A classic fairy tale is darkly reimagined in this brutally explicit Holocaust story by poet and second-novelist Murphy (The Sea Within, 1985).
The eponymous protagonists are Polish Jews, the preadolescent daughter and seven-year-old son of a fugitive intellectual ironically nicknamed “the Mechanic,” who survived by servicing German military vehicles. In the late stages of the war, the Mechanic and his second wife “rename” his children and send them into a forest, hoping they can elude both Nazi pursuers and advancing Russian troops. The children are taken in by an aged “witch,” Magda, and reluctantly sheltered by the embattled residents of a nearby Polish village. At first juxtaposing the ordeals of the children and their father, Murphy gradually expands her novel’s scope, focusing in turn on an unwed pregnant woman (Nelka) and the redoubtable villager (Telek) who loves her; Magda’s brother, a sin-burdened priest who redeems himself by a heroic sacrifice; and German Major Frankel, a suave monster who “refreshes” himself with the transfused blood of Polish women and orchestrates the inspection of their children for the purposes of “assimilation into the German people.” Murphy’s crisp prose renders the war’s terrors memorably, and she makes expert use of indigenous folklore and superstition—perhaps expressed most beautifully in “Gretel’s” declaration to “Hansel” that stars above them are “all the Jews that died . . . and went up in the air, and the stars are the stars that they wore on their coats.” Comparisons to Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird are inevitable, but the relentlessly grim depiction of the children’s perilous odyssey, and especially the stalwart, mordant figure of Magda (whose eventual fate and transfiguration are stunningly described) link it even more closely with Davis Grubb’s Appalachian morality tale The Night of the Hunter. Only an unconvincing hopeful ending and elegiac coda dilute the power of Murphy’s unusually gripping fiction.
Lyrical, haunting, unforgettable.