Author: Martha Hall Kelly
Published By: Ballantine Books
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I was offered the opportunity to read Lilac Girls, the debut novel from Martha Hall Kelly, I couldn't wait to check it out. After all, I am a history buff and the novel is described as historical fiction set during World War II. I knew I had to read it.
The novel begins just prior to Hitler's invasion of Poland in September 1939. We are introduced to three women, countries apart, whose lives will eventually collide. In the United States, we meet Caroline Ferriday, a former stage actress and socialite who now spends her time at the French Consulate, helping displaced families and individuals looking for information on their loved ones in France. She also makes care packages for the children in orphanages in France.
In Poland, teenager Kasia Kamarick's family is preparing for Germany's invasion of her homeland. Her father works for the local post office and hopefully will be able to keep his job, but the fact that her mother is part Polish will work against them. Meanwhile, in Germany, Herta Oberhauser is working toward a degree in medicine. She wants to be a surgeon, but in Nazi Germany, a woman becoming a surgeon is next to impossible.
And then it happens - Hitler invades Poland and Kasia finds her world turned upside down. Her freedoms diminishing and her friends disappearing, Kasia decides to aide the Polish Underground. On a mission gone bad, Kasia, her mother and sister and the love of her life and his sister are picked up and carted off to concentration camps. Kasia and her family find themselves at Ravensbrück, an all female concentration camp. Now a doctor, Herta Oberhauser has yet to employ her skills as a surgeon while working at Ravensbrück, but that's about to change.
Meanwhile, after Hitler invades France, Caroline finds herself busier than ever, searching for a lost love caught in the invasion while still trying to help the orphans who need her more than ever now. It won't be until many years later that Caroline will find herself in a position to help even more individuals damaged by World War II. Thanks to a French contact, Caroline is introduced to a special group of Ravensbrück survivors and finds that her skills and connections can finally right horrific wrongs perpetrated by the Reich.
When I started reading Lilac Girls, I wasn't quite sure where the author was going to go with this. Maybe Caroline was destined to save a group of French orphans...maybe adopt one to assuage the pain of never starting a family of her own? Who knew? In fact, most people don't know who Caroline Ferriday was or her role in correcting a horrific crime perpetrated on the women imprisoned at Ravensbrück. Most of what I had heard about concentration camps regarded gas chambers, ovens, mass killings, numeric tattooing and experimentation, but I had never read about what went on at Ravensbrück specifically.
That being said, I wondered at the connection between the three women in the novel, especially when reading of Caroline's connections to France. Would Kasia escape and find her way to France to be helped by Caroline? And what would Herta's role in it all be? I was intrigued...no, I was mesmerized. Martha Hall Kelly's writing captivated me. Each woman's story was told in her point of view and I was so interested in these characters, I needed to know what would happen to them next. I needed to know their fate.
As it would turn out, this book is based on a true story. As Kelly explains at the end of the novel, Caroline Ferriday was a real person who worked tirelessly to help the victims of the Ravensbrück experiments, also known as Ravensbrück Rabbits thanks to the experimentation as well as the hopping gait they acquired after being operated on. Herta Oberhauser was also a real person, the only female doctor to be a defendant at the Nuremburg Medical Trial. She performed horrific experiments on female prisoners under the supervision of Dr. Karl Gebhardt, recreating wound that could be suffered by German soldiers in battle and introducing bacterium in an effort to cause infection to see if sulfanilamide would cure them. Many died after the experiment and others were horribly disfigured. Kasia and her sister were loosely based on various Ravensbrück prisoners, but were the only fictional main characters.
As a historical fiction novel, Lilac Girls is an incredibly compelling and moving read. I couldn't put the book down, so interesting was the story and the characters involved. Martha Hall Kelly's writing was descriptive enough to allow me to picture the events in my mind's eye like a movie. The fact that this novel is actually based on true events makes it even more of a gem, because Kelly has found a way to reel readers on the fiction side, while still relating a true story in history - something that should be taught to others and never forgotten.
In that interest, I would not only recommend reading this novel, but I would challenge movie-makers out there to adapt this book into film. So many novels with little significance are converted to film these days, but Lilac Girls is a novel with some historical importance that should definitely be adapted to the big screen. Until then, you must get your hands on this book - you definitely won't be disappointed!