Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir and Lilac Girls

The Chilbury Ladies' Choir          Lilac Girls

I want to start off saying that I loved both of these books. They are both set in the years of World War II, The Chilbury Ladies' Choir, by Jennifer Ryan, in the south of England and Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly, in the USA, Poland and Germany. In some strange piece of reading fate (and this seems to happen so often) I ended up reading them one after another. It was so satisfying to read two wonderful stories back to back like that. I could hardly get my nose out of either one of them.

Besides sharing the time setting, both books also highlight the strength, courage and resourcefulness of women in hard times. Ladies, we are stronger than we know!

Of the two, Ladies Choir is the lighter read, not that the war years were light in any way. When the town's men leave to join the military, the vicar pronounces the end of the village choir, but the women decide to carry on anyway and through their shared experience they find a comradeship that fuels their ability to navigate harder days. The story is told in several voices, through journals, diaries and letters. There's a map of the village in the frontispiece (is that the right term for the inside cover?) which enhances the story. The voice of 13-year-old Kitty Winthrop, younger sister of Venetia brought to my mind the character of Flavia DeLuce in Alan Bradleys' series of novels, so maybe that's one of the reasons I enjoyed the story so much. Fear, sorrow and heartbreak, all part of the war experience in that southern part of the UK closest to the enemy, as well as incredible personal secrets are all part of The Chilbury Ladies' Choir. The characters are well-drawn and I found myself feeling almost part of their community. I enjoyed this book.

On the other hand, when you pick up Lilac Girls you may be surprised that you are not reading a light fluffy novel since the title and the cover might be a bit misleading. Just the opposite. In places I found the narrative to be so intense and so graphic that I had to put the book down and go for a stroll to unwind. This is not an easy book to read, although the writing is clear and well-edited, the story clear and fast-moving. It's the subject matter that is painful.

Lilac Girls takes three young women of the 1940's and tells their real story. Unflinchingly. 

The eldest of them, Caroline, is the daughter of a wealthy US family, whose mother is a staunch philanthropist. Caroline is built in the same mould, intent on helping orphaned French children, increasing numbers of them, thanks to the war. Kasia is a young Polish woman, or girl, really, at the outset of the war. She and her mother, sister and several friends, all Catholics (that is to say, they were not Jews) are picked up by the Nazis, who had a particular hatred of Polish people and sent to Ravensbruck, an all women's concentration camp north of Berlin. Herta, the third main character, is German, a recently graduated medical doctor, who ends up escaping a difficult home situation by volunteering to work at what she is told is a women's re-education camp. Ravensbruck.

The story of the Lilac Girls is told in the voices of these three women, but what it really is, is the real story of the horrors of Ravensbruck. The initial view of the camp by Kasia and the others is a pleasant avenue, shaded with linden trees and having wooden boxes overflowing with red geraniums. There's even a cage with exotic birds and monkeys at the front gate. Inside the camp, however, conditions are crowded, food is sparse and comforts are non-existent. This is information that is not new to us in 2017. The next part of the story took it to a new level for me.

74 healthy young women inmates are chosen to be operated on in the most gruesome ways, for questionable reasons. These young women, nicknamed "The Rabbits", are left maimed, ill and in chronic pain. Lilac Girls is about what happens to them. It's not easy to read, but, trust me, we need to read this. 

Eventually, as you have likely guessed, the paths of the three main characters merge. The story is rich with details. The author, Martha Hall Kelly, has spent a great deal of time researching these details and putting a lot of thought into how best to tell the story, which she explains in a note at the end of the novel. She used many real people in the telling: Americans, Caroline Ferriday and her mother, the German Doctor Herta Oberheuser and her co-workers and The Ravensbruck Ladies - all were actual people. Some survived. Some did not.

I had a hard time reading Lilac Girls but I'm so glad I did.