Please welcome to the blog a new to me author whose WWII novel The Winter Guest made me an instant fan and her life experiences made my jaw drop. Enjoy our chat and then my review of this engaging novel by this amazing woman.
Publication date: 8/26/2014
A stirring novel of first love in a time of war and the unbearable choices that could tear sisters apart, from the celebrateD author of The Kommandant's Girl
Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor.
Read an Excerpt:
The low rumbling did not rouse Helena from her sleep. She had been dreaming of makowiec,the poppy seed rolls Mama used to make, thick and warm with a dusting of sugar. So when the noise grew louder, intruding on her dream and causing her hands to tremble, she clung tighter to the bread, drawing it hurriedly to her mouth. But before she could take a bite, a crash rattled the house and a dish in the kitchen fell and shattered.
She sat bolt upright, trying to see through the darkness. "Ruth!" Helena shook her sister. Ruth, who was curled up in a warm ball with her arms wrapped around the three slumbering children between them, had always slept more soundly. "Bombs!" Immediately awake, Ruth leaped up and grabbed one of their younger sisters under each arm. Helena followed, tugging a groggy Michal by the hand, and they raced toward the cellar as they had rehearsed dozens of times, not bothering to stop for the shoes lined up at the foot of the bed.
Helena scrambled down the ladder first, followed by Michal. Then Ruth passed five-year-old Dorie below before climbing down herself, the baby wrapped around her neck. Helena dropped to the ground and pulled Dorie onto her lap, smelling the sour milk on the child's breath. She cringed as the inevitable wetness of the muddy earth seeped through her nightclothes, then braced herself for the next explosion. She recalled the horrors she'd heard of the Warsaw bombings and hoped that the cottage could withstand it.
"Is it a storm?" Dorie asked, her voice hushed with apprehension.
"Nie, kochana." The child's body relaxed palpably in Helena's arms. Dorie could not imagine something worse than a storm. If only it were that simple.
Beside her, Ruth trembled. "Jestes pewna?" Are you certain there were bombs?
Helena nodded, then realized Ruth could not see her. "Tak." Ruth would not second-guess her. The sisters trusted each other implicitly and Ruth deferred to her where their safety was concerned. Michal leaned his tangle of curls against her shoulder and she hugged him tightly, feeling his ribs protrude beneath his skin. Twelve years old, he seemed to grow taller every day and their meager rations simply couldn't keep up.
Ten minutes passed, then twenty, without further noise. "I guess it's over," Helena said, feeling foolish. "Not bombs, then."
Helena could sense her sister's lips curling in the darkness. "No." She waited for Ruth's rebuke for having dragged them needlessly from bed. When it did not come, Helena stood and helped Dorie up the ladder. Together they all climbed back into the bed that had once belonged to their parents.
Helena thought of the noises early the next morning as she made her way up the tree-covered hill that rose before their house. The early-December air was crisp, the sky heavy with foreboding of the harsher weather that would soon come. It had not been her imagination—she was sure of that. She had heard the drone of the airplane flying too low and the sound that followed had been an explosion. But she could see for miles from this vantage point, and when she peered back over her shoulder, the tiny town and rolling countryside were untouched, the faded rooftops and brown late-autumn brush she had known all her life showing no signs of damage.
She was halfway up the hill when a rooster crowed. Helena smiled smugly, as though she had outplayed the animal at its own game. Pausing, she turned and scanned the horizon again, gazing out at the rolling Malopolska hills. Beyond them to the south sat the High Tatras, their snowcapped peaks obscured by mist. She gazed up at the half crescent moon that lingered against the pale early-morning sky. The wind blew then and the moon seemed to duck behind some silvery gray clouds, casting light around the edges.
Helena bent to untangle the frayed hem of her skirt from the tops of her boots with annoyance. Her eyes dropped once more. Biekowice was just one of a dozen or so villages surrounding the larger town of Myslenice, spokes on a wheel fanning across the countryside. The entire region had been part of the Austrian empire not thirty years earlier and the latticed, red roof houses still gave it a slightly Germanic feel. There was one road into town, feeding into a cluster of streets, which wound claustrophobically around the market square like a noose. Another road led out just as quickly. A patchwork of farms dotted the outskirts, gray smoke wafting from their chimneys to form a halo above.
Shifting the small satchel she carried, Helena continued along the western path, a pebble-strewn route that climbed upward toward the main road. In the stream that ran alongside the path, water gurgled. Her footsteps fell into an easy rhythm. Despite her mother's admonitions, Helena had escaped to the woods frequently as a child. In the confines of their small cottage, she bounced about restlessly like a rubber ball, with nowhere for her energy to go. But this was the one place she could be by herself and truly feel free.
