When We Were Brave
Within the genre of historical fiction, World War II novels tend to take up quite a bit of space. For clear moral reasons, historical fiction cedes ground to memoir when it comes to something as visceral and existentially horrific as the Holocaust, yet there is space. Writing within such a space requires a deft and empathetic writer. Fortunately, Karla M. Jay is one such writer, and her When We Were Brave is an exceptional historical novel giving readers deep emotional and pragmatic insight into the lives of characters whose being was shaped and who shaped our understanding of the time. Such a maneuver is what the best historical fiction does.
Readers are presented three points of view throughout the novel. There is a Nazi SS officer, Wilhelm Falk, whose experience with the death camps causes him to abandon his home, family, and nation to get the word out about the crimes against humanity happening behind enemy lines. We watch as a Dutch, half-Jewish boy, Izaak Tauber, is swept up and taken to concentration camps while always hoping to find his father somewhere in the horror. Finally, on the domestic front, Herbert Muller is a German immigrate, naturalized, living in Pennsylvania enduring the bigoted hatred excessive patriotism and nationalism unleashes during times of war. These three characters alternate chapters, creating a rich tapestry of emotion and action.
Jay’s prose moves with a confident ease, never difficult, resonating with meaning while avoiding turgidity. Every chapter is short but uniquely its own, so readers never have to worry about losing their place in time or plot. Instead, the braiding of the three perspectives builds in an orchestral manner, making the whole of the novel sing.
Each point of view is based on true stories from out the Holocaust, giving us not merely some fictive take but a powerful narrative. When historical fiction accomplishes this, the fact of history suddenly becomes more vibrant, more real for readers who can only access the past through literature.
When We Were Brave is not a novel about suffering, although suffering certainly makes up much of it. Rather, it is a novel about perseverance, the will to survive and push back against cruelty and death. We see this in Falk’s relentless drive to expose the Nazi death machine, Izaak’s commitment to creating beautiful art in a ghoulish locale, and Herbert’s patience and unwavering belief that kindness, understanding, and empathy will win the day even as he is persecuted for being other, an immigrant. It is what makes the novel exceptional and compelling.
|Book Circle Press
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