Another fellow Northerner with a passion for historical fiction, Martha Hall Kelly debuted her first novel in 2016 with raving success. Once I finished reading her first novel, I knew I was a fan.
Hall Kelly’s writing style is so detailed and poignant that the reader feels as if they were looking through the character’s eyes. Additionally, she likes to incorporate language from the nationalities of her character, which I find clever and an added benefit to the reading experience.
I’m hoping we’ll see more novels from this author, and that they continue to be full of courageous women of the past.
Published: April 5, 2016, Ballantine Books
Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: rape, war, war crimes, abuse, surgery, starvation, murder, and death.
Lilac Girls circulates around three different narratives that eventually weave themselves together, spanning from 1939 to 1959. Within those decades, life changes forever due to the course of WWII.
In 1939, Caroline Ferriday works for the French consulate in NYC. A woman of forty and retiree off Broadway, she has all but given up on love, marriage, and children, but her passion for charity work has dulled the loneliness she feels. Then, she meets actor Paul Rodierre, a stand-in presenter at a banquet charity event, and Caroline can’t help but be pulled in by his charm. Though he’s a married man with a wife in France, Caroline and Paul form a strong bond. When the war breaks out, Caroline is determined to help Paul and his wife Rena despite the risk for heartbreak. At the same time, Caroline also continues to do all she can for the war effort, including sending care packages to orphans and displaced children.
The same year, Kasia, a young woman living with her Papa, Matka, and sister Zuzanna in Lublin, Poland, is watching the invasion of Hitler’s Army high on a hill with her best friends Pietrik and Nadia. At this point, Nadia has been sheltered from the information about what would come with German occupation, but after SS soldiers raid her home, imprison her father, and send Nadia into hiding, fiesty Kasia is joins Pietrik in a local branch of the underground anti-Nazi movement. However, she gets caught and sent to Ravensbrück, the concentration work camp for women in northern Germany, along with her mother and sister.
In Dusseldorf, Germany, Nazi sympathizer Dr. Herta Oberheuser strongly believes that Hitler will improve Germany. She is a medical student with a bright future as a doctor, though under current regulations she cannot use her talents as a surgeon because she is female, and only males were allowed to be surgeons. She takes part in Bund Deutscher Madel (BDM), the female branch of Hitler’s Youth, believes the German propaganda, and is truly disgusted by anyone considered “unpure” by German standards. In 1940, Herta decides that there is no advancement for her in the city, so she answers an advertisement for employment of a female doctor and reeducator at a “women’s retreat” called Ravensbrück.
Based on the real-life Caroline Ferriday and the true tales from Ravensbrück, Hall Kelly creates a narrative that brings these three women together in one of the most chaotic and horrific historical time periods.
Published: April 2, 2019, Ballantine Books
Trigger Warning: This novel and review discuss the following: war, war crimes, robbery, assault, abuse, sexual abuse, kidnapping, death and murder.
Just before WWI in 1914, Eliza and her friend Sofya are off to St. Petersburg, Russia. Sofya just had her baby boy Max, and the two were entering the Russian high society. Sofya, cousin of the royal Romanov family, is eager to introduce Eliza Ferriday, a young Civil War Woollsey descendant of New York’s high society. After six weeks, word gets around that there’s a lot of unrest in the working classes, and a lot of disdain for the Czar and his family- which only adds to the disputes between communist Russia and Germany. Eliza decides to head back to the US before things get even more difficult, shortly thereafter finds that Germany is declaring war. She immediately regrets not bringing Sofya and her godson Max back with her, and finds herself in a state of worry over what will happen to them… until she finds that she has more to worry about in her own home.
Meanwhile, Sofya’s Romanov relatives hire local fortuneteller’s daughter, Varinka, after Varinka’s mother predicts disaster for Sofya’s son, Max. Varinka is a young woman with a complicated home situation- her mother is weak from illness, and so she has struck a deal with a devilish man named Tarus. Using this deal as blackmail for getting what he wants, he controls everything that happens to Varinka and her mother. However, when rebel bandits burglarize and hold the royal family hostage, Varinka sneaks out unnoticed with little Max, promising to shelter and keep him from harm. This only causes more issues with Tarus.
Yet again, Hall Kelly doesn’t disappoint with her ability to weave together a story that spans a chaotic period of time in history. Not only does she talk about WWI, but she also goes into the Romanov family murder and war refugee crises. Yet again, we also find a hero in another Ferriday woman, Caroline’s mother Eliza, as she provides for refugee Russian women.