In “Defending Britta Stein” by Ronald H. Balson, attorney Catherine Lockhart and her husband, private investigator Liam Taggert, are the actors whose actions bring about justice in an unlikely manner. Through these two characters, both well known to Balson fans, we are privy to the history of a family of Danish Jews during WWII. As is standard in Balson’s novels, there is a story-within-a-story, and Lockhart and Taggert are the vehicles through which the Holocaust story is told. The storytelling is gripping, and this courtroom drama showcases the unity and bravery of the Danish people in saving most of their population of Jews during WWII when the Germans decided to implement their final solution on the Jews of Denmark.
When Ronald H. Balson writes about the courtroom, and especially the courtrooms in the Richard J. Daley Center in Chicago, he knows whereof he speaks. He describes perfectly the floor-to-ceiling views and the marble benches. Balson is a Chicago attorney, so it’s logical that his courtroom dramas ring true. This legal drama centers on a popular restauranteur, Ole Henryks, who owns The Melancholy Dane, a popular north-side eating spot in Chicago. The Danish community is honoring him for his self-professed bravery and heroism during WWII when he ferried the Jews to Sweden and to safety. But when someone paints defamatory words on the walls of his restaurants, he is bereft. “Traitor,” “Nazi collaborator,” and other slurs are left there night after night until he installs a video camera and catches Britta Stein, a diminuitive 92-year-old woman doing it. She is arrested, and he decides to sue her for defamation to restore his good name.
But Britta is defiant, and her granddaughter, Emma, is desperate to get an attorney to represent her. Catherine Lockhart agrees to meet with Britta when a colleague asks her to. Britta almost proudly states that she did, indeed, paint those words on the restaurant wall. She claims that her words are all true, which would be a defense to the accusation of defamation — truth is an absolute defense. Lockhart agrees to defend Britta, and they schedule meetings to go over Britta’s story. With Emma at her side during those meetings, she insists on telling Catherine her story as she sees fit, with all the Danish history and background she thinks is necessary. However, both Britta and Ole are nonagenarians, and the trial will begin soon. Will she provide Catherine with the information they need to win at trial? Will Liam, who flew to Denmark to research Britta’s claims, be able to get proof of who Ole really is and what he did? The date for trial is only weeks away, and Britta’s long-winded story and poor health make things more difficult for Lockhart as she tries to prepare for a trial that will surely be a media circus.
In the meantime, we are witness to Britta’s narrative about living in Denmark and what it meant to be a Dane. The Jewish Danes were Danish first, and religion wasn’t of utmost importance to most of them; it rarely divided people. So the Jewish people of Denmark felt just as Danish as the Lutherans, and they all (or most of them) defended every Dane’s right to live freely and without restrictions. We learn that Hitler allowed them that freedom because Germany needed Denmark’s geographic location to get to Sweden and its rich materials that were so important to the war effort.
In addition, unlike many other European countries, the Danish people, we learn, wouldn’t allow the Jewish Danes to be transported to Germany. When Germany finally tired of allowing the Danes to protect the Jews and ordered them rounded up and transported, the Danish people—most of them, at least— hid the families and helped them sail to Sweden, where they were sheltered and protected. Over 7,500 Jews were saved by ordinary Danes who hid them, took them into hospitals under fake names, and sailed them to Sweden. There were exceptions, as Balson points out through Britta’s narrative, but only around 300 Danish Jews were deported thanks to the unified efforts of the Danish people. Balson makes this extraordinary, inspirational event real and immediate through Britta’s emotional narrative.
In addition to the emotional—and instructive—historical narrative, Balson presents a courtroom drama that is equally riveting. How will Britta Stein, who has admitted to writing the defamatory statements on the restaurant wall, overcome the lawsuit Ole Hendryks filed against her for defamation? She admitted doing it. Whereupon we learn the machinations that are possible and we see how adroitly Catherine, and ultimately Britta herself, manipulate both the legal process and the pompous opposing counsel. In fact, there are two villains: the pompous opposing counsel who will stop at nothing to promote himself at the expense of truth and honor, and Ole Hendryk, who until almost the end seems a rather sympathetic character. But through Britta’s narration, our eyes are opened to Hendryks’ true nature, and through Catherine’s brilliant courtroom examination, his lies are exposed to the world.
Holocaust story and courtroom drama, “Defending Britta Stein” will keep readers as enthralled in Britta’s story as the fictional Catherine appears to be. It’s also truly inspirational to read of a country where the people are so united by their patriotism that all citizens, regardless of religious beliefs, are considered brothers and sisters and worthy of saving at any risk. If only citizens in other countries, France for example, had felt the same, countless lives would have been saved. Would that those Danish beliefs might be more widely shared even today, when we are all too often divided by color and religion.
Please note: An abbreviated version of this review was posted on Bookreporter.com.