A well-written first novel with complex characters and unexpected twists on old themes.

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Grace for Tomorrow

Two women—a young mother and a teenage Mennonite—confront life’s hardships with a renewed faith in God in this debut Christian novel.

Mary is a young, idealistic girl growing up on a traditional Mennonite farm (automobiles but no furnace or running water) in Canada. Francis defied her upwardly mobile parents to marry the love of her life, Mike, and is a mother of two in Edmonton. Angered, Francis’ mother neither calls nor visits and has never seen her grandchildren. Mary helps her family with the farm, goes on picnics with her friends, and feels the first stirrings of love for a friend of the family, John, who is leaving town to study theology. Mary’s brother, David, also feels a calling to serve the Lord, and he discusses with Mary his thoughts about true salvation apart from mere obedience to their Mennonite customs. Mary’s parents do not approve of other denominations, but they recognize that outreach to youth is lacking in their congregation. Francis and Mike struggle to make ends meet in Edmonton, but Mike’s drinking and free-wheeling friends prey on his deep sense of inadequacy. He becomes abusive, and when Francis announces a third pregnancy, he beats her severely and abandons his family. Devastated, Francis is helped by a Christian co-worker. When David dies unexpectedly in an accident, Mary too turns to drinking and partying, and she runs away from home when she becomes pregnant. By juxtaposing Mennonite and secular cultures, developing strong female characters, and—best of all—crafting an ambiguous but hopeful tale, Schmidt has created a layered, satisfying novel. Rather than exotify the Anabaptist life, Schmidt characterizes Mennonites as having much the same problems as everyone else (though with a stricter view of “rebellion”). However, one drawback is that having Francis’ mother totally withdraw and her husband disappear is too convenient—a meddling mother and messy divorce would make the story more realistic. It would also make Mary’s subsequent flight, and her eventual meeting with Francis, more of a surprise.

A well-written first novel with complex characters and unexpected twists on old themes.

Pub Date: Aug. 18, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-5127-5017-1

Page Count: 284

Publisher: Westbow Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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