Wednesday, December 9, 2020

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter

To get inspiration for my work-in-progress about Jewish refugees in the Dominican Republic during World War II, I've been binge-reading historical novels. Last year, I was blissfully browsing in a New York bookstore, when I got in a conversation with a woman whose favorite genre was historical fiction. She recommended We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, a novel based on a true story about a Jewish family's escape from Nazi occupied Poland. The author's grandfather was the luckiest one. His harrowing journey to Brazil and the opportunities he found there reminded me of my great grandfather's mission to help bring Jewish refugees to the Dominican Republic. 

The scope of We Were the Lucky Ones was surprisingly broad given the focus on one family. The five siblings and their parents in Poland scattered to Vichy France, Siberia, West Africa, Italy and Brazil. A family tree and chapters labeled by character, date, and location helps the reader keep track of the sprawling narrative. The Kurk family experienced a wide range of possible outcomes and witnessed a multitude of atrocities. 

As a Jew, I would have found We Were the Lucky Ones hard to read without the promise that at least this family would survive. Even so, the mostly true story is an emotionally charged page-turner. My only criticism is that I wish there had been more chapters about Addy in Brazil since his story provides much needed light. However, debut author Georgia Hunter does a great job of humanizing history without minimizing tragedy and still manages to leave the reader with hope. 

A long year ago, I wondered if I'd be up to the task of portraying a world-wide tragedy that would change the course of history, and now at the end of 2020, I can imagine that darkness. Nazi Germany and the Holocaust were far worse than our pandemic, but I can relate to the constant stress of a global catastrophe coupled to shocking attacks on democracy and scapegoating of the most vulnerable. Worse than any virus is the epidemic of fear, prejudice, and xenophobia. 

There is no vaccine for hate, but we can learn how to avoid the mistakes of our past by studying history. Also a scientific study has shown that reading literary fiction increases empathy. On top of that, novels allow us to escape the confinement of our homes and to meet new people without any risk. This year my family won't be gathering in person, and we will be giving books as gifts.

My to-be-read stack of historical fiction: The Feast of the Goat (La fiesta del chivo) by Mario Vargas Llosa, Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky, Small Island by Andrea Levy, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, and the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante.

Do you have any other mid 20th century historical novels to recommend to me?

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@Barrie Summy


Lucy said...

This sounds like a very compelling book. Lately I've been drawn to more serious and historical books myself but given the things we've had to deal with in 2020, that you listed, I've been looking for lighter fare these days. But it does sound like a good book and something I will note for future reading. :)

Thanks for the review.

Barrie said...

Terrific review. I love how you're immersing yourself in historical fiction to prepare for your next ms. Thank you for the link to the article about lit reading + empathy. Interesting! I can't think of any books to recommend, but will keep the thought in the back of my mind. Thanks for reviewing!

Jenn Jilks said...

This looks like an important book.
I agree, that reading about others, and historical fiction, really shapes one and provides some enlightenment.
Happy Hanukkah! I hope you get all your work done, and can relax.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Books about WWII and esp. the Holocaust can be hard to read, so I'm glad you found one with a good ending for the people involved.

I'm currently reading The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel, about a young Frenchwoman of Polish Jewish descent who forges documents for the French Resistance, particularly of Jewish children who are being smuggled across the Swiss border. I think you might enjoy it, too.

Happy Chaunukkah!

pattinase (abbott) said...

The one that stays with me most is Eva by Meyer Levin.

Powell River Books said...

I read about the defacing of a statue in remembrance of Anne Frank with a swastika in Boise, Idaho. There are so many manifestations of hate right now. It is very scary and disheartening. - Margy

A Cuban In London said...

It sounds like the sort of book I would enjoy. I just finished a two-week stint at a progressive Jewish school in north London. I was there to deliver cycle lessons to the kiddies. Loved it.

Hope you and your family are keeping well.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

Barrie, thanks for hosting and good luck with your revision!

Jenn, yes, my family is reminding me to take time off around the holidays, which is why I'm so late to visit. We celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas, but no guests this year. Have a Happy Christmas!

LInda, thanks for the recommendation! The Book of Lost Names sounds intriguing. I've added it to my to read list at GoodReads.

Sarah Laurence said...

Patti, Eva looks intense and very well received. I shall check it out. Thanks for the recommendation!

Margy, yes, anti-semitism and hate crimes have risen exponentially during the past 4 years.

ACiL, cycle lessons sounds like a safe way to connect with kids during these times. Yes, there is a big Jewish community in North London. Yes we are well and social isolating. I hope your family is well too. I'm looking forward to the day we can return to England safely! I miss pubs and meeting friends.

thecuecard said...

I'm glad you reviewed this one -- I have seen it around and wondered how good it was. It seems like the author went with a novel though it could've been a nonfiction book about her family?
I too want to read Cutting for Stone in 2021. Somehow it slipped thru the cracks when it came out. And I'm drawing a blank right now for some reason on other historical novels ... but I do tend to love the genre ... I have read Suite Francaise & Small Island (both good). Happy holidays to you & your family ... & a happy New Year.

Sarah Laurence said...

Cue, In the author note, she explained how she interviewed family members but needed to fill in the gaps. It was quite a sprawling narrative with many characters to follow. Without fictionalizing the plot a bit, it might have been too hard to follow. Thanks for your feedback on my to read list. Happy Christmas and New Year to you!

A Cuban In London said...

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family! :-)

Greetings from London.