Monday, May 2, 2016

Girl in the Blue Coat

"After the war, people will sit around and recall the brave ways they rebelled against the Nazis, and nobody will want to remember that their biggest 'rebellion' was wearing a carnation in honor of our exiled royal family."

Hannke mustn't be late for her deliveries today.  Her customers are depending on her punctuality.  A bit of candy for this one, a slice of meat for the other.  Small deliveries, really.  It sounds like a normal, if somewhat boring, job.  But in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, being the runner for part of the Dutch black market is anything but boring or safe.  Weaving between jackboots on a bicycle has become Hanneke's new normal, and flirting with soldiers to ensure they don't search her basket is second nature.  But when one of her clients makes a desperate request, Hanneke's anger at the Nazis boils up into a resolve true and strong: to find Mirjam Roodvelt.


After losing her boyfriend, Bas, in the ill-fated Dutch attempt to repulse the German Army, Hanneke Bakker tries to bury the truth about what's happened to her country.  She begins working for Mr. Kreuk, who runs a small part of the black market by purchasing hard-to-get goods with the ration cards of dead Dutch.  With German patrols everywhere, Hanneke learns to flirt and lie and wink her way out of any situation.  But it doesn't bring Bas back.

One of her delivery stops, Mrs. Janssen, invites her in for real coffee, instead of the twigs and acorns the people grind up to make ersatz.  Hanneke doesn't want to be late for her route, but Mrs. Janssen insists.  Then come the words that will change Hanneke's life, " 'I need your help finding a person.' "  In the back of the pantry, behind the spice rack, is a secret door.  A secret room for a secret Jewish girl named Mirjam, who has disappeared without a trace.

But Hannie doesn't know if she can do it.  She's lost so much and worked so hard to be practical.  Risking her life to find a missing Jewish girl who's seemingly disappeared into thin air but also evaded the Nazi patrols?  Modern readers may think Hanneke a coward for not initially wanting to find Mirjam, but consider: she lost her love, her life, and her freedom when the Nazis came.  She knows that entire families just disappear overnight, shipped to camps outside of the Netherlands, never to be seen again.  Deciding to join the Dutch Resistance--any resistance, really--takes thought.  Signing up blindly for something you've barely considered is ill-advised, at best.  You have to believe in it enough to lose your life for it.  And as we follow Hanneke's increasingly frantic search for Mirjam, we watch as she realizes that she was willing, all along, to die for this one girl.  A girl in a blue coat.

Mirjam's trail is cold, but using her resources, Hanneke enters secret subsets of society and finds that the fight against the Nazis is more than just smuggled lipstick or a handful of real coffee beans.  It's smuggling humans so they have a chance to escape the furnaces at Auschwitz.  It's the Dutch people fighting their new rulers by preserving lives, not taking them.  It is brave and good and everything that is right about humanity.

I'm not saying these people were saints.  They had their own self-interest to look after.  Not everyone rebelled against the Nazis; there was the Green Patrol--Dutch citizens who became Nazi informers in exchange for safety.  But one life saved is a life saved.  Period.  And what the Resistance was able to accomplish meant lives.  It meant futures outside of barbed wire fences and barracks and kilns belching the ashes of murdered Jews.

Girl in the Blue Coat subtly signals to the reader that she will not find a happy ending here.  The ending made me ugly-cry, adding this book to a very short list of others that did so.

This is an extremely powerful book.  Readers may only think of one girl and her family behind a wardrobe in Amsterdam, but there were many.  Hesse has a deft touch when it comes to describing the fine line so many people walked--listening to the BBC with towels stuffed under the doorways, crafting escape plans for when--not if--their identity as Jews became known.  The horror of the deportment staging area in a once-glamorous theatre vividly comes to life with urine and vomit and feces slicking the walkways and lending the place the prescient air of an abattoir.

We always say we will never forget.  But how many teens grow up understanding what really happened?  How many Holocaust deniers do you know, or have you seen on social media?  It makes me sick to realize that people honestly don't care about the systematic extermination of many groups of people by one regime, and how easily it can happen again (and did happen in the Soviet Union, China, Rwanda, Serbia, and more places that I can recount).  So it's more than not forgetting.  It's taking action to prevent this hatred from becoming a tangible force, even at the cost of our reputations or our lives.  And I have an eerie feeling that it may soon come to that again if humans continue rampaging on in their hate and fury and blind devotion.

So if you were asked to find a girl in a blue coat, hunted by the enemy, would you?  Would you give up your illusions and your innocence and maybe even your life to save her?

I received an ARC of this title via Netgalley.

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