Pine needles crackled beneath her feet, breaking the stillness, their scent mixing with more than a hint of smoke. What brush or refuse could the farmers be burning now? Everything, even items once discarded, might have some use. Leaves and twigs could, if not fuel a fire, at least make it burn longer, stretch the logs or make them hotter when the wood in the pile was damp. She scoured the ground now as she walked, looking for dropped berries or nuts or even acorns that might be used for tea. But the earth here was picked bare by the animals, as ravenous and desperate as she.
The war had broken out more than fifteen months earlier, and for a while, despite the warnings that crackled nonstop across the radio, first in Polish and later in German, it seemed as though it might not have happened at all. Though their small village was less than twenty kilometers from Krakow, little had changed other than the occasional passing of military trucks on the high road outside town. It was the blessing, Helena reflected, of living in a place so sleepy as to be of no strategic value. But the hardships had come, if not the Germans themselves: herds of cattle and other livestock disappeared in the night, reportedly over the western border. Coal stores were requisitioned and sent to the front to help the war effort. And an unusually cruel summer drought had contributed to the misery, leaving little to be canned for winter storage.
She reached the paved road that led toward the city. It was deserted now, but exhaust hung freshly in the air, suggesting a car or wagon had passed recently. Helena's skin prickled. She could not afford to encounter anyone now. She looked longingly back toward the trees, but taking the steep, winding forest path would only slow her down.
As she started forward, Helena's thoughts turned to the previous evening. "Don't go," Ruth had begged as they readied the children for bed. They'd worked seamlessly in tandem as they'd completed the familiar grooming chores, like two appendages of the same body. "It's dangerous." She accidentally pulled Dorie's braid too hard, causing her to squeal.
Ruth's objection was familiar. She had fought Helena since she'd first proposed going to the city, continuing Tata's weekly pilgrimage after his death. It was not so much that the half-day trek was physically demanding; Helena had navigated the steep, rocky countryside with her father all her life. But the Nazis had forbidden Poles from traveling beyond the borders of their own provinces without work passes. If they noticed Helena and asked questions, she could be arrested.
"What other choice do we have?" Helena had asked practically, pulling the nightdress over Karolina's hair, savoring her freshly washed smell. They did baths twice a week, Karolina first, then the older children and Ruth and finally Helena, scrubbing as well as she could in the cool, filmy water after the rest had gone to bed. "We have to make sure Mama eats." And is not mistreated, she added silently. The care at the sanatorium was minimal, the resources scarce. She hadn't told Ruth of the times she'd turned up to find their mother missing her socks or lying in her own excrement, risking infection of the bedsores she persistently developed from not being turned.
Ruth had not answered, but continued unbraiding Dorie's hair, lips pursed in conflict. Helena knew that Ruth found the notion of Mama shut away in some city hospital alone unbearable, and that Helena checking on her each week gave her some comfort. Ruth feared the outside world, though. She had responded to everything that had happened by closing off and drawing within.
Helena, on the other hand, wanted to see the world. Her mind reeled back to an earlier trip to the city. It was a fine fall day, some leaves still orange on the trees, others giving a satisfying crunch beneath her feet. She had passed the turnoff for the city and it was a good two kilometers down the road before she realized she was on the path that would lead away from Biekowice for good. Ruth's face had flashed in her mind then and Helena had stopped, guilt-stricken. She had been distracted, she told herself, and accidentally missed the turn. But she knew it was something more—for a moment she was actually leaving, without looking back. She had not taken that path again, but each trip she stopped and looked longingly down the road, wondering how far she could actually go.
Helena was jolted from her thoughts by a loud noise, a giant's foot crunching down on a house. Ahead, a German jeep, machine gun mounted on the front, blocked the roadway. Helena leaped back into the roadside brush, catching her hand on something jagged. She stifled a cry as a thorn cut through her worn glove and into her skin.
As blood seeped through the wool, Helena berated herself silently for her carelessness in not clinging to the cover of the trees that lined the road. She crouched low to the ground, not daring to breathe. But it was too late: the gun mounted atop the jeep turned toward her with a creak. A soldier stood behind it, his gaze seeming to focus just above her. He shielded his eyes, searching the forest. This was the closest Helena had come to the war and, despite her terror, she found herself studying the man. He was ruddy faced and ordinary; save for the uniform and gun, he might have been one of the loggers down at the mill.
The soldier's eyes narrowed, a mountain wolf hunting its prey. A hand seemed to grip Helena's throat, squeezing. Would he arrest her or shoot her here? She was suddenly desperate to be in the house that an hour ago she had so eagerly escaped.
