In 1939, a young New Jersey girl befriends a half-Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany in this historical novel.
It’s Sept. 1, 1939, and Lila Dodge, a fourth-grader, is informed that her birthday celebration will have to be postponed because Germany has just invaded Poland. Lila lives in New Jersey with her extended family of grandparents, aunts, and uncles in a house that is divided up into green and blue zones. Presiding over all is her grandfather, who has a reputation as the town crackpot. Due to her unusual family and the unfashionable way she dresses, Lila is somewhat ostracized by her fellow students at school. Also shunned is a boy new to the school, the half-Jewish Joab Friedes, a refugee from Nazi Germany who lives with foster parents. Because he is different and barely speaks English, Joab is taunted and beaten up on the playground. Reluctantly over time, Lila, who is the boy’s neighbor, becomes his friend and even protector. From Joab, who has a black number tattooed on his arm, Lila learns firsthand about the horrors being committed in Germany. At the same time, she takes her birthday gift, a set of international paper dolls, and uses them to create a diorama that is a simulacrum of the war in Europe. And even though America has yet to enter the war, Lila’s father decides to join the Army. Webb’s (Innocence and Gold Dust, 2011) great gift here is her creation of a unique American family, as idiosyncratic, in its own way, as the one in Kaufman and Hart’s play You Can’t Take It with You. In addition, Lila’s friendship with Joab moves believably in fits and starts without any kind of melodramatic prodding of the plot, which, in this overlong novel, is barely extant. In its place, readers get much palaver about the advent of World War II. In fact, there is a little too much talk about the war, which unrealistically seems to be the only thing on the minds of the book’s many characters.
A leisurely paced narrative filled with World War II–era nostalgia that delivers strong characters but lacks a fully developed plot.