Tuesday, March 19, 2013

City of Women by David. R. Gillham

     
Like many people, as a teenager I became fascinated with the Holocaust.  Reading Elie Wiesel’s Night, Anne Frank’s diary and fictionalized accounts of the atrocities committed by the Nazis, I could hardly wrap my mind around the scope of it, and I had to wonder about the ordinary Germans – how could they not know what was happening around them, and knowing, how could they fail to act? 
Well, it’s easy to do the right thing as part of the armchair resistance, but much harder to put yourself and your family at risk for strangers in the real world.  David R. Gillham’s City of Women explores the dilemma faced by Sigrid Schröder, an ordinary woman living in Berlin in 1943 who is asked, one day, to take a risk to protect a virtual stranger, and then finds herself drawn into a complex spiral of conspiracy and lies. 
Sigrid considers herself a good German.  What that means to her evolves during the course of an extremely well written and compelling narrative that will keep you turning pages.  Nazi-era Berlin, with all its paranoia and fear, is depicted beautifully, and the cast of characters bring the city and times alive.  But it is Sigrid, who is passionate and stubborn and amazingly real, who really makes this book into something extraordinary.
 I normally avoid books written in present tense, but within a few pages of starting City of Women, I was too immersed in Sigrid’s story to care about verbs.  And as with The Last Runaway (reviewed here yesterday), City of Women does not oversimplify a complex and often contradictory world.
A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell presents another character-driven take on World War II, this time from the Italian perspective.  Or for a nonfiction look at life under the Nazis, try In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson or The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman. 

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