Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly

By Ekta R. Garg

April 6, 2016

Genre: Historical fiction

Rated: Bookmark it! / 4 stars

The paths of three women—a prisoner, a physician, and a consulate employee—cut through Ravensbrück, the all-female Nazi concentration camp in northern Germany. The women begin their lives in separate locations but meet because of Hitler’s location of horrors. Inspired by real people in history, author Martha Hall Kelly’s dynamic debut novel Lilac Girls will stay with readers for days afterward.

New York City socialite and former actress Caroline Ferriday has willingly given up the stage for work in the French consulate. Caroline’s personal project involves assembling care packages for French orphans, and she derives a deep amount of pleasure from communicating with the orphanages and sending them the items they need. She also does everything she can to duck her responsibilities as a woman of society, but her family’s standing and her own minor celebrity-hood don’t allow her to escape for long.

Teenager Kasia Kuzmerick lives in Lublin, Poland, and she just wants to spend her days with her best friend, Nadia, discussing Pietrik, the boy they both love. In September of 1939 when World War II breaks out, Kasia’s life becomes bigger and more dangerous than she or her friends ever realized. Pietrik joins the underground resistance, and Kasia convinces Pietrik to enlist her. Soon enough Kasia begins delivering secret messages, but her eagerness to help becomes eclipsed by the cunning of the Nazi party.

In Germany, female physician Herta Oberheuser fights gender bias from colleagues and others. Herta wants to be a surgeon, but she doesn’t get the opportunity to practice her skills much. She notices an ad in a medical journal for a position in a “reeducation camp” not far from Berlin. A former medical school classmate, Herta recalls, also works at the camp, and she decides to apply for the job.

Herta arrives at Ravensbrück energized by the idea that she will serve the Fuhrer’s vision for her country. Her optimism quickly dims when she understands that Ravensbrück’s description as a reeducation camp was grossly exaggerated. Ravensbrück is a prison camp, nothing more, nothing less. Still, Herta sees an opportunity to practice medicine with the authority normally given to male doctors.

It is there she meets Kasia and Kasia’s mother and sister. The three women, arrested and sent to the camp, become a part of camp life. They also become victims of the cruel, vicious medical experiments that Herta leads.

Back in New York, Caroline gets involved with the war effort. As she discovers more about how Hitler’s forces are ravaging Europe, Caroline abandons all proprieties to help. Her determination leads her to the survivors of concentration camps…and, eventually, Kasia and Herta. What the three women experience, independently and with one another, will change all of them irrevocably.

Author Martha Hall Kelly’s book will reach inside of readers and not let go until the end. Bolstered by the stories of real people—namely Caroline Ferriday and Herta Oberheuser, among others—Kelly’s strength in research shines. Unlike other novels, Lilac Girls continues the story past the end of the war. The book spans almost 20 years, giving readers a chance to live with characters through major events in their lives.

Told in first person from the points of view of all three women, Kelly accomplishes what many seasoned authors can’t: authentic, independent voices for her lead characters. Most amazingly, Kelly induces sympathy for ardent Nazi supporter Herta Oberheuser. No one will doubt where the line is drawn between right and wrong, but readers will certainly see how Nazi propaganda manipulated German citizens to do what they could for the Third Reich.

The book does contain a few minor flaws. It begins with equal time given to all three women, but Herta’s story gets relegated to the background deeper into the novel. It’s a shame, really, because of all the protagonists readers might find Herta the most compelling and will want to know more about her. Also, Caroline comes across as a touch naïve at times; her eagerness to help seems a little too shiny-faced, a little too optimistic.

For the most part, however, these small issues won’t hold anyone back from flipping or swiping pages as fast as possible. Anyone who enjoys historical fiction, particularly books about World War II, will enjoy this novel. I highly recommend readers Bookmark Lilac Girls.