Saturday, October 31, 2015

"the girl from the train" by irma joubert

When I picked up The Girl From the Train, I wasn't sure I'd like it. Normally, I enjoy World War II fiction, but something about the description didn't interest me (though I immediately loved the cover). I'm glad I didn't let my hesitance deter me, as I ended up absolutely loving this novel!

Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Aushwitz. Jakób Kowalski is planting a bomb on the tracks.

As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They intend to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first.

Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her in. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.

But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered.

Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.

Spanning more than a dozen years, The Girl From the Train tells the story of an orphan and the man who rescued her. When Gretl and Jakób aren't together, the action goes back and forth between them, though the majority of the novel focuses on Gretl.

One thing that surprised me about The Girl From the Train was its positivity. Yes, Gretl's life was hard—even horrific—before Jakób took her under his wing, and Jakób's life was not easy, either. But rather than focusing on the bad, Joubert found a way to bring light to the story. As I read, I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop—for Gretl's life to become unbearable. But that never happened; instead, Gretl's life changed for the better when Jakób decided to send her to South Africa. I loved following along on Gretl's journey.

The novel contains a touch of romance near the end (and it's a romance the reader will see coming long before it materializes), but overall, The Girl From the Train is about a little girl's search for belonging, which she finds in a diverse South African family. Gretl's new family is one of the highlights of the book. I especially loved Grandpa John, who understood Gretl perhaps better than anyone else.

The Girl From the Train is an international bestseller that was originally published in Afrikaans in South Africa. The only indication that this is a translation is that sometimes, conversations seemed a bit awkward—like something got lost in translation. But that could just have to do with the way different cultures communicate, too.

Overall, I loved The Girl From the Train. It is absolutely fascinating, and it lends itself to discussion, making it a great book club selection. (In fact, it's Target's November 2015 Book Club pick!) I highly recommend it. 4-1/2 stars.

Buy the book.

International bestselling author Irma Joubert was a history teacher for 35 years before she began writing. Her stories are known for their deep insight into personal relationships and rich historical detail. She's the author of eight novels and a regular fixture on bestseller lists in The Netherlands and in her native South Africa. She is the winner of the 2010 ARKV Prize for Romance Novels. Follow her on Facebook.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through The Fiction Guild. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Also, some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

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