Some kids get in trouble for refusing to do chores, ditching school, or getting bad grades. I wasn’t one of those kids. I used to get in trouble for reading.
I should probably clarify that is wasn’t the actual reading that got me in trouble, it was the fact that I was doing it, under my covers with a flashlight, at 2:00 in the morning. I couldn’t help it. I’d get so entranced with a story that I couldn’t wait to find out the ending even if it meant suffering from sheer exhaustion the following day.
I’ve always loved to read. As a kid I flew through the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Nancy Drew, the Trixie Beldon series, and hundreds of stand-alone books that left me craving for my next fix. I plowed through Agatha Christie’s collection during a mystery phase, and tried my hand at historical fiction and biographies.
The most memorable book of my childhood though is The Diary of Anne Frank. It has haunted me since the first time I read it. I was enthralled by her circumstances of hiding in the annex, was justly horrified by the atrocities against the Jewish people, and was completely captivated by her pure, innocent voice. What kept me reading and rereading it though was the fact that her life was cut so short. Here she was, a girl my own age, recording her deepest feelings in a diary that would one day become a voice of the Holocaust.
Kasia, a young, Polish woman in Martha Hall Kelly’s new book Lilac Girls, experienced the Holocaust first hand. Arrested for her participation in the Resistance movement, she, along with her sister and mother, are imprisoned in Ravensbrück, Germany’s only all-female concentration camp. There she experiences the unthinkable: she is chosen to be a “rabbit.”
The Ravensbrück’s rabbits, all of whom were healthy women, were subjected to grotesque experimental surgeries at the hands of German doctors. Kasia’s leg was mutilated in the name of medical inquiry and she barely survived the recovery. She lives to see the end of the war but becomes consumed with grief and hatred.
But Lilac Girls isn’t without hope and compassion. It is also the story of Caroline Ferriday, a wealthy New York socialite who donates her time at the French Consulate during World War II. She is run ragged assisting refugees, creating care packages, and holding charitable fundraisers, but she approaches each task with determination. Her life’s passion is for helping others, and, when she hears of the plight of the rabbits’ attempts to assimilate post war, she takes it upon herself to get them the help they so desperately need.
Lilac Girls is about the horrors of war but also the bonds of sisterhood. It celebrates humanity in the face of evil and places the commitment to freedom and justice above all else. Lilac Girls was inspired by the real lives of Caroline Ferriday, a World War II heroine, and Herta Oberheuser, the young, ambitious German doctor whose misguided patriotism convinced her that her work at Ravensbrück was for the supremacy of the German race.
Martha Hall Kelly is a native New Englander who spent five years writing Lilac Girls. It is her first novel. Ballantine Books, 2016.