Her heart pounded as she imagined her death. Ruth would be sad, or maybe cross. "I told you so," her twin might say if she were here now, a smug smile playing about her full lips. Ruth liked to be right more than just about anything and Helena seemed to always give her reason by spilling or breaking something. Helena pictured Michal, wise beyond his years, comforting his sisters. But the little ones were closer to Ruth, depended on her for their care. And they had been so battered by the loss of their parents that they might weather this additional blow without much grief.
Helena felt against her side the cool metal of the knife she'd taken from Tata's hunting kit and tucked in the waist of her skirt. She carried it in case she encountered a wolf, but now an image seized her of drawing it and slashing the German's throat.
A minute passed, then another. Finally, the man sat down and started the ignition. As the jeep started in the other direction, Helena slumped against a tree, trying to catch her breath.
When the sound of the engine had faded, Helena stepped out from the bushes and scanned the now-deserted road. She didn't dare continue this way now. Perhaps Ruth had been right about the danger of the trip and she should return home. But she imagined Mama alone in the hospital and knew that she had no choice. She doubled back to the path where it emerged from the woods. Steeling herself, Helena stepped into the forest and the welcome shelter of the trees that loomed overhead as she started toward the steep pass over the hills.
At the sound of the door clicking shut, Ruth snapped her eyes open and tightened her arms around the children. She strained without success to see in the darkness, instantly struck by the sense of emptiness beside her. The bed was a bit cooler and the mattress did not sink as heavily as usual. Helena was gone. She had left for the city, this time without nudging Ruth as she usually did. And she had gone earlier, though perhaps that was not so strange, given the shortening days and the need to get back more quickly before nightfall.
Ruth shifted with effort, weighing the void she always felt in Helena's absence. Michal's head was on her shoulder, Dorie holding to her ankle and Karolina flung across her chest. The children seemed to gravitate toward her instinctively, even while sleeping. They were curled around her like puppies now, sweaty fingers clinging to her arm, cold toes pressing against her side. They had slept like this since their parents had gone, not only for warmth and to comfort the little ones, but also to keep everyone near in case of bombs like the ones Helena thought she had heard the previous night, or God only knew what else. Usually she found comfort in their closeness. But now they seemed cloying and heavy, making each breath an effort.
Disentangling herself carefully, Ruth donned her housecoat and slippers. She made her way to the kitchen, savoring the easy movements of her now-free limbs. She pulled back the shutters to watch as her sister climbed the hill. Her stomach fluttered anxiously. She had never quite gotten used to Helena's absences. They had always been together, and in some hazy memory she could remember looking up from her mother's breast to see the roundness of her sister's head, eyes locking as they fed. Being without her was an appendage missing.
"Don't go," she wanted to shout as Helena grew smaller. They had sworn to Mama that they would keep the family together, and each time Helena ventured out to Krakow, risking arrest or worse, they were putting that promise in jeopardy. Her mind cascaded, as it always did, to the worst-case scenario: without Helena, Ruth would not be able to sustain the family and the children would have to be placed in an orphanage, where they would surely remain because no one was taking on extra mouths to feed these days.
As Helena disappeared, seemingly swallowed by the thick pine trees, Ruth was struck by an unexpected touch of envy. What was it like to just walk away, escape the house and the children and their needs for a few hours? Generally Ruth liked the comfort of their home with all of its memories and had no interest in venturing beyond the front gate. But now she imagined striding through the brisk morning air, arms free and footsteps light. Did Helena ever want to keep going and not come back?
Pam Hi! Welcome to
The Reading Frenzy.
Thanks so much – I’m
thrilled to be here!
Tell my readers a
little about The Winter Guest.
The Winter Guest is
the story of Polish twin sisters Helena and Ruth.They’re eighteen and struggling to raise
three younger siblings without their parents in rural Poland during the Second
World War.Helena, the more rugged
sister, finds Sam a wounded Jewish American paratrooper in the woods and
decides to hide him and secretly help him survive.This decision – and the unexpected feelings
that grow between them – put Helena and her family in much greater peril.
Pam the characters in
this novel seem so real to me.
How do you manage to give them so much personality?
Thanks – it means so
much to me that they seemed real.I
spent a lot of time with these characters, especially Helena and Ruth.Their stories are completely fictitious, but
they are inspired by the many survivors I met when living in Poland and working
on Holocaust issues for the State Department.The other thing that helped me develop the characters of these twin
sisters is that I have twin daughters myself.Mine are only in preschool, but it was fun to imagine their sisterly
dynamic by exploring the relationship between Helena and Ruth and their
interactions with their various family members.
Pam why did you make
Sam the US solider in your novel Jewish?
