Mine is not the story of the ghettos and the camps, but of a small village in the hills, a chapel in the darkness of the night. I should write it down, I suppose. The younger ones do not remember, and when I am gone there will be no one else. The history and those who lived it will disappear with the wind. But I cannot. It is not that the memories are too painful — I live them over and over each night, a perennial film in my mind. But I cannot find the words to do justice to the people that lived, and the things that had transpired among us.
(from The Winter Guest, page 11)
Pam Jenoff’s latest novel, The Winter Guest, may be her best yet. Set primarily in Nazi-occupied Poland in 1940, the novel centers on 18-year-old twins, Helena and Ruth Nowak, tasked with raising their three younger siblings after the death of their father and their mother’s removal to a hospital in Kraków. Although the Nazis have yet to enter their small village of Biekowice, the sisters must contend with constant hunger and worries about how to keep the family together and keep them warm as winter approaches.
Helena is the strong sister, accustomed to long walks in the forest in search of food and to the city to ensure their mother is receiving proper care at the Jewish hospital, the only facility affordable to the family. Ruth is the gentle sister, who spends all of her time caring for the children and trying to stretch their meager rations. Despite being close, the burden of the war and having to act as parents to the younger children take a toll on the sisters’ relationship. Ruth laments her lost love and the likelihood that she will never have a family of her own, and she cares little about what goes on outside of the family and their cottage — even as talk of the Jews in the city being removed from their homes makes its way to the village. Helena, meanwhile, is more realistic about what’s going on, but her weekly trips to Kraków to visit their mother put her face-to-face with the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, and she soon realizes that keeping your head down does not ensure survival.
When Helena comes across an injured American paratrooper in the forest, she decides to help him, finding him shelter in an abandoned chapel, feeding him from her family’s nearly bare cupboards, and keeping him a secret from Ruth — and not just because of the danger to her family. With Sam, Helena not only finds love but also a purpose, someone to trust when the war finally hits home. But increasing friction and jealousy between the sisters threatens their relationship and their lives.
In The Winter Guest, Jenoff brings to life a small Polish village in the midst of war, from the hunger and the cold to the watchful eyes of neighbors who report the most minor infraction in exchange for money or food. The Nowak twins always felt out of place in their village, and the war and the loss of their parents isolate them even more. Neither one wants to be left alone with the responsibility of caring for the children, and the differences that were emphasized since their birth push them apart as the years pass. Jenoff does a great job portraying their complicated relationship and making me understand the motivations of each sister. There was one moment when I was so angry at one of the sisters that I had to put down the book and vent to my husband for a few minutes. Generating such an emotional reaction is a sign of a great book, at least in my opinion. Jenoff brilliantly creates an atmosphere of nervous calm, and I kept feeling like something bad was going to happen at any moment.
Although the epilogue was a bit rushed and devoid of some of the tidbits of information that would have made it more believable, I still loved the book. Jenoff unflinchingly details the struggles of living in an occupied country, the atrocities committed by the Nazis as they liquidated Jewish neighborhoods, and the danger of ignoring what’s happening in your own backyard. She deftly balances the excitement of taking action with the horrors and loss inevitable in war, and she makes a story that happened decades ago relevant in the present day. The Winter Guest is about the bonds between sisters and twins, the destructive nature of secrets, loyalty and betrayal, and the need to preserve wartime stories of courage and resistance before those who know exactly what happened are gone.
Disclosure: I received The Winter Guest from Harlequin MIRA and the author for review.
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