Book Review: Saving Amelie by Cathy Gohlke (2014)
It is the year 1939 and American, albeit German-born, Rachel Kramer visits Germany once again with her adopted father. It is a regular trip, every 2 years, for her to have a harmless check-up from the doctors at the Institute. Even though she is now a full-grown woman, the check-ups must continue and so, reticent though she may be, Rachel agrees to this trip, not having the heart to refuse her father. But this Germany is not the Germany of her youth. The black spider is everywhere, plastered on flags flying from almost every building, and the SS officers acquainted with her father prattle on about eugenics and purity of race. Yes, her father works in eugenics and has for as long as she can remember, but there is something different about the discussions now that make Rachel nervous. Talk of one race being more valued than another set pings of concern through her brain, but it is only when she Rachel speaks with her oldest childhood friend, Kristine, that she truly begins worrying.
Kristine is terrified for the life of her daughter, Amelie. A deaf child is unacceptable offspring for an SS officer and Kristine's husband, Gerhardt Schlick, is one of the cruelest men Rachel has ever known. She didn't like him as a teenager and she does not like him now, particularly since he still holds an unhealthy fascination for Rachel while emotionally dismissing his wife. He speaks of his daughter as if she were subhuman and when he insists that Amelie receive "treatment" for her deafness, Kristine pleads with Rachel to help her, to take Amelie with her back to the states. Rachel's eyes begin to open to the atrocities of this new Germany, and she agrees, albeit reluctantly for she has no experience with children, but all too soon Rachel realizes that leaving may not be as easy as she had hoped. It is only with the assistance of American reporter Jason Young that Amelie is sneaked away to safety, and Rachel must soon follow. Her father is not who she thought he was, and neither is her past, but can Rachel escape Nazi Germany before it's too late and she becomes a broodmare for the Reich?
Wow. I already knew that Cathy Gohlke was an excellent writer ever since I read William Henry is a Fine Name, but I wasn't expecting the traumatic and terrifyingly brilliant novel she dished out in Saving Amelie. Nazi Germany has never been one of my favorite subjects, but I was willing to revisit the topic because it was Cathy Gohlke. She did not disappoint. As I said, I know very little about the era, but I'm assuming her historic facts and dates are accurate. She writes her novel with an air of authenticity, so I trust she did her research. Plus, I recognized in Jason Young the elements of William Shirer, an actual American reporter in Nazi Germany during Hitler's rise to power. She did, in fact, base Jason off Shirer, so I was not imagining their similarities. If you get a chance and can find a copy, watch The Nightmare Years starring Sam Waterston, Shirer's incredible story.
However, back on track once again, I appreciate the great lengths Ms. Gohlke went to in creating believable characters. Rachel is one of those delightful creations who you sometimes like and sometimes dislike because she is selfish, just like everyone else, but tries to develop a new way of thinking about "lesser" races like the Jews. The girl is a Fi user if I ever saw one, caring more for her own emotions and beliefs about something than the opinions of others, even more about her own fears than the fears of other people. She completely discounts a terrifying experience an acquaintance of hers has near the end of the book. So, Rachel grows, but she's still flawed. It's a good thing she also has many likeable qualities or I would have struggled in accepting her as a heroine. Jason won me over almost immediately, not only because he used amusing Americanisms from the 1930s, but also because I sensed a bit of Shirer in him.
Jason and Rachel both start their journey without any semblance of faith. Jason is transformed through hearing Dietrich Bonhoeffer preach in an underground church, and Rachel begins her transformation through encountering a woman named Lea Hartmana and her grandmother who try their hardest to live the faith they proclaim. The faith elements felt genuine, not pushy or intrusive, a natural progression of questioning during a time when people are desperate to believe in something. From what I know about Bonhoeffer, very few people would have come away from one of his sermons unchanged, so it makes sense that Jason would begin questioning his personal belief system after an encounter with the man.
This is a hard topic. This book deals with cruelty of the most abominable kind to Jews and to handicapped children and to anyone the Nazis deemed subhuman. Women are viewed as property by Nazi Germany and Ms. Gohlke doesn't sugarcoat that fact, although she never goes into too much detail. There is a horrific, but not surprising, near rape scene about 3/4 of the way through the book, but nothing happens. Nazi Germany was nightmarish, and Ms. Gohlke makes sure her readers understand that without detailing it out in unnecessary descriptions. I admit that I never cried, but I was invested in all of the lives in this book, from little, adorable Amelie in her red coat to Rachel whose life has been turned upside down to Lea Hartman who also has a large role to play in the story though I can't go into detail for fear of spoilers.
You know, I look at Nazi Germany and the murder of the "undesirables" and I see a parallel in our own society. Think of the cruelty of racism until Martin Luther King Jr. took a stand. Think of the millions upon millions of children sacrificed to abortion every year while Christians stand back and do nothing. These characters realize that the only way for evil to take charge is for good people to do nothing, but by this point, it's too late to stem the tide of Hitler's evil. If the church had taken a stand against the tyranny early on, as Bonhoeffer urged, maybe Hitler would have been stopped before he even got started. I just hate seeing history repeat itself, but that is what I see in the American society I love so much. We've become Hitler in our own way, and that's an ugly confession to make to anyone.
Saving Amelie is hard-hitting and brilliant, and should be read by every Christian reader.
- I received this book free from Tyndale House Publishers in exchange for an honest review, which I have given.