Winter weather hit with a cloudburst before our meeting. It was wonderful and much needed! I certainly appreciate that six readers braved the wet streets, chilly, drippy air, and the library’s full parking lot to join our discussion! We actually met in our cozier Teen Zone, with round tables, carpet, and softer lighting.
I chose Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew because it is offered as a kit, which makes getting the books easy, but also because December is a month so filled with Christmas décor and messages, I was happy to have the opportunity to choose a Jewish author and subject, even though I was hesitant to read a book about World War II and the holocaust.
Our first responder liked the book and although she has read a lot about the time period, she felt the author’s descriptions really helped her better understand the experience. A new member mentioned that the magical elements soften the reality of the horror. She had researched the author and been interested to learn that Hoffman was brought back to her Jewish faith by her children. She was particularly moved by the line, “If you are loved, you never lose the person who loved you. You carry them with you all your life.” (p.221)
One of our members dislikes fantasy in fiction, but if you removed the fantastical elements, he appreciated the story and the obviously well-researched details, especially the description of the Vélodrome d’Hiver roundup, which “was the largest French deportation of Jews during the Holocaust. It took place in Paris on July 16–17, 1942.”[i] He thought the book was easy to read and he drew our attention to the author’s acknowledgements, which had been missed by some of us.
Another reader thinks the book is a cautionary tale. This book is black and white—the good characters are good, the bad characters are evil. In real life and some fiction, it is not so easy. Can we ever really know what we would do? The wealthy families forced from their homes, fighting or not – could be here. The author’s description is simple but chilling: “shoes littered the streets, left behind by those who had struggled.” One of us was reminded about how when you are younger, you can take more risks, considering that if you fall, you can get back up. As you get older, you have to be more careful. We even discussed how much money is needed for happiness. $75,000? We definitely connected with the book in varied ways, mentioning past and present persecutions and the pandemic. One of us recommends the Museum of Intolerance in L.A.
We did discuss more particulars about the book. Ava, the golem, has superpowers that enable Leah and Julien to survive. How might the story have been different had Ava been human? The Heron was symbolic, more than just a bird. Perhaps because people are more than they appear also? More than Jewish? German? French? Ettie could not get past the guilt she felt over the murder of her sister. What if Leah had killed Ava as she had been instructed? In a way, Ava the golem did die; she became human. I was devastated by the death of the heron. I had hoped that Ava would get to become a heron. One of us shared that she sobbed at the end of the book but still found the ending to be uplifting. She thinks the beauty stands out in greater relief because of the tragedy. When we discussed the meaning of the title, we considered three worlds – the past, the present, and the future.
We talked quite a bit about other books and movies. The tragedy that the United States turned away refugees from the holocaust, shown in the film Voyage of the Damned. The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende, which follows refugees from Franco’s Spain to Chile on a ship requisitioned by poet Pablo Neruda. The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Elie Wiesel’s Night has always been a standard for me in showing how one of the greatest horrors of the holocaust was in taking away people’s humanity, not just their lives; but another of us has always been inspired by how the author found meaning in life after such experiences.
At the end of the meeting, someone asked, “What makes you smile in a typical day?” Children. Pets. Nature. I hope you can all find reasons to smile today and every day.
- Works discussed:
- Voyage of the Damned (1939 Film)
- House of the Spirits (1985)by Isabel Allende
- Long Petal of the Sea (2020) by Isabel Allende
- Miracle at St. Anna (2002) by James McBride
- Night (1960) by Elie Wiesel
- The Reader (1995) by Bernhard Schlink
- The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018) by Heather Morris
- Voyage of the Damned (1939 Film)
- Recommended by a member for those who liked our previous selection Nothing to See Here. The book is different but interesting: Perfect Little World, also by Kevin Wilson.
[i] Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Web accessed 12-15-2021: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-velodrome-dhiver-vel-dhiv-roundup