“Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard… Maybe the snow will come soon. She feels herself smile. And maybe, just maybe, things are different from what she had thought. Maybe everything starts with the first snow” (Kaurin 2017, p. 95).
According to her author’s note, Marianne Kaurin was inspired by a single idea to write this story: What if, during the German occupation of Norway in 1942, a single member of a Jewish family happened to be away from home when the Nazis came to take them to the concentration camps? As Kaurin explains, 532 Norwegian Jews were sent aboard the Donau to Auschwitz, where only nine survived. In addition to being inspired by her own family’s history (many of the characters in the book are named after family members or friends of her family), Kaurin wanted to explore the idea of a bizarre twist of fate that would spare one member of a large family during this dark time in history. As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’ve always been fascinated with the history of World War II, as well as the history of the Holocaust. Because of this, I usually find historical fiction based upon this time period to be incredibly engaging and thought-provoking. This work was no different.
The novel focuses on a young girl named Ilse Stern, who is eagerly awaiting autumn, when she believes her life will change for the better. Devastated after being stood up on a date by Hermann Rod, her crush since she was a little girl, Ilse scolds herself for being so easily tricked. What Ilse doesn’t realize, however, is that Hermann is hiding many secrets – both from her and his entire family. The year is 1942, and Ilse’s family is Jewish in Norway, a country being occupied by German soldiers. Ilse’s sister, Sonja, longs to work as a seamstress in a local theater, though her father has always expected her to take over the family business when he retires.
Sonja and Ilse’s father, meanwhile, has been coping silently with a failing business and a steady stream of hate, trying to hide the nasty messages on his shop windows every morning. The novel jumps from character to character as the story progresses, allowing each character to share his or her ambitions and desires with the reader. The story reaches its climax one day when Isak (Ilse and Sonja’s father) is taken suddenly and sent to a labor camp, prompting his worried family to wonder whether they should flee for the safety of neutral Sweden.
I really enjoyed the poetic quality of this book, as it helped to immerse me in this time and place. Marianne Kaurin’s writing has an almost lyrical quality, making it very pleasing to read. Autumn, as its place in the title implies, is incredibly important to the story, as it represents the season in which warm, bright summer transitions to hard, cold winter. At the beginning of the novel, Ilse feels like being stood up is the worst thing that could possibly happen to her, but soon finds a much darker and colder winter coming for her and her family. I thought this use of foreshadowing was both inventive and well-placed, as it warns the reader of what is to come. That being said, I found myself getting a little thrown off by the constant tense switches, as Kaurin would swap from past to present tense within only a couple of sentences. I suppose there was likely a symbolic reason for this that I was missing, but it was sometimes confusing to read.
Even though I love reading historical fiction about the Holocaust and World War II, I’m usually fully aware going into it that it’s likely not going to end happily for any of the characters involved, even if they’re non-Jewish Germans. In this case, however, I had no idea this was historical fiction until after I started reading it, as I went in mostly blind. At first, it seems like it’s going to be a simple love story between Ilse and Hermann, but turns much darker and deeper as the novel progresses and more is revealed. The instant the novel Ilse explained to the reader that she and her family were Jewish, my stomach dropped. I then knew exactly what I was in for with this story. It’s nowhere near as dark as The Book Thief in tone, but it still manages to be devastatingly sad in the end.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, as this would ruin the entire book, but I will say that this was an incredibly powerful and moving read. I don’t think I will ever tire of devouring stories about the Holocaust, even if they often leave me feeling depressed and wondering why any of this was allowed to happen. Books like this are a grim reminder of all that was lost during the Holocaust, but I believe it’s incredibly important to continue sharing stories from this time period, both fictional and true. If we refuse to let the horrors of this time period dull with time, we are far less likely to let another Holocaust happen. Experiencing how inhumanely our fellow humans were treated simply because of their religion should not only horrify us, but inspire us to take action when we see injustices taking place in our own time period.
Almost Autumn, though short, is beautifully written and will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction, especially historical fiction that deals with the Holocaust and World War II. It’s a fairly quick read, and one that appeals to reluctant readers. I’m very pleased that I had the chance to read it, even if it did trod mercilessly on my heart.
Kaurin, M., & Hedger, R. (2017). Almost autumn. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books.