May 09, 2016

Monday Review: THE GIRL IN THE BLUE COAT by Monica Hesse

Synopsis: It's Amsterdam, 1943, during the Second World War, and the Nazis have occupied the city. Times are tough, and narrator Hanneke is helping her family scrape by with her own jobs--the ostensible "real" job she has working for an undertaker, and her actual work, which is serving as a delivery girl for the undertaker's secret black market business. Still mourning her boyfriend Bas's death at the front, she helps the oppressed people of her city find the things they need: extra ration coupons, cosmetics, and the like. Until one day old Mrs. Janssen asks for Hanneke's help finding something special, and unusual: a girl.

Not just any girl, either: a Jewish girl, whom Mrs. Janssen was hiding in her back pantry. The Nazis have been rounding up all the Jews of Amsterdam and housing them in an old theater before relocation to camps, and Mrs. J. is terrified they'll find Mirjam, too, if Hanneke can't find her first. This starts Hanneke on a harrowing quest to locate a girl she doesn't even know in order to do what's right and fight her small part of the fight, and of course she ends up finding much more than Mirjam herself...

Observations: I thought this was a fresh take on the World War II, Nazi-occupied-Europe story, one that's more introspective, like The Book Thief, but with a healthy share of action and suspense. It was fascinating to read about Hanneke's black market business, and the reader is immediately drawn to root for her success, even if she is only playing a small, even opportunistic part in thwarting the Nazi regime. She is helping people in a human way, person to person, and so it seems natural that she becomes drawn into the quest to find Mirjam, seeing in her absence, perhaps, an echo of her boyfriend's absence and maybe an alternate version of herself. 

There are various tales out there which tackle the specific situation endured by the Dutch during WWII--Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, for one, and of course the Diary of Anne Frank. Hesse's book looks at the situation through a somewhat older narrator's eyes, one with some small power to change things, because she is not part of one of the Nazi-oppressed groups. This is not a concentration camp story; it is a story about how ordinary citizens coped, endured, defended themselves and their loved ones, and fought back in thousands of small ways. At the same time, it's also a bit of a thriller/mystery, a quest to find a missing person in a very dangerous time and place. And, in the end, the mystery takes a surprising turn--but I won't give that away. 

Conclusions: I enjoy historical fiction set during wartime and find it both fascinating and inspiring to read about the ways we as humans find to deal with harsh situations that are out of individual control. This is one of those stories, with a very determined and independent-minded narrator who realizes that she has, perhaps, more power than she originally thought. 

I received my copy of this book courtesy of my library's ebook collection. You can find THE GIRL IN THE BLUE COAT by Monica Hesse at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!

No comments: