Things fall apart for the Stern family over the last few months of 1942 in Oslo, Norway.
Fifteen-year-old Ilse waits in vain for her date; did he stand her up because she's plain (even her white skin is dry)? Hermann, white-blond and Norwegian, wishes he could tell Ilse why he never arrived, but his secrets would endanger others. Sonja, 18, wants Ilse to be more helpful in their father's tailor shop. Isak rushes to work before his daughters wake so he can scrub “Jewish scum” off the windows, but he can't spare the girls from what's to come. The spare, lovely prose, translated from Norwegian and shifting narrative perspective from character to character, is wrenching for readers with context to extrapolate all that's unsaid. After a vile journey, "Sonja catches sight of a sign hanging over the platform: Auschwitz. It means nothing to her." Sonja's storyline ends abruptly only pages later, while she waits in the dark for a mandatory shower; Isak's comes to a similarly undetailed conclusion shortly after he's been categorized in Birkenau as "forty years old, no gold teeth." Such details are chilling for readers in the know but less so for those without a fuller understanding of Nazi atrocities. A historical note discusses the Holocaust in Norway but likewise assumes basic understanding. The myriad viewpoints decrease the appeal for younger readers (Ilse's concerns seem naïve when contrasted with her father's) but beautifully enhance the tragic unreality.
This feels more like a mood piece for adults than a book for teens; regardless, a subtle, hard-hitting book for readers who have the background to understand its oblique approach. (resources) (Historical fiction. 14 & up)