(Posted by Evan)
The novel begins with a librarian, Eva Abrams, who sees an article in an open newspaper about a German librarian making an effort to return books stolen by the Nazis back to their rightful owners, holding her book up in the cover photo. This sends Eva immediately off to Berlin to claim her book. We then transcend time and space and meet Eva, a French-born Jewish young woman of Polish heritage living in Nazi occupied Paris in 1942.
In the Author’s Note, Harmel describes how the idea for this novel began with interest in forgery piqued while writing her previous novel The Winemaker’s Wife. Two books then breathed fuel on the embers of that interest: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky and A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives During World War II by Peter Grose. The final piece of the puzzle came when her agent emailed her what I believe is this article from New York Times.
Otto Kuhn, the German librarian in the story, is fictional, but the work he’s doing is based in reality.
She also recommends The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance by Anders Rydell. The novel seems to be based primarily on two forgers she mentions: Adolfo Kaminsky and Oscar Rosowsky.
Kaminsky narrowly escaped deportation and became one of the primary document forgers for the Resistance in Paris, ultimately helping to save an estimated fourteen thousand people, though he was just a teenager at the time.
Oscar Rosowsky,... was just eighteen years old in 1942 when he was forced to flee his home, and by a stroke of good fortune, wound up in Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a tiny village in the mountains of France that hid thousands of people wanted by the Nazis, including many children whose parents had been deported. Much like Eva, Rosowsky began by forging identity documents for himself and his mother-but when he found himself among like-minded people, he began to develop new forging methods that were quicker and more efficient. By war’s end, he had helped rescue more than thirty-five hundred Jews.
She also mentions forgers Mireille Phillip, Jacqueline Decourdemanche, Gabrielle Barraud, and sisters Suzie and Herta Schidlof.
While I am not far enough to have encountered the book-of-lost-names, aside from it's photograph in the newspaper article, there are many references to the power and majesty of books in general that are worth mentioning. To begin, Eva's father works as a typewriter repairman while Eva is studying English literature at the Sorbonne.
Moreover, there are some really great quotes about books:
She doesn't understand what it means to love books so passionately that you would die without them, that you would simply stop breathing, stop existing.
She took one last look at the wooden shelves that lined the walls, stacked from floor to ceiling with beautiful books, their pages full of knowledge she had eagerly absorbed over the years. ... She had devoured them all and saved up her own money to buy more. They had been her escape, her refuge, and now they would be all that was left of her in an apartment she might never return to.
"I-I was just thinking how much I love being surrounded by books."
"He had taught her to love reading, one of the greatest gifts a parent could give a child, and in doing so, he had opened the world to her."
I particularly and enthusiastically agree with this last one. I believe my dad did the same thing for me, and I've often contemplated how much that inspired love of reading has shaped my life. I remember some of the books my dad gave me to read when I was growing up. One of the earliest was John F. Kennedy and PT-109 by Richard Tregaskis. I also remember him giving me The Floating Opera by John Barth which made me want to be a lawyer. I don't know if he recommended I read The Godfather by Mario Puzo, because I remember my copy being a library copy, but he had read it and we talked about it as I read it (Great book!). It made me want to be a mob boss. Luckily, he also recommended two science books, one whose title I can't remember but it was about a scientist studying Red Tide or something like it, and the other was The Great Influenza by John Barry, which is as much about the development of modern medicine as it is about that pandemic. Most recently he recommended Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and now I recommend that book to everyone. Thanks Dad!
What about you Book Club friends? Did you have someone who inspired your love of reading at an early age?
Eva's friend Joseph calls her "mon petit rat de bibliothèque" or 'my little rat of the library', while her dad calls her "stoneczko" or 'little sun'. I'm not sure there's much to read into there, but I found it interesting. I do have to call Harmel out for the error though, as everyone knows that the term in French is 'Ink Drinker' (hat tip: Madison)
Blog about books. Write about love. Happy Reading!