Book review: Nothing about this WWII novel is “too small”
While Hitler’s war-machine overwhelmed country after country, Norway took comfort in its declared neutrality, its separation from the continent, and in being “too small” to merit Germany’s attention.
Until the morning of April 9, 1940, when this novel opens.
Families clustered around radios, neighbors exchanged rumors, and veterans pulled out old weapons “just in case” this was an actual war. Meanwhile, uniformed German soldiers commandeered schools to use as barracks and marched down Oslo’s streets within sight of the royal castle, claiming to have come as friends and protectors.
As the calendar pages turn from that April 1940 morning to early 1943, Berman’s omniscient narration and the cousins’ communications offer access to the reality of Norway’s invasion and to the emotions of Rebekka’s Oslo family and relatives in Ålesund. The lives and relationships Berman depicts are drawn from personal knowledge and, where necessary, her imagination, making them highly credible. The alternating points of view and geographic locations successfully weave together a complex story on opposite sides of the country.
Given her inexperience as a novelist, Berman impressed me with a story that reads like an action-packed drama, animating through fiction the history she so carefully documented in her earlier nonfiction work (noted later in this review).
Foreshadowing speaks in the voice of Rebekka’s hysterical aunt, who had sought refuge from Germany a few years earlier after her husband was run down in the streets of Berlin by a Gestapo-driven truck. She, too, believed Norway would be safe. On the day of the invasion she ranted about the threat to their entire family, that Hitler would implement his genocidal plans, achieving the elimination of Norway’s Jews as a showcase for Aryan supremacy. Family members reassured her that she couldn’t be right, that Norway’s Jewish population was too small. That, the aunt insisted, is why he would succeed.
Berman incorporates traits of her relatives into strong, complex characters who serve as able and appealing protagonists. Rebekka’s sketches of both disturbing and comforting scenes combine with her correspondence with young cousins to provide specificity and move national events forward. Museum archives indicate that art and journals were used by many Norwegians during the war to make sense of a world turned upside down.
I encountered Berman’s family history, We Are Going to Pick Potatoes: Norway and the Holocaust, the Untold Story, while pursuing research about the German occupation of Norway. In it she documents the fates of her extended Norwegian Jewish family before, during, and after the occupation years. Other research sources barely mentioned the small Jewish population in Norway, and none were as authentic or detailed as Berman’s. Her original book was praised and supported by Elie Wiesel, who urged her to share her history with a wider audience.
Berman resolved to prevent this significant story from disappearing. By blending fictional elements into her characters and portraying historic events through realistic and compelling dialogue and interactions, this novel brings to life harsh times and events. The author, at age four, escaped from Oslo with her family to the safety of neutral Sweden in November, 1942. They fled in secret, just hours before Nazis ordered the arrest of all remaining Jews. Most were deported in November, and the final few in January.
Their eventual destinations, although not publicly understood then, were the ovens and concentration camps in central Europe from which only a handful survived. The actions and consequences of the Nazi occupiers nearly decimated Norway’s Jewish population. Even so, their history was considered “too small” to be included in some Holocaust accounts. Told by one who lived through that reality, Berman’s initial publication and this novel stand in testimony to the little-known truth of those times.
The subtitle, A Fact-Based Novel, is an important clarification of the genre. Tragically, much of the story is real. By writing it in the form of a novel, the history behind the story can be shared with a wider audience. I’m convinced that everyone who reads it will respond with empathy, vicariously experiencing the hardships and dangers of that time, specifically through the harrowing plight of Norway’s Jewish citizens.
What a gift Berman has given to her own extended family and to the rest of us. As a reader and writer, I devour the front and back matter of books, always eager for additional insights in author notes and acknowledgements. Every bit of extra content in this case helps to stitch the novel into the fabric of history. A nearly forgotten truth about Norway is preserved within the pages of this book. It conveys the pride Berman’s descendants should rightly feel. I urge everyone to read it, share it in book clubs and classrooms, and keep history alive.
Sandy Brehl is a retired educator living near Milwaukee, Wis. Visit www.SandyBrehl.com to learn about the first two books in her trilogy about the German occupation of Norway: Odin’s Promise and Bjorn’s Gift.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 9, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.