into Quicksand—lives in which even the struggle to get out, get ahead, get going was destined to pull people down, snaring and suffocating them mentally and spiritually.

Helga has a Danish mother and an African-American father, and from early on feels that she belongs nowhere. The reader picks up her life when she is twenty-two and teaching at a well-respected Negro school. She is engaged to another teacher, and thought of highly by the school’s president, but she is profoundly unhappy and thinking of leaving her position. She had that afternoon “had to listen to the banal, the patronizing and even insulting remarks of one of the renowned white preachers of the state,” and that speech along with her daily routines have brought her close to a decision to resign from her post.
This was, he had told them with obvious sectional pride, the finest school for Negroes anywhere in the country, north or south; in fact, it was better even than a great many schools for white children. And he had dared any Northerner to come south and after looking at this great institution to say that the Southerner mistreated the Negro. And he said that if all Negroes would only take a leaf out of the book of Naxos and conduct themselves in the manner of the Naxos products, there would be no race problem, because Naxos Negroes knew what was expected of them. They had good sense and they had good taste. They knew enough to stay in their places, and that, said the preacher, showed good taste. 
Helga’s answer to this is “No forever!”  And though she has very little money or prospects, she decides to leave the school and her fiancé, in spite of the president’s attempt to keep her there, telling her she is just the sort of person the school needs. Her fiancé, who feels fortunate to have a position in the school remains, and Helga trains north to make a living in whatever way she can. She is frankly and deeply confused by the whole issue of color.
For the hundredth time she marveled at the gradations within this oppressed race of hers. A dozen shades slide by. There was sooty black, shiny black, taupe, mahogany, bronze, copper, gold, orange, yellow peach, ivory, pinky white, pastry white. There was yellow hair, brown hair, black hair: straight hair, straightened hair, curly hair, crinkly hair., wooly hair. She saw black eyes in white faces, brown eyes in yellow faces, gray eyes in brown faces, blue eyes in tan faces....
Of course, life in the north is no better; besides the meaningless service jobs she has to accept, she also has to deal with men who want to save her. Finally, through happenstance, she finds a way to go to Denmark, and for a while things seem much better. Living there with an aunt, she is more than accepted into the community, but as a kind of exotic novelty. She is even courted by a famous artist who expects her to swoon when he offers marriage, “But you see, Herr Olsen, I’m not for sale. Not to you. Not to any white man. I don’t at all care to be owned, even by you.”

Finally, surprising even herself, she returns to America, though she dreads it. Without telling too much more of the story, I will tell you that she finally goes through an existential crisis, and for a short time decides that religion is the answer for her. She marries a preacher, has children and is soon engulfed in that life of mothering, though she very soon loses respect for the adored-by-others preacher.

No happy endings here; after an illness that almost kills her, and with a dawning awareness that religion is not the answer, that she must find a better more rebellious way, “…hardly has she left her bed and become able to walk again without pain, hardly had the children returned from the homes of the neighbors, when she began to have her fifth child.”

Yes, this is a sad little book, but I think a profound one.