Bam's Reviews > Lilac Girls

Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly
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bookshelves: historical-fiction, library-book, kindle-ebooks, world-war-two, 2016-reading-challenge

*3.5 stars. Lilac Girls is an extensively-researched piece of historical fiction and quite engaging story based on the war-time activities of Caroline Ferriday, NY socialite, actress and humanitarian. Her story and that of two other women, one fictional and one real, are told in alternating chapters.

In the fall of 1939, Caroline is volunteering as head of family assistance for the French Consulate in New York, trying to aid wealthy travelers fleeing the uncertainties in France. She is also busy raising money for supplies to aid French orphans to whom she sends comfort packages.

Her story eventually intertwines with two others: one is a young Polish girl named Kasia who is thrilled to be allowed to do a job or two for the Polish resistance as Germany invades their country. But her amateur attempts lead to her arrest, along with some close family and friends, and the women are sent to Ravensbruck, the all-woman concentration camp in Bavaria, Germany.

There they endure unspeakable conditions and Kasia and her sister are among at least 70 girls at the camp who are subjected to life-threatening experimental surgeries performed by Dr. Herta Oberheuser, the third character in the story, based on the only woman doctor at the all-female Ravensbruck camp. It is hard to understand how a woman could do these horrible things to other women and I'm not quite sure author Martha Kelly fully addresses that question in this story. Herta goes from balking at giving lethal injections at first to doing pretty much anything asked of her. How did that transition come about?

The story spans 20 years, from 1939 to 1959, and allows the reader to see the longterm effects of the war on parts of Europe and some of the lasting harm done to its victims, both mental and physical. It also shows how life was no better for the Poles under Russian control after the war ended--that is often forgotten.

Overall the story is very interesting but one of the things I didn't care for in Kelly's writing style were the occasional cliff-hanger style chapter endings, making the reader wait through two more chapters of the other characters' stories to learn what happened. For example: the Nazis seem about to unearth Papa's buried stash in the garden...but several chapters later we learn that their pet chicken is what the Nazis discover and seize.

Martha Kelly invents a romance for her heroine but doesn't allow it to get over a huge hurdle after the war ends--largely because Caroline refuses to communicate with him or read his letters. Was anyone else dying to know what he had written?

I am grateful to the author for bringing the philanthropy of Caroline Ferriday to light in this story. It was so remarkable how she and her mother tirelessly sought help for many of the needy, most especially for the Ravensbruck 'Rabbits'--those women who were lab experiments and badly needed help to recover from their injuries.

A personal note: I had to laugh when I read that the French orphans rejected Caroline's donation of cases of Ovaltine, saying that it tasted like grass, and it had to be sold off for pennies. I remember well bugging my mother to buy some Ovaltine, then refusing to drink it after one taste. My mother was determined to make me sit there until I did, but I was more stubborn than she was.
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Reading Progress

December 15, 2016 – Started Reading
December 15, 2016 – Shelved
December 15, 2016 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
December 15, 2016 – Shelved as: library-book
December 15, 2016 – Shelved as: kindle-ebooks
December 15, 2016 – Shelved as: world-war-two
December 15, 2016 – Shelved as: 2016-reading-challenge
December 15, 2016 –
5.0%
December 16, 2016 –
30.0%
December 18, 2016 –
73.0%
December 19, 2016 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by DeB (new) - rated it 5 stars

DeB MaRtEnS Re: Herta - How did any of them go from where they began to the barbaric acts they later committed? The big "Nazi" question. Orders. Fear of bullying superiors. Dehumanized "subjects". Peer pressure. Peer delusion. I don't know whether I have read any explanation given by the perpetrators. -- I personally loved the book. I didn't find it odd that Caroline turned her back the way she did: she was a Yankee blue blood of that era, and denial, cutting things off were pretty much stiff upper lip ways of dealing with unsavoury or painful situations. It's interesting how we all react to books based on our own life interactions and expectations. Hope your next book works for you!


message 2: by Bam (last edited Dec 20, 2016 08:24AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bam DeB wrote: "Re: Herta - How did any of them go from where they began to the barbaric acts they later committed? The big "Nazi" question. Orders. Fear of bullying superiors. Dehumanized "subjects". Peer pressur..."

Oh, I liked it well enough but have liked others about the subject a bit more. I seem to be reading many such lately and it's hard not to compare. My husband and I were talking about what led people to act the way they did and I think the answer is that they convinced themselves the prisoners were 'subhuman,' just as slaves were considered to be a hundred years before.
You are probably right about the blue blood attitude, but I still would have read those letters at some point. She seemed to be doing it for the child's sake, most of all. I get that.


Courtney YES. THE LETTERS!!! I'm dying!


Alice I just finished this book and I'm with you on the cliffhanger chapter endings with a slightly disappointing reveal a few chapters later.


message 5: by Bam (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bam Alice wrote: "I just finished this book and I'm with you on the cliffhanger chapter endings with a slightly disappointing reveal a few chapters later."

Hi Alice. Yes, I didn't like being led on like that.


Nalene I agree about the letters. It seemed to building to something and then....nothing! Even after she realized he was being escorted by his daughter and not a new wife. Lame.


Eveline Agree with you about the cliff hanging chapter endings. In a mystery, yes, but historical fiction? No.


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