A Jewish Dutchman leaves his native Holland in advance of Nazi occupation for the United States and is drawn into a world of wartime espionage.
Anxious about Germany’s increasing belligerence and the infiltration of Dutch Parliament by Nazis, Hans Bernsteen procures two visas—one for himself and one for his sister, Esther—to flee Holland for New York. Esther refuses to leave, though, optimistic that there is little to fear, and Hans leaves without her. Despite being a polyglot and skilled photographer, Hans finds it impossible to find employment, which is largely denied to both foreigners and Jews. He leaves for Rochester to work at Eastman Kodak, but they are not allowed to hire “aliens.” Luckily, he then meets Greta, a German-American, at a Woolworth lunch counter. They fall in love, but her brothers are unrepentant admirers of Hitler, and they conspire to steal the plans for a new bombsight technology and deliver it into German hands. Hans feels duty-bound to report this to the FBI, which ropes him into spying on Greta and her family. He’s bullied into working as a film developer in Canada and then joins the American Army as a combat photographer. He’s pushed into counterintelligence work, where his superiors note his remarkable observational skills. He boards a Dutch ship headed to South Africa, which ends up in French New Caledonia, and uncovers an enemy intelligence-gathering operation. Meanwhile, Esther becomes pregnant, and her boyfriend leaves to join England’s Royal Air Force. She is sent to Bergen Belsen, where she struggles to survive. Author Hood (Off the Tracks: A Beatnik Family Journey, 2014) paints a vivid picture of war-torn Europe and the epistemological distance between those who see the inevitable and those who turn a blind eye to Nazi aggression. Her knowledge of the period’s politics is broad and her prose self-assured. The novel borrows from her father’s life, and her loving attention to her protagonist, beautifully drawn, is evident throughout. Hans is a complex figure, patriotic but conflicted, unsure where his loyalties should lie.
A thrilling, sensitively conceived historical novel.