Pam Jenoff is known for her meticulously researched historical fiction, and “The Woman with the Blue Star” is no different. In it, we read a fictionalized account of an historical occurrence. In at least one town in Poland, Jews descended into the sewers to live in hiding when the Nazis began emptying the ghettos and implementing their “final solution.” As difficult as living in a sewer must have been—and Jenoff describes it in such detail we can see it, feel it, and smell it—that horrible existence was still better than the alternative.
Jenoff begins the story with a mystery. A woman has traveled to Poland to meet someone. We see the gray-haired woman watching the other, even older, woman from her hotel window as the object of her fascination crosses a nearby street to sit in a cafe. The visitor finally works up the courage to meet her “target” face to face. Then Jenoff gives us the statement which we will ponder throughout the novel, because the visitor, upon seeing the woman she traveled so far to see, thinks, “The woman I see before me is not the one I expected at all.” And then Jenoff whisks us to the past, to Poland in March of 1942. Soon we meet two young women, Sadie and Ella, both very alike in some ways but very different in others. Sadie is a Jew who had lived with her parents in a comfortable apartment until they were forced to move to the Jewish ghetto. Ella lives with her Austrian stepmother, a horrible woman, in Ella’s family home. Her father died and left no will, so her stepmother, who is a German collaborator and treats Ella cruelly, inherits the estate. So while Sadie lives a life with an uncertain future, she has her family to comfort her. Ella, on the other hand, has no one. Her brother lives in Paris with his boyfriend, although he wants Ella to come and live with them.
When the Nazis come to liquidate the ghetto, Sadie’s father has a plan. They escape in a hole under the apartment building’s toilet into the sewer. Her mother is pregnant, and they can’t bring much with them. Tragedy strikes almost immediately when Sadie’s father is killed saving Sadie while they are crossing the river of sewage. The Polish worker who has helped plan this, Pawel, shows Sadie and her mother and another family to where they will be living until they can leave the sewer safely.
A good part of the story is simply the story of surviving below the streets of Krakow. Sadie and her mother get along with the other family, an orthodox group consisting of the father, his mother, and his son, Saul. Sadie and Saul share a love of reading and they sneak away to read beneath a grate that lets in moonlight on clear nights. It’s the only time it’s safe to venture under the grate, although when Sadie does venture under a grate one day, she happens to encounter Ella, and they form an unlikely friendship. A very dangerous friendship.
Jenoff’s writing and her depiction of the day-to-day life during the Nazi occupation is engrossing. We feel connected to both girls, and the first person narratives foster a feeling of empathy. We worry when they take risks to be together and when it becomes necessary for Ella to try to provide food for the sewer residents. We see both girls, young and naive when the war started, having to mature and make decisions that could cost them their lives, learning about what is truly important in life. It’s not where you live, or the number of dresses in your closet, but rather the quality of those you live with and the friends you make. While there are many accounts of Jews living in hiding during WWII, this is certainly an unusual setting but one that is based on historical fact. While there were uncaring, anti-Semitic Poles who didn’t care what happened to the Jews, there also were the kinds of Poles depicted in this story, Poles who risked their lives to help the persecuted.
There is a twist at the end which isn’t really a surprise. While all the chapters begin with either Sadie’s or Ella’s name, one of the last chapters does not. It’s a clue that we aren’t supposed to know who the first person narrator is until the Epilogue, where all becomes clear. Those who are new to Jenoff’s writing are sure to become fans, and her legion of current fans will enjoy yet another example of her fabulous historical fiction. I appreciate Jenoff’s honesty when she explains that she scrapped 90% of her first draft and basically rewrote the story. I plan on sharing that with my students to show them that first drafts are not important—it’s the final edition that counts. And this final edition is wonderful, thanks to the author’s perseverance and diligence — and outstanding talent.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.