Not by design, my fiction selections recently have all been about strong, amazing women, and have all been written by women. This is the general inclination of my taste in fiction anyway (more Colette, less Hemingway), but there seems to be a general consensus in the mainstream that there just aren’t great stories about strong women out there. I think that’s an incorrect assumption. There might not be as many stories with female protagonists as there are male, but there is some great fiction available featuring fabulous gals doing memorable things.
Martha Hall Kelly
What do a New York socialite, a Polish underground resistance fighter and a Nazi doctor all have in common? Not much, actually, but in Martha Hall Kelly’s Lilac Girls their stories weave together through the time period of WW2 and the following decades. Polish teenager Kasia is sent to the all-female concentration camp Ravensbruck where Herta, a young German doctor, takes part in experiments on Kasia and her sister. Years later the sisters are helped by socialite Caroline to receive medical treatment to fix the damage done by the Nazi testing, as well as to track down Herta to ensure she can no longer practice medicine.
The strongest of the stories here, and the most heart-wrenching is Kasia’s, based on the true story of Nina Ivanska, which details the treatment of the camp prisoners, including the tests done on the “rabbits” of Ravensbruck. The guilt she feels at causing her sister, mother and some neighbours to also be picked up in the sweeps of Polish resistance fighters plagues her long after she is free from the torture of the camp. I felt that Herta was not explored in as much detail as she could have been, and there are whole periods where we do not hear from her (such as her time in jail, trial at Nuremberg, etc) that might have, if not made her more sympathetic, at least been a window into what she felt, or was thinking, during the tests she did on innocent women. We get her emotions and thoughts when she first arrives at the camp, and when she is fleeing from the allies, but not much to help us understand the why of her actions during the tests.
As Caroline doesn’t interact with Kasia until decades after the war, Kelly has given Caroline a fictional storyline to interweave her plot with the other main characters. While this love story would be a great novel on its own, it felt distracting interspersed with what was going on with the other characters.
Overall, though, a truly interesting story that had me searching the internet for more information about the Ravensbruck rabbits and how they recovered from their atrocious treatment.