On impulse I purchased Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly from the bookstore at Mackinac Island. Fortunately, the impulse proved worthy. This novel of historical fiction focuses on three main characters. Two real-life individuals and a third protagonist who is more of a composite. The story begins as Hitler invades Poland. But the lives of the three are followed long after the end of the second World War.
Plot of Lilac Girls
The author ties together the lives of an American socialite, a German doctor and a head strong Polish youth on the cusp of womanhood. The time period is World War II. Hence the novel is a gripping tale of wartime atrocities and the struggles that remain long after the fighting stops.
Each storyline is compelling and heartbreaking in its own way. Ms. Kelly thoroughly researched the subject matter of the Ravensbrück Rabbits. A name given to the young women upon whom the Nazi’s preformed experimental surgeries. Ravensbrück was the main concentration camp for women. Estate papers and public documents record Caroline Ferriday’s work on the behalf of the “Rabbits.”
The Nuremberg Doctors Trial transcripts provide information on Dr. Herta Oberheuser. And as with much historical fiction, the author re-created the individual as closely as possible. However, most dialogue is fictional. Nonetheless, actual testimony from Oberheuser is used in one of the chapters. The reader gleams an understanding of how atrocities are committed. But perhaps not an acceptance of why.
The focus of the book is on the prisoners themselves. The characters of Kasia and her sister Zuzanna are pure fiction, but loosely based on two sisters that were operated on. Research for this portion included interviews with survivors of Ravensbrück.
Changing Points of View
Lilac Girls is written in the first person. Thus, allowing the reader to grasp the motivation of each of the three main characters. Furthermore, the rotation of chapters is not symmetrical throughout. So, each storyline develops at its’ own pace. An added positive to this approach is one of relief from the very detailed atrocities committed at the camp. Kasia’s story is a tough read.
Recommendation for Lilac Girls
Lilac Girls is one of my best impulse buys to date. First published in 2016 as debut novel for Martha Hall Kelly, both a prequel and a sequel have been penned and released. A fourth novel, a spinoff from Lilac Girls is due to be released in 2023. So, if you have not read any of Ms. Kelly’s books, I urge you to find one. Her research is exemplary, and her writing is skilled. The characters and stories in Lilac Girls are moving and uplifting in the face of personal hardship and tragedy. This novel is highly recommended.