The inspiration for Monica Hesse’s young adult debut, Girl in the Blue Coat, set in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam, can be traced to The Diary of Anne Frank.
“Like a lot of girls, I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was young and then reread it and reread it again, and was so affected by that book as a human and a writer,” says Hesse, a features writer at the Washington Post. “Then as I got older, I realized I knew a lot about the Netherlands and the war, but only through this very specific lens: this girl living in an annex. It made me curious to see what the city was like for people riding their bicycles outside, for the people trying to hide the Frank family, and the people caught up in their daily lives.”
Girl in the Blue Coat takes readers out of the annex and onto the streets of Amsterdam in January 1943, as teenaged Hanneke learns to navigate the slowly boiling waters of the occupation and mourns the death of her boyfriend, Bas, who was killed on the front lines during the German invasion. Hanneke is somewhat numb and doing what she needs to do to survive: flirting with German soldiers if she must (even as she fantasizes about pushing them into the canal), and working as a messenger for black market goods to support her family (“I find the things we have been made to do without, unless you know where to look”). When a client makes a plea for Hanneke’s help in finding a missing Jewish girl named Mirjam that she had been hiding, Hanneke initially wants to refuse. “It’s too dangerous. Survival first. That’s my war motto. After Bas, it might be my life motto,” she thinks. But her guilt over Bas’ death, and her conscience, compel her to help. Hanneke’s search draws her into the resistance effort, where she comes face to face with the war’s horrors.
Hesse visited the Library of Congress and made at least four or five visits to the Holocaust Museum as part of her research for the novel. The details Hesse learned through her diligent research—what time curfew began, what sort of food the Dutch ate, what it tasted like—gives the novel a haunting sense of realism. One scene in particular is harrowing: Hanneke’s search for Mirjam leads her to the Hollandsche Schouwburg, the theater that served as a deportation hub for Jews being relocated out of the city and into concentration camps. Here, Hanneke is immersed in the horrific conditions that have been right in front of her all along. Recalling the visit, Hanneke thinks: “Fear. That’s right. That was the odor I couldn’t place before. That’s the smell of my beautiful, breaking country.”
“This theater is the illustration of everything happening in the war—that this beautiful cultural landmark was taken over by the Nazis,” says Hesse. “That this building existed in the middle of the city and in front of ordinary citizens who had no idea what was happening inside, either because they were deliberately blind, or intentionally blind.
“When you look back at horrendous events like the Holocaust,” Hesse continues, “I think it’s common to say, ‘Well of course I would have been in the resistance, I would have done something, I wouldn’t have just stood by.’ But the fact of the matter is most people weren’t in the resistance. Even if they disagreed with the occupation and hated the Nazis, it was really dangerous to rebel. It was not a risk that came with no cost. I wanted to explore someone who was in that space, who really had to think about what was right and what was wrong, and what was easy and what was hard, and have naturally human fears for her own safety and that of her family’s, and then learn about a bigger world.”
But Hesse also reveals moments of heroism among ordinary citizens who hide families or try to help in other ways, despite the danger. It’s a work of fiction, but many moments in Girl in the Blue Coat hem close to history; there are acts Hesse says she could not have made up if she tried. Members of the resistance effort snuck Jewish children out of the country by “putting little kids in laundry baskets or taking a group of children for a walk and deliberately miscounting,” says Hesse. “These groups of young people who were placing themselves in great danger to save the most vulnerable population was really moving to me.”
The novel is well-paced and plotted, and Hesse parcels clues out slowly as Henneke gets closer to solving the mystery of the missing girl, who has seemingly vanished without a trace. There are unexpected twists, and bone-chilling moments of discovery. Seemingly small moments, such as a fight between a couple, or a young girl’s impulsive actions, have tremendous repercussions. In some cases, the costs of a moment’s neglect are deadly.
“These are characters having human emotions,” says Hesse. “The difference is because its wartime these decisions become magnified and irrevocable. I wanted to explore being in a time where just having normal human emotions—occasional pettiness and jealousy—have life-and-death repercussions for lots of people.”
Courtney Allison contributes features to Kirkus Reviews.