I have a natural interest in history and when I was in high school I did a lot of reading about World War II. I have uncles who had fought in the war and my father said they came home changed men. They never spoke of their time in the war to me. My grandfather was stationed in the South Pacific through the war, and I never heard his stories, either. I was fascinated because there was such a clear and present evil and I could never quite understand how the German people allowed Hitler to take them down the road they traveled. When I was in college I knew a woman who had been a child in Hitler's Germany, and we had some really good conversations about her memories of that time. I learned a lot from her, although she was very young during the build up to World War II and her perceptions of the time were filtered by what she learned later. By and large I want to believe that humans are good, at their core, but every time I get caught by an animal cruelty story or see the inhuman acts of mankind toward weaker creatures I am disheartened. Maybe there are truly great people, and maybe there are also truly atrocious people and most us fall somewhere in the midst.
Emilia, by Ellie Midwood is a book about a truly great person. The main character is young Jewish woman who is caught in the flood of the war. She is moved from her home with her family in Occupied Poland in 1941 to the Jewish Ghettos in Krakow and finally to a series of work camps. The book is written in two parts, part one take us through the war years and the second part, titled Liberation, takes us through the time after the war. Throughout, Emilia is pragmatic, and although the life she lives out during the the novel is brutal and not of her choosing the most striking thing about her character is that she does not see herself as a victim. In this day and age where people are seeking "victimhood" like an identity, it was refreshing to read about a woman who accepts responsibility for the choices she made, even under duress. Yes, she made a choice, to smile and say "you are handsome" instead of fight and be beaten. Yes she made a choice to not fight when a guard tried to have his way with her, in exchange for food for her family. Yes, they are horrible choices to be sure, but choices all the same. She was in a battle for survival and the only weapon she had was her mind and her body. People in life and death situations make such pragmatic decisions and move forward to the next horror until they can come out the other side or die trying.
Amidst the horror of the war and the aftermath, Midwood does a magnificent job of drawing out
our humanity. Not every member of the the German Army is horrible, not every Jewish man or woman in the camp is good. They are all just people caught on the web of a moment in time, trying to find the path to survive. It was a very intricate weave. Midwood delves into the political landscape of the time and gives a certain level of context for the circumstances in the book, it is not a story told in a vacuum. Emilia is an intelligent representation of a dark history brought into the light. I appreciated the non sentimental approach. I also very much enjoyed the writing technigue Midwood utilizes. Often her sentance structure and word choices were very "formal" and suggestive of the era portrayed. The writing style set the stage for the story to unfold and made it feel very authentic. Emilia is a novel that comes full circle, thankfully. Life goes on or it doesn't. If it goes on, you live it, to the best of your ability.
Ellie Midwood is an author to watch. I was so taken with this novel that I spent a little time on her website. She writes history, romance, and war novels and I found this quote that really captures what I saw her doing in this book:
"The war stories that I write are the ones where ordinary men become unlikely heroes, where the borders between good and evil are no longer distinguishable, and where uncomfortable truths are revealed through the eyes of the protagonists who don't shy away from reliving their accounts with admirable sincerity." -- from Ellie Midwood's website
Well, all I can say, if this is her goal, she has accomplished it in spades.