Book Description (Amazon): A deeply moving and masterfully written story of human resilience and enduring love, The Plum Tree follows a young German woman through the chaos of World War II and its aftermath.
“Bloom where you’re planted,” is the advice Christine Bolz receives from her beloved Oma. But seventeen-year-old domestic Christine knows there is a whole world waiting beyond her small German village. It’s a world she’s begun to glimpse through music, books–and through Isaac Bauerman, the cultured son of the wealthy Jewish family she works for.
Yet the future she and Isaac dream of sharing faces greater challenges than their difference in stations. In the fall of 1938, Germany is changing rapidly under Hitler’s regime. Anti-Jewish posters are everywhere, dissenting talk is silenced, and a new law forbids Christine from returning to her job–and from having any relationship with Isaac. In the months and years that follow, Christine will confront the Gestapo’s wrath and the horrors of Dachau, desperate to be with the man she loves, to survive–and finally, to speak out.
Set against the backdrop of the German homefront, this is an unforgettable novel of courage and resolve, of the inhumanity of war, and the heartbreak and hope left in its wake.
My Review (Spoilers):
Executive Summary: Unrealistic
I thought this book was really poor. Obviously I am in the minority because it has a 4.5 star review on Amazon and I was the only one out of my book club who really disliked it. However, I just could not get into it.
The book begins by meeting Christine, a 17 year old in Germany in the late 1930s and her love interest Isaac. This is their first true encounter but they are very much in love (eye roll). Christine and her mother (Lutherans) work for the rich Bauermans (Jewish) and this is where Christine met Isaac.
Christine runs to go tell her best friend Kate about how in love she is and she finds out that Kate has her own love interest (Stefan) so Christine keeps Isaac a secret. (When Christine later tells Kate, Kate tells Christine that she can’t be in love because she hardly knows Isaac. (and I agree)) I wish the book had started a bit earlier to develop some sort of relationship.
As Christine walks home, she sees posters saying that no Jew can be a Reich citizen. When she returns home, she finds out that she and her mother are no longer working for the Bauermans since Jews can no longer employ non-Jews. Mutti goes one last time to the Bauermans and takes Isaac a note. He returns one to Christine and they agree to nighttime meetings. Christine confides in her sister Maria everything but the secret meetings.
Isaac’s family refuses to leave Germany. His mother who is only half-Jewish is convinced that it will be OK. Isaac disagrees with her but has no real option. He tells Christine that they should stop meeting. She attempts to seduce him but he tells her that he doesn’t want her carrying a Jewish baby (awkward).
Christine’s dad is drafted into the 6th Army and heads toward Russia.
Bombs begin to fall across Germany, and the bomb siren seems to go off constantly. The family with other neighbors pack into a root cellar (the same one where Christine tried to seduce Isaac). I did find this section to be interesting because it did put into perspective what the average German went through during World War 2 (I assume many other countries had similar bomb drills too).
Hitler visits their town and Christine with her blonde hair is selected to be one of the models of fine German (Aryan) breed stock. Yay. She tries to scrub Hitler’s touch off her hand with lye. Bombs continue to go off. Christine continues to wonder what is going on with Isaac until she foolishly goes to check on him. They are scheduled to leave that day to go to a “munitions factory”. Christine’s mom continues to worry about her husband. They receive a letter but Christine hides the fact that it’s dated a year prior.
Christine is devastated that Isaac has been taken, and takes solace in the woods. She has a random fleeting thought about this medieval church buried in the woods and how the tunnels are likely full of hiding Jews. The bomb siren goes off and when she returns to her home, she finds that her Opa was crushed trying to protect their home from burning.
Jewish prisoners are brought into the town to help rebuild the airbase. Christine and her family leave what little food they can spare for the starving prisoners. One day Christine forgets (she tries to avoid the twice daily prisoner marches from their camp to the air base) and stumbles into a riot of prisoners stealing from a sugar beet cart. She (of course) sees Isaac in the midst and sneaks him off and hides him in her attic. (Remember about the medieval church with the hidden tunnels. Nope. She didn’t even consider hiding him there.)
She gets him a shower and some clothes and finds that his father was killed nearly immediately. He isn’t sure what happened to his mother and sister as the women and men are separated. He tells her some of what has happened since he last saw her. The Nazis come to search homes for the escaped prisoner and unlike the usual meticulousness of them, they do not find Isaac.
Christine’s father reappears. He escaped Russia by hiding under the train car and then walking back to Germany. Uh huh. That seems believable. And such convenient timing too.
Since the Nazis are still looking for the escaped prisoner, they return and are more thorough this time. They find Isaac and Christine admits that she is at fault. The soldiers take both of them to Dachau. Isaac tells her that she should tell them that she is Christian and that she can cook so that hopefully she gets an easier time. So of course she does. She works in the home of one of the Lagerkommandants. He tells her that he is opposed to Hitler but remains in the camp so that he can document everything that happens for when the time comes. She befriends a girl Hannah who works in records. Hanna tells her that both Isaac’s mother and sister have died. Christine wants her to find out if Isaac is still alive but Hanna does not have access to men’s records, and then one day Hanna goes missing and the rumor is that she was caught looking in the men’s records. Christine who is undeterred keeps pressuring the Lagerkommandant to find out what happened to Isaac. She finally sees him one day on the other side of the fence and like a love struck idiot calls out “Don’t give up! I love you” and then he was shot.
The next day the war is over and Americans appear at Dachau. Hanna reappears with her brother (uh huh). They break into the warehouses and eat and get warmer clothes while they wait. Christine eventually goes home and sort of befriends this American soldier named Jake. Her whole family is there including Maria who spent time digging trenches somewhere. Eventually we find out that Maria was assaulted by the Russians and is carrying a baby. The writing at this part is terrible and you don’t really know what is going on. Maria continues to retreat within herself.
Christine meets with Kate who does not believe her stories at all. Kate is happy with Stefan despite Christine’s insistence that he was a guard at Dachau. Stefan corners Christine the next day and threatens her. Yet, like a giant idiot, she calls him out at church for being a Nazi (what is the pastor going to do? really?). They get home and Maria has died by falling (throwing herself down the stairs), and the next day her father goes missing. Stefan tells Christine that he had her father sent to be tried for war crimes and she solicits Jake for money to take the train to go to rescue her father. Oh poor Jake. She gets there…and finds ISAAC. Boy isn’t that convenient. He apparently faked being dead and then climbed out of the dirt that they buried him in and then hid in the woods. Totally realistic. She sees the Lagerkommandant and they set a trap for Stefan who falls for it and is convicted.
And the last chapter seems to be some time in the future. Back at her parents’ house. Everyone together. Pregnant with a baby who will either be named Maria or Abraham (Isaac’s father’s name). Happily. Ever. After.
Verdict: 2.5 Stars
If you want to read a well-written, believable (because it’s non-fiction) story about WW2, read The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom. This poorly written hodge-podge book just doesn’t hold a candle to that one. I appreciate the fact that there is some info about how normal German citizens lived during the war. But the rest of it just seemed forced. As an aside, this was the author’s first book. It was also apparently rejected by publishers about 70-some times. Also, does anyone actually use the word “kitty-corner”? I’ve lived in 3 regions of the US and never once heard that.