A Historical Novels Review Editors' Choice
The New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Exiles conjures her best novel yet, a pre-World War II-era story with the emotional resonance of Orphan Train and All the Light We Cannot See, centering on the Kindertransports that carried thousands of children out of Nazi-occupied Europe—and one brave woman who helped them escape to safety.
In 1936, the Nazi are little more than loud, brutish bores to fifteen-year old Stephan Neuman, the son of a wealthy and influential Jewish family and budding playwright whose playground extends from Vienna’s streets to its intricate underground tunnels. Stephan’s best friend and companion is the brilliant Žofie-Helene, a Christian girl whose mother edits a progressive, anti-Nazi newspaper. But the two adolescents’ carefree innocence is shattered when the Nazis’ take control.
There is hope in the darkness, though. Truus Wijsmuller, a member of the Dutch resistance, risks her life smuggling Jewish children out of Nazi Germany to the nations that will take them. It is a mission that becomes even more dangerous after the Anschluss—Hitler’s annexation of Austria—as, across Europe, countries close their borders to the growing number of refugees desperate to escape.
Tante Truus, as she is known, is determined to save as many children as she can. After Britain passes a measure to take in at-risk child refugees from the German Reich, she dares to approach Adolf Eichmann, the man who would later help devise the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question,” in a race against time to bring children like Stephan, his young brother Walter, and Žofie-Helene on a perilous journey to an uncertain future abroad.
Clayton (Beautiful Exiles) reaches into the troubled lives of the Third Reich's civilian victims, drawing readers into one woman's efforts to save children in this excellent novel based on actual events. Geertruida Wijsmuller, known as "Tante Truus" and part of the Dutch resistance, is determined to risk everything to save children of all ages despite or because of her inability to bring a pregnancy to term herself. In Vienna, the lives of two children are highlighted: Stephan Neuman is Jewish, and because he turned 17 in 1938, he's barely allowed to escape to England in the 1938 1939 Kindertransport, which will not accept 18-year-olds. Stephan's friend and budding beloved, 15-year-old Sofie-Helene Perger, is not Jewish, but her mother is a journalist who refuses to stop writing articles critical of Hitler. Stephan, an aspiring playwright, must adapt to the changes in his life, which was once filled with wealth from his father's famous chocolate factory. Math prodigy Sofie also tries to adapt, uncertain about how to help Stephan without threatening her own family. The children and Tante Truus's stories don't intersect until later in the book, when she secures them safe passage to England due to a daring, last-second decision. Clayton effectively captures the dim hope of survival amid the mounting terror of the lead-up to WWII. This is a standout historical fiction that serves as a chilling reminder of how insidious, pervasive evil can gradually seep into everyday lives.