Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Chris Rice Cooper On The New York Times Bestseller LILAC GIRLS by Martha Hall Kelly . . .

Christal Cooper

Excerpts granted copyright privilege Martha Hall Kelly
and Ballantine Books

Photos granted copyright privilage by Martha Hall Kelly unless otherwise noted.  

Read the CRC BLOG analysis on the prequel to Lilac Girls - LOST ROSES

Chris Rice Cooper Analysis On
Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls:
The Trinity of Fact, Fiction, and Poetry
Via The Voices of Three Women

                                                 Martha Hall Kelly
                                                 Copyright granted by Martha Hall Kelly

Martha Hall Kelly’s first novel Lilac Girls was published on April 5, 2016 by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York

Lilac Girls takes place between 1939 to 1959 and is told through the viewpoint of three women, all based on real life figures: Caroline Ferriday in New York City, Kasia Kuzmerick (loosely based on Nina Iwanska) in Poland, and Dr. Herta Oberheuser in Germany.

Caroline Ferriday 
Map depicting Caroline's New York World 

Attributed to Holly Hollon
Copyright granted by Martha Hall Kelly

Nina Iwanska

Map depicting Kasia's Lublin World
Attributed to Holly Hollon
Copyright granted by Martha Hall Kelly

                                         Dr. Herta Oberheuser

Caroline, an ex-Broadway actress, single, and wealthy philanthropist, has dedicated her life to helping those in need. Lilac Girls begins in September of 1939 with Caroline living in New York City, working at the French Consulate by day, and attending fancy parties by night, where she meets the rich, political, and the famous, from Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Rockfellers, Marilyn Monroe, and Senator John F Kennedy. 

                        Caroline Ferriday                       

However, the person who captures her heart is not the political and rich, but the fictional French actor Paul Rodierre, whom Kelly modeled after three actors:  Alain Delon, Olivier Giroud, and Romain Duris.

                                  Alain Delon

                                             Olivier Giroud in 11/2013 Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law
                                        Romain Duris in 2014 CCBYSA 2.0

“I have a feeling you don’t work for the money.”

“It’s an unsalaried position, if that’s what you mean, but that’s not a question asked in polite society, Monsieur.”

“Can we dispense with the ‘Monsieur’?  Makes me feel ancient.”

“First names?  We’ve only just met.”

“It’s 1939.”

“Manhattan society is like a solar system with its own order.  A single woman dining with a married man is enough to throw planets out of alignment.”

Seventeen-year old Kasia, is helplessly in love with Pietrik and joins him in the Underground Resistance Movement. Kasia, her sister Zuzana Kuzmerick (loosely based on Krystyna Iwanska), their mother Matka Kuzmerick, Pietrik, and others are arrested. 

       Nina Iwanska

Krystyna Iwanka

       The whistle screamed, long and high, as the train slid into a station.

       Matka pushed through the women and stood with me.  “What do you see?”

       I held her hand.  ‘Sign says Furstenberg-Mecklenburg.”

       There were women on the platform, blonde giantesses wearing hooded capes over their gray uniforms.  One threw a cigarette down and squashed it with her boot. A few held dark Alsatians at their sides.  The dogs seemed to anticipate our arrival, watching the train cars go by much as a pet waits for its owner.  Had they done this before?

       “Germany,” a woman behind me said, craning her neck to see.

       Luiza cried out. The train whistle screamed a second time, and my breath again started coming hard.

       Matka held my hand tighter.  “Must be a labor camp.”

       “I can see a church steeple,” I said.  The thought of the Germans of that town sitting in church on Sundays with their hymnals was comforting.

       “God-fearing people,” said someone.

       “Furstenberg?” said Mrs. Mikelsky.  “I know it.  This is a resort town!”

       “As long as we work hard, we will be fine,” Matka said.

       I curled my hands around the iron window bars to steady myself as the train lurched to a stop.  “At least they know the commandments,” I said.

       None of us knew how wrong we were that morning as we stepped out of that train and fell headlong into hell.

                                 Ravensbruck Housing For The Women

The three Kuzmerick women are sent to Ravensbruck, the only concentration camp reserved for women and children, where they cross paths with Dr. Herta Oberheuser, the newest surgeon selected to conduct experiments on 74 Polish women. 

             Dr. Herta Oberheuser standing trial for her war crimes against humanity.
These women, which include Kasia and Zuzanna, are called the Rabbits, a name given them because they were Nazi experimental animals and hopped after being forced to endure inhumane operations. 

