Guernica is the small Basque town in Spain that was made famous by Pablo Picasso in his huge painting of the devastation that town endured during the Spanish Civil War. The Germans destroyed the town and slaughtered men, women, children, and animals at the behest of the rebel forces led by the military. At the start of “The Girl from Guernica,” author Karen Robards takes us to this small town the night before the horror that is a central part of the novel, to see the violence and wanton cruelty through the eyes of the main character, Sibi.
Sibi grew up in Germany where her German father worked as a scientist. Her Basque mother pined for her native Spain, and when her mother, Sibi’s grandmother, became ill, she returned to Guernica, her hometown, with her four daughters. Sibi, 16, is the oldest. Luiza is barely a teenager at 13; Jo is nine; and Margrit, the baby, is five. Sibi sees the Republican soldiers leaving Guernica and heading for Bilbao, which makes her urge her mother to leave for somewhere safer, but unfortunately, her mother doesn’t listen. It takes a strong stomach to read the descriptions as we experience, vicariously, the devastating bombings and the small German fighter planes that literally chased civilians through the streets, gunning them down with machine guns. Later, when many of the residents had died or were trapped beneath the destroyed buildings, came more war planes dropping bombs that would burn down what was left.
Sibi and two sisters are rescued from the ruins by an American attaché named Griff. He sees them to safety, and then their father comes from Germany to take them home. Along with them is a small dog Jo rescued, who in turn saved her by finding her buried beneath Guernica rubble so that she could be saved. Ruby, as the dog is named, is a heartwarming character in the story. Diminutive as she is, she fiercely guards the girls from danger. But we see and feel the story through Sibi’s eyes, and she’s a fascinating and powerful main character.
From the first pages, we understand both her commitment to her family and her intelligence. We come to understand that she worked with her father in his lab, taking notes and understanding his work on rockets. She loves physics and math, and when she has a chance to spy on the Nazis, she grabs that opportunity with both hands. Sibi despises everything the Nazis stand for, and while her father is unable to leave the country because his work is considered top-secret, she realizes that she can help defeat the Nazis by acting as a spy — gathering information and sharing it with Griff, who, as we come to understand, is really with the OSS, the precursor to the CIA.
Robards’ skill as a storyteller is apparent as she develops a uniquely constructed timeline in the novel. She begins the story in 1937, in Guernica. In Part Two of the story, the action moves to Berlin several weeks later. The third part of the action is five years later, at the northern point of Germany, in a town called Peenemünde, where her father has been working on aircraft and rocketry. While a five-year gap might be awkward in the hands of some writers, Robards creates a seamless transition as she fills in the missing time.
From the first page to the last, there is barely time to breathe as we witness one tragedy after another. We see Sibi’s family bereft because of the deaths at Guernica. We also see Sibi’s strength and her determination to keep her remaining family members together and safe. Robards not only shares history about an almost unimaginable event and details about a horrific war, she presents an exemplary hero with an iron will who will do anything she needs to so that her family can survive the war. This historical fiction is beautifully crafted, the narrative is heartrending, and the historical events are accurately rendered. In the author note, Robards explains that she’d “done exhaustive research.” Such attention to detail effectively and excitingly evokes the feeling that we are in the middle of the action, so be prepared. Also, be sure to have a few tissues on hand at the end—I can’t imagine anyone not tearing up at the emotional close of the story.
Please note: This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.