The Girl From the Train
by Irma Joubert
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Page Count: 320
Release Date: September 8, 2015
How got: ARC copy via NetGalley
First attention getter: the cover and description
Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Auschwitz. Jakób Kowalski is planting a bomb on the tracks.
As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They mean to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first.
Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her home. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.
But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered.
Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.
Star Rating - 5
I haven’t come across a work as character driven as this in a long time. Everything is centralized about who these people are, how they’re impacted by the events presented, and how their character is changed in the end. I found myself impressed by the amount of work the author put into her characterization. It takes a special talent to write a POV of a girl, from age 7 to 2, and to make them sound different, yet with the same inner voice.
The book spans from 1944 to 1956 so covers a fair amount of time and events in a variety of locales, from snow covered Poland to the hot veldt of South Africa. Throughout, Joubert covers a vast amount of issues and topics: prejudice, blending of cultures, wartime atrocities, guilt, betrayal, and finding out who you truly are. The author does a fantastic job in balancing all these elements to create an overall narrative that is both engaging and introspective at the same time.
I really enjoyed some of the history explored as well. The author does a great job in getting the details right in the harsh settings of occupied Poland, both Nazi and Soviet. The world of secrecy, betrayal, and societal fear makes the reader sweat bullets right along with Jacob. Seeing the glimmers of democracy that were trying to emerge gave me hope and made me sad at their futility, historically speaking.
The 1940’s and 50’s in South Africa was also unexplored territory for me. It was intriguing to see the melting pot that was this country, very similar to America at the same timeframe. Yet, there were also the old prejudices against anything that was different or foreign. I was fascinated to see how Gretl was affected by this different world; I traveled the journey right along with her.
I’ve never read this author before and have got to say that this was a worthy introduction. She’s a fantastic character author, giving the people who inhabit her book such a depth of life not often seen in fiction. She also excels in the setting and themes departments. Highly, highly recommended author, and I’ll be checking out her other books as well.
Note: Book received for free from publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.