My book club voted on this book by Martha Hall Kelly. It’s a little on the long side and I’ve been running short on reading time lately. Since I’ve gotten more and more into audiobooks lately, I decided to see if this one was available as an audiobook from my local library. It was, so I promptly requested it and needed almost the full three weeks to finish it.
It’s OK. It’s about WWII and is told from the perspective of three different women: an American Francophile, Caroline Ferriday; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish Catholic who gets imprisoned, along with her sister and mother, in a German concentration camp; and Herta Oberheuser, the only female doctor working at the concentration camp where Kasia and her family are imprisoned.
The book starts at the beginning of the war and stretches into the early sixties. Kasia starts working as a spy to take down the Germans, mostly because the boy she has a crush on is working as a spy for the same organization. But the Nazis track her down, arrest her, and bring her to the concentration camp. Her mother just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time (trying to bring her daughter a sandwich at her day job) so she got arrested along with both her daughters.
Kasia’s mother doesn’t make it out of the concentration camp alive, but Kasia and her sister both do, if only because they were randomly selected to have experimental surgery performed on their legs. They had shrapnel put in their legs with added bacteria to create an infection. Some were treated, others were not, and they were left so the doctors could see which of them survived. Kasia and her sister both miraculously survived, although, like many of the subjects, they were both left with a permanent limp. They were called “rabbits,” both because they were the Nazis’s experimental rabbits and because the surgeries left them crippled so they hopped around the camp like rabbits.
In her Author’s Note, Kelly says she decided to make two fictional sisters as her Rabbits because historical reports and interviews said the Rabbits grew so close that, even years afterwards, many of them referred to each other as “sisters.” So Kelly thought it was natural to include two sister Rabbits, but I disagree. Part of the magic of female friendships is how we can become as close as sisters to each other even when we’re unrelated and come from very different backgrounds. Kelly had a perfect opportunity to emphasize that, but instead she diminished it by using two women who were related, so of course we expect them to be close. Her story gives absolutely no indication of how close the women in that camp became as a result of their shared trauma.
Herta is a Nazi through and through. She is young, she’s drunk the Kool-Aid, and she thinks Hitler is just the best. She’s clearly a troubled individual, even before the war, but she’s not totally without a moral compass. When it’s explained to her that she’s going to be killing people in her new job at the “re-educational facility”, she starts to protest. She’s told she’ll get used to it, but she doesn’t think she ever can and she’s set on quitting. That’s the end of her chapter, and the next time we see her it’s a few months later and she’s completely resigned to her role as professional murderess.
Really? A book like this would have been the perfect opportunity to show how a single human being can be consumed by the machine of fascism and converted into a cold-blooded killer, but Kelly didn’t bother to even try to show anything like that. One day she’s a protester, the next she’s part of the system because she needs the money?
Herta really existed and really did all those things. She was convicted as a war criminal, but after serving a few years in jail she went right back to practicing medicine in Germany. In the book, Caroline convinces Kasia to go see Herta to confirm she’s the doctor who performed the surgeries on Kasia and her sister. Kasia goes, confronts Herta, and reports her so Caroline can work her magic in the U.S. to get the government to put pressure on Germany to revoke Herta’s medical license.
Herta really was identified by one of her own Rabbits and Germany revoked her medical license as a result, although Kasia and her sister are both fictional.
Caroline was also a real historical figure who worked with the Rabbits after the war to try to help them attain some of the compensation they were owed, but denied as a result of Poland going to communism after WWII. It sounds like she was a fascinating individual who lived a full and meaningful life, but I feel like Kelly diminished that in her book as well.
I think Kelly would have thought it would be odd to wait until after the war to introduce Caroline, so she had her at the beginning working for an American organization helping French orphans. Then she starts dating a married Frenchman, Paul (totally fictional), who returns to France during the war and ends up in a concentration camp. He lives through the war, but his wife doesn’t. Caroline goes to be with him, only to find out his wife is alive after all, and pregnant to boot.
So Paul feels forced to stay with his wife, even though he now loves Caroline. Caroline uses her connections with French orphanages to help them find their daughter, then cuts off all communication with Paul, which means she doesn’t hear about his divorce.
Caroline never married in real life. Kelly said she wanted to give Caroline a personal connection to France, but she also said Caroline’s mother maintained a flat in Paris and that Caroline visited every year. You’re really going to tell me she doesn’t have any friends in Paris? Why is she hearing from Paul during the war, but no one in Paris? There were plenty of ways to give her a personal connection to France without diminishing her to another lonely spinster, bemoaning the fact that she never married or had children *gag*.
I thought it was pretty funny that most of the book club members agreed with me. As we talked about the Author’s Note (which some of us had read and others had not), it made us like the book even less because we felt Kelly did so many injustices to the women she was trying to immortalize.
Oh well. A for effort?
What did you guys read this week? Anything else that was only so-so, but made for a great discussion?