             An Unidentified Rabbit.
The Rabbits are bathed, placed in clean beds, their legs shaven, given aesthesia, legs cut open, and then drenched in bacteria with dirt, splinters, glass, and other foreign materials, causing their legs to swell with increasing pain, chronic thirst, and dangerous and sometimes fatal fevers reaching all of their infirmities.  Days later the plaster from their legs are removed, their wounds scraped clean with no aesthesia, and then treated with various experimental drugs. 

              Rabbit's legs after inhumane operation            

The purpose for these so-called medical experiments was to discover the best drugs to treat Nazi wounded soldiers.  
There were a few things that surprised me as a reader, the first, was that a historical novel about devastating atrocities could be written in colorful, vibrant, and poetic language.  Kelly masters the art of similes and metaphors that add to the pleasure of reading the novel, while maintaining great storytelling, and all without diminishing the evil that occurred.  
An example of this descriptive and rich writing is via Dr. Herta’s voice when she describes the hands of her former medical school classmate and real life Ravensbruck Doctor Fritz Fischer.

                              Dr. Fritz Fischer 

“Don’t you know you’re not allowed in the officers’ canteen without permission?”  Fritz said.  He lit a cigarette with a gold lighter, his hands white and almost incandescent, as if dipped in milk.  Hands you might expect to see on a famous pianist.  Hands that had never touched a spade.

The second was I assumed the three women knew one another or cross each others path.  That is not the case.  Caroline and Dr. Herta never cross paths.  Dr. Herta and Kasia cross paths in 1941.  Caroline and Kasia cross paths in 1957 when Caroline along with other rich donors, sponsors to have the Rabbits travel to America to receive top rate medical evaluation and medical treatment.

              Ravensbruck Rabbits who traveled to America in 1958

              Ravensbruck Rabbits in 1959
Thirdly, I assumed the three women on the cover were Caroline, Kasia, and Dr. Herta, but the three women on the cover are the Kuzmerick women.

I would have liked to see Caroline on the cover especially since its title comes from the over 14 varieties of lilacs she helped grow in the gardens of her family home, the Hay, in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and last but not least, she is the founder of the Ravensbruck Rabbits Committee, and savior to these women.

                     The Hay           
                       Caroline tending to the garden at The Hay

             Lilac Garden at The Hay

I would have liked to see Dr. Herta, evil as she was, on the cover since she is one of the three narrators of the novel. 
The perfect cover would be to have all three speakers of the book represented:  Caroline and Kasia arms linked and walking in unison it the same direction, and, in the background, Dr. Herta wearing her white surgeon’s uniform, the swastika displayed on her sleeve.  And perhaps the Kuzmerick family ring on Kasia’s finger.

       Fourthly and lastly, I never realized the severe PTSD, mental illness, desperation, and survival guilt these Rabbits, particularly Kasia endured after the so-called liberation in 1945.  Their pain goes beyond the boundaries of physical pain, affecting the spirit and the mentality of these women.

                      Ravensbruk Liberation in February of 1945

Most of Kasia’s pain stems from the events surrounding the arrest, disappearance, and mystery of her mother.  This mystery and guilt she carries of her mother is more debilitating than the chronic pain she feels in her deformed leg.  

                             Nina Iwanska

                             Rabbit's leg

The chapters alternate between the three women, each chapter ending at a high cliff note – leaving you hanging on a roller coaster, impatient to know what happens next.  The suspense is intense because the order is Caroline, Kasia, and Herga and by the time you find out what happens with each woman, before you reach the end of the chapter, you are hooked again. 

One of the most intense scenes is toward the end of the book when Kasia, with Caroline’s help and direction, finds Dr. Herta.  What occurs is intense, explosive and leaves the reader at the edge of his/her seat.

                   Dr. Herta Oberheuser standing trial for crimes against humanity 
       In the end, literally to the last page of the 494-page novel, Lilac Girls is Kasia’s story, not one of despair, survival guilt, or unbearable pain, but one of triumph and victory.

       Kasia, along with all the other Rabbits and women who endured the Holocaust, are the Lilac Girls, and they will forever flourish and grow for the betterment of all humanity.

1 comment:

  1. Chris, great analysis of the book. Our book club just selected this book to read and review. We have yet to meet to discuss it but this blog post gave me a lot to think about as I continue reading. It was fun to find you had written this blog (and that I found it). Miss our coffee dates. xo