Review of Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

photo courtesy of marthahallkelly.com

The first thing I have to say about this book is, wow! Martha Hall Kelly’s debut novel gets a solid “A” from me. The second thing is that I can tell she did a lot of research. On her Goodreads page she says she did ten years of research for the book. (That’s right. You can go to Goodreads and ask authors questions!) If you’ve ever tried to write any historical fiction, you will often find that getting the details right can be time consuming and frustrating. Kelly has masterfully layered bits of history and details of places that put the reader right in the environment of the time. And a third observation, the voices of the three characters are unique. You see the world through their eyes and the reasons they make the choices that they do.

 

The three women that we follow are:

 

  1. Caroline Ferriday who is a New York socialite. The kind of socialite that can walk around the block and go to the fundraiser at the Vanderbilt mansion. Yet Caroline and her mother work hard to save orphans in France and later, the Rabbits of Ravensbrück.
  2. Kasia Kuzmerick is a teen in Poland. Her father works at the post office and her mother is an artist. She’s close to her younger sister, Suzanna. Their world of Girl Guides and boy crushes ends abruptly when the Nazis invade Poland. They both get sent to Ravensbrück and become one of the famous Rabbits.
  3. Herta Oberheuser is a young German doctor fresh from medical school who’s trying to find her way amid the male-dominated field of medicine. She takes a government job at Ravensbrück thinking that she will have more freedom to pursue her love of medicine and help people. The moment she arrives she realizes she’s made a mistake.

 

And to steal a quote from the Lilac Girls Goodreads page:

 

The lives of these three women are set on a collision course when the unthinkable happens and Kasia is sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious Nazi concentration camp for women. Their stories cross continents—from New York to Paris, Germany, and Poland—as Caroline and Kasia strive to bring justice to those whom history has forgotten. 

 

 

Again, Kelly does a fantastic job of weaving details of time and place into each story. It’s evident that she’s done extensive research like what the Vanderbilt mansion looked like, and idioms that people said in New York, Poland, and Germany. She paints pictures that put me right in the scene. I could clearly smell and hear the action. Of course, that includes fetid and cold Ravensbrück too.

 

I kept reading because I was interested in each character and I wanted to see how all three stories finally came together. Kelly’s story about the Ravensbrück Rabbits is based on real events and people. Caroline Ferriday was a real person that worked for the justice of the Rabbits, Kasia and Suzanna were based on the two Polish sisters, Nina and Krystyna Ivanska, and Herta Oberheuser really was a medical doctor at the camp. I won’t tell you what happens to them because I don’t want to spoil anything. But their stories of love and survival are compelling, Even more so since it really happened.

 

Why is it titled “Lilac Girls”? There’s a quote near the end of the book, when Ferriday is working in her garden.

 

 

But it’s fitting in a way- Father loved the fact that a lilac only blossoms after a harsh winter.

 

 

In Kelly’s Author Notes she says she first learned about Ferriday from a 1999 article in Victoria magazine about Ferriday’s house in Bethlehem, Connecticut called The Hay. She couldn’t get it out of her mind and drove up there to see it. She was lucky on the day in May, she was the only visitor and got to tour the grounds at her leisure. There was a picture of Ferriday posing with some women. The guide told her the story about the Rabbits. The story stuck with her.

 

And I’m not the only one who’s glad it did.

 

 

If you would like to learn more—-

 

The Ferriday house- http://www.ci.bethlehem.ct.us/bellamy_ferriday.htm

 

An article about when Kelly met one of the women- http://www.marthahallkelly.com/one-of-the-last-ravensbruck-rabbits-tells-her-terrifying-story/

 

Ravensbrück- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ravensbr%C3%BCck_concentration_camp


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