Pam Jenoff writes historical fiction, sometimes based on real events, usually about WWII and the Holocaust. Her books provide a glimpse into how people survived in often horrific situations and reflect both the best and the worst instincts of humans. In “The Winter Guest,” Jenoff writes about Poland during the war, centering her story on a family in a small town near Kraków, eighteen-year-old twin sisters caring for their younger three siblings after the death of their father and the hospitalization of their mother for cancer. Much of the story is about their struggle to survive during this time of depredation, but Jenoff also imagines what life was like in small-town Poland.
The twin sisters, Ruth and Helena, both share their points of view through third person narrative although we are more involved with Helena’s story. It’s Helena who loves the outdoors and was taught by her father to hunt and travel in the forest outside their cottage. She’s the one who traverses the mountainous terrain to visit Kraków once a week to bring her mother extra food and check on her as she stays in the Jewish Hospital in the Jewish part of the city. Their father had explained that although the family is not Jewish, it’s more affordable than other hospitals.
On her return from a visit, she encounters an American soldier injured in the woods after parachuting from a plane that eventually crashed. The Germans and the local police are looking for survivors of the crash, and Helena helps Sam, the soldier, get to a small abandoned chapel in the woods where he can shelter. She brings him food and helps tend to his wounds, and they fall in love.
Perhaps because there is a lot going on in this novel—from the family’s life in the small cottage to the mother’s worsening condition in the distant city and the discovery of the injured American—Jenoff doesn’t explore any of the topics with the depth that is often apparent in her other novels, including “The Woman with the Blue Star,” about which I commented, “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” in my review. We don’t necessarily feel the same level of connection with either Ruth or Helena, but Jenoff does offer some profound thoughts about life in small villages as well as the problems of assimilation.
Jenoff repeatedly points out the antisemitism that was rampant in Poland before the war and how easy it was for the Nazis to persecute the Jews because of generations of hatred toward the “others.” Yet at the same time, we see how some Jewish culture was appropriated by the Poles. One of the few Jews remaining in the Jewish ghetto tells Helena, “Jews and Poles have lived side by side for a thousand years in many places. They’ve become so intertwined that they scarcely have noticed. Take, for example, the crackers in the markets called matzah. That’s a Hebrew word, derived from the unleavened bread we eat for Passover each spring. You didn’t know that, did you?” I didn’t know that.
There is also the fact that Jenoff shares which is that often when Poles and Jews married, the Jewish person converted or traveled to a different village to live as a Catholic. Because of the suspicion and ancient distrust of “others,” it was advisable to assimilate and not offer any hint of Jewish ancestry. Jenoff writes that DNA tests would show how many Poles are also of Jewish descent, and that many of them might be surprised.
Sibling rivalry, betrayal, sacrifice, and valor are all displayed by the various characters in this novel, and while the ending doesn’t surprise, as do many of Jenoff’s other novels, we are satisfied with how history played out. As with many of her other novels, we begin and end the story in the present day while the central and main portion of the story describes events during the war. The beginning and the end are in first person narrative, and while we don’t know in the beginning who exactly that first person narrator is, Jenoff unveils the answer to that mystery at the end.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover copy of the book provided by the publisher, Harper Collins, for review purposes. This is a reissue of a novel that was published earlier, but which I had not reviewed.