Well for one thing,
there were many Jewish soldiers who fought in the U.S. Army during World War
II, including my own grandfather.I
think going over to fight as a Jew added so many more layers of
complexity.In earlier books, such as
The Kommandant’s Girl, I had written about Jews in Poland.So it was interested to flip the story and
write about Poles who had not encountered Jews much in their lives and had a
number of preconceived notions about them, and then to have them get to know
this Jewish solider.
Which character in
this story most kept you on your toes?
Ruth – she is
ostensibly the “less likeable” sister and it was interesting to see what she
Pam, this ins’t the first WWII novel you've
What fuels your fascination for this time period?
I was sent to Poland
by the State Department and lived there for several years working on Holocaust
issues.I become very close to many
survivors.I was also living in such
geographic proximity to the war – to get my car fixed at the mechanic, I had to
pass by the camp from Schindler’s List.And you may expect to know how you will feel walking into the gas
chamber at Auschwitz the first time, but when it is the fiftieth time, what
toll does that take on your psyche? At the same time it was such a rich and
rewarding experience to work on these important issues and to live as a Jew in
Poland in defiance of what Hitler tried to do.I came back from my years in Europe profoundly changed knowing I wanted
to write books based on that experience.
Pam you also are part
of a just released anthology, Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love
and Reunion which is authored by a who’s who of fantastic and many of my own go-to authors.
Tell us what your story is about in this book?
Grand Central is
simply the most fantastic project – ten stories by women historical fiction
writers, each passing through Grand Central Terminal on a particular day in
1945.My story, Strand of Pearls, is
about a young Jewish girl Ella who has left her mother and brother in Shanghai
and emigrated to the U.S. to find her father.She’s made this journey in hopes of reuniting her family.At grand Central, she meets David, a Czech
artist who lost his whole family during the war.They share an immediate bond, but Ella leaves
him to find her father.But when faced
with a shocking truth, Ella has to make a fateful decision about the path she
will take.The story is based on my own
grandmother’s journey from China to America.
Pam what a background
you have, from The Pentagon and The State Department working on foreign soil
Was it in one of these roles where you the novelist was born?
Well, I was one of
those little kids who always wanted to be a novelist, so it was kind of
there.But the raw materials for the
stories came from my years in Poland and also my work as the Special Assistant
to the Secretary of the Army at the Pentagon (I got to travel with the
Secretary to WWII commemorations around the globe.)For many years, my novel writing never got
off the ground.The turning point was
the events of 9/11.I’d come back from
Europe and gone to law school and had been a practicing attorney for exactly
one week when 9/11 happened. Those tragic events made me realize that I didn’t
have forever to fulfill my novel writing dreal, so I took a night course and
started in earnest.
Do you travel back to
Europe much now?
I used to go back
lots, especially to England (I was a graduate student at Cambridge many years
ago) where I have a wonderful reader base.I also went back for book research.But three preschoolers have clipped my wings at the moment.I hope to get back sooner rather than later.
Can you give us a
hint about what you’re
working on now?
work-in-progress is also Second World War but this time on the home front. It’s about an Italian Jewish girl, Adelia
Montforte, who comes to Philadelphia alone.
She finds herself drawn to the Irish Connally family that summers next
door in Atlantic City, especially the oldest of their four sons, Charlie. When unthinkable tragedy strikes, she flees
to war-torn London. Love. War.
Heartbreak. Stay tuned!
Thank you so much for
answering these questions. Good luck with the novel!
Pam Jenoff is the author of several novels, including the international bestseller The Kommandant's Girl, which also earned her a Quill Award nomination. Pam lives with her husband and three children near Philadelphia where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school.
The Nowak twins Helena and Ruth although identical were not
born with the joined-at-the-hip genes most twins enjoy. Ruth was always more
domestic like their mother and Helena more adventurous and shadowed their
father hunting and trapping. Now at 18 with their father dead and their mother
institutionalized life has dealt them a fatalistic blow when they alone are
left to care for their three younger siblings, and in 1940 rural Poland hunger isn’t the worse thing that can happen. Even this Catholic
family is affected by rationing and is concerned by the rumors that the Jews
are disappearing. To make matters more difficult Helena has discovered a
wounded American solider and not only is helping him hide and recover but
keeping him a secret from her family. But Helena is not the only one keeping
secrets and some of them may get them all killed.
Jenoff’s haunting WWII tale is a
chilling and heartrending page-turner. She deals only peripherally with the
Nazi atrocities but readers will get the gory gist. Her storyline educates and
entertains, while her effortless narrative tells the heartbreaking yet hopeful
tale. She depicts her un-twin like protagonists perfectly so much so their
sameness doesn't even register at times and her co-stars all shine. In the 24/7
news availability of today and with very few living survivors of that time
remaining these WWII novels hold a special place in the heart.
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