This is a story of differences – cultural, national, lingual, ecclesiastical – and how they can be overcome. This is also a book that delves into the era at the tail end of World War II and afterward to explore the dark tendrils of war that affected an unusual time period.
While a young Polish resistance fighter is planting a bomb on a train track, a little girl is escaping out the window of a train. Later that night, a train explodes, and two lives are shattered and thrown together, eternally reformed.
The historical setting is exciting. While most of the text has been translated into English, there are still enough foreign words to give the book the international flavor it needs. German, Polish, English, Afrikaans – all these different cultures and languages play a role in molding the story and transporting us to the European mindset.
I appreciated the closer look at the Polish struggle for freedom – the sense of the behind-the-scenes fighters, the homemade explosives, the shortage of food, weapons, and manpower. And yet the Poles are never crushed; despite the oppression of first the German-Nazis, then the Soviet Communists, their national identity and religious adherence to their culture is firm and inspiring.
The main characters are also compelling. We first meet Gretl as a six-year-old (almost seven) who “isn’t afraid”, despite the bitter circumstances her life has brought her. Her childlike confidence, and her mature intelligence, impress Jacób, the young Polish farmer and patriot who is forced to take her under his wing. As the war-time oppression rolls into Soviet domination, and Jacób watches his beloved country rot and the anger of his countrymen smolder, his bond of trust with Gretl carries them on.
The after-effects of the war are still heart-rending, and the choices Gretl and Jacób are forced to make sometimes tear them apart. And yet, their Christian faith and their trust in each other are anchors when the scars of what they’ve suffered pull at them.
Family is another anchor. When Gretl loses her birth family, she gains another one that draws her in and makes her one of them — I especially love the grandpa, who is everything a grandpa should be, and makes the name of fatherhood proud with his understanding and guidance. The mother and father are also strong characters, setting examples for all parents struggling to do the very best for their precious children even when the way forward may be unclear.
I found the treatment of Christianity very interesting. The Catholic church is handled with respectful solemnity, from the earnest, caring nuns teaching at Gretl’s convent school to the reverent ritual of the mass. It is also closely bound to the Polish yearning for freedom, as the Catholic church – and the Polish legacy and culture – suffocates under the iron grip of the Soviet Communists.
The Protestant church is also treated as sincere. Although when Gretl first encounters the Protestant church it feels cold and strange, the characters acknowledge there’s a refreshing simplicity in the Protestant’s lack of pomp and ceremony.
The Protestants do refer to the “Catholic threat” and call having a cross a “sin”, but in the end the two churches’ sincerity seems to prove their closeness to God, and the author seems to ask why we can’t mutually accept the way we each worship God, even if our methods are different.
To me, this would be compelling except that one of the characters prays constantly to the “Mother of God”, while the Protestants understand that the way is open to approach God Himself on His throne. Sincerity is not the be-all and end-all of things, and Mary-worship is an example of the cavernous divide between the Catholic church and those Christians who rejected the unBiblical forms and teachings of that church to recapture the roots of the faith, in God and His word.
Finally: where you have men and women, you have male-female relationships. For most of the book, this focuses on friendships or the less complicated forms of enjoying each other’s company; however, the last couple chapters plunge deep into the waters of romantic/sexual love and longing. While the conflict felt candid, the physical and emotional throes seemed a little overwrought.
(Full disclosure: I’ve never fallen in “fall-in” love. Okay, maybe once, but it was a diet version of love, and with God’s help I got out of it.)
In the first part of the book, these elements are more subtle and natural, and when they finally barrel into each other and collide like two explosions, it channels into a fitting resolution.
While not “World War II historical fiction” in the way that Call of Duty: 1942 is, this is an excellent story about the ordinary people who had to face extraordinary circumstances, and live ordinary lives in the midst of extraordinary times. It’s also a thoughtful exploration of the marks oppression can leave, long after the cease-fire has been signed.
The Girl From the Train is available on Amazon (here).
Disclaimer: I won a paperback copy of Girl From the Train courtesy of Family Christian and Amanda Geaney (blog: ChristianShelfEsteem). Thanks! I was not required to write a review for my copy, positive or otherwise.
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