Tuesday, May 4, 2021

The Woman With the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff

Happy Book Birthday to Pam Jenoff whose latest, The Woman With the Blue Star, is out today!

Sadie's life has been forever changed now that the Germans have a hold on Poland. 

Her family was forced to move from their cozy apartment to the ghetto and her father's firm had to let him go because he was a Jew. But when the Germans start emptying the ghetto, Sadie and her family manage to escape to Krakow's sewers. 

Their new life is miserable—limited food brought in by the one person they can trust to help them, everything dank and wet, and the smell is awful. But it is life! 

And then Sadie makes a friend from the streets above. 

Ella lives comfortably enough. There is always food on the table, even if it comes from her stepmother's new friends. But Ella has no one she can trust or rely on. Now that her father is missing, presumed dead, Ella only lives in the house by the grace of her stepmother. And she hates it.

But when Ella sees Sadie, through a grate in the street, she knows she has to do something to help. Something to make a difference. 

I've never read In the Sewers of Lvov by Robert Marshall. It is the true story of the account that inspired Jenoff's latest. But I have actually seen In Darkness, the film based on that book. The Woman With the Blue Star is not that story, but again, it is inspired by it. 

Sadie once had dreams of attending medical school. She and her family led a happy and comfortable life—her father was an accountant and Sadie was the couple's only child. But then the Germans came. 

Sadie is eighteen when we meet her in 1942. She barely escapes being hauled off by German soldiers during a daytime raid of the ghetto, and her parents know things have gone from bad to worse. A few months later, her mother now pregnant with a much wanted second child, the family goes into hiding below the city streets. 

Ella, meanwhile, lives alongside the Germans in Krakow. But like many, she doesn't support the war or the Germans. Her existence is precarious, she knows. Her father enlisted and has been reported missing. Her boyfriend has gone off to fight, breaking their relationship and her heart before setting off, certain he won't return. Left alone with her stepmother, who she's never gotten along with, she fills her days painting and waiting for the end of the war. All the while hiding out from her stepmother's endless parties with German soldiers. 

So when Ella meets and decides to help Sadie, she's taking a huge risk. 

And that's the draw to a story like this: average people fighting, even in small ways, against evil. 

Jenoff's author's note at the end draws comparison to writing about Sadie's experienced isolation and the events of the past year. And it's virtually impossible not to feel the suffocation and claustrophobia of Sadie's existence. It's also completely impossible not to have your heart torn to pieces reading her story, knowing that even though this particular story is fiction, the events the story are based on happened not so very long ago. 

Jenoff herself is a fascinating person. She's a bestselling author who lived in Krakow once upon a time, working at the US Consulate there. Her expertise in WWII history and her deft hand at building rounded and fully developed characters are both things that make her books so adored by readers. 

The Woman With the Blue Star is an emotional read that will remind you that there are indeed heroes amongst everyday people and that even in the worst circumstances, hope, hard as it may be to hold on to, can be all the difference in the world. 

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