The Girl from the Train

The Girl from the TrainThe Girl from the Train by Irma Joubert
Genres: Historical Romance
Published by Thomas Nelson on November 3, 2015
Pages: 384

 

About The Girl from the Train (from the back cover):
Six-year-old Gretl Schmidt is on a train bound for Aushwitz. Jakób Kowalski is planting a bomb on the tracks.

As World War II draws to a close, Jakób fights with the Polish resistance against the crushing forces of Germany and Russia. They intend to destroy a German troop transport, but Gretl’s unscheduled train reaches the bomb first.

Gretl is the only survivor. Though spared from the concentration camp, the orphaned German Jew finds herself lost in a country hostile to her people. When Jakób discovers her, guilt and fatherly compassion prompt him to take her in. For three years, the young man and little girl form a bond over the secrets they must hide from his Catholic family.

But she can’t stay with him forever. Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa, where German war orphans are promised bright futures with adoptive Protestant families—so long as Gretl’s Jewish roots, Catholic education, and connections to communist Poland are never discovered.

Separated by continents, politics, religion, language, and years, Jakób and Gretl will likely never see each other again. But the events they have both survived and their belief that the human spirit can triumph over the ravages of war have formed a bond of love that no circumstances can overcome.

When I first started reading The Girl from the Train, something seemed off about it.  The writing was choppy, transitions were often abrupt, and there was an overall feel of simplicity.  It wasn’t as polished as one would expect from a Thomas Nelson title—even from an advanced copy.  So I did some research to see if the author was being artistic and trying to tell the story from a child’s point of view or if this was her debut novel.  As it turns out, this is an English translation; originally the book was written in Africaan.  Given that this is a translation, I believe that explains why the writing is a bit rough at times.  However, don’t let the writing keep you from reading this truly beautiful story.

It is not hard to instantly fall in love with both Gretl and Jakób.

The Girl From the Train begins in World War II Poland and spans about 15 years.  It is not hard to instantly fall in love with both Gretl and Jakób.  Gretl is a very resilient, clever six year old, but with a heartbreaking past that makes her instantly sympathetic.  It’s extremely easy to become attached to her and want a happily ever after story for her.  Jakób is equally likable, though the same cannot be said for his family.  More than a few times, his family evoked some very unloving thoughts from this reader.

I truly believe every child should have a Grandpa John.  Not because he is wealthy, but rather because of his wise, loving, tender, gentle spirit.

The Neethlings, Gretl’s adoptive family in South Africa, are incredible, especially Grandpa John.  I truly believe every child should have a Grandpa John.  Not because he is wealthy, but rather because of his wise, loving, tender, gentle spirit.  Every time Gretl snuggled up with Grandpa John, I could feel his love oozing out and wrapping her in a warm blanket.  Her adoptive dad, mom, and brother were truly amazing and I loved watching this family envelop and nurture Gretl through her past and provide her with a future.

There is a romantic storyline, but it doesn’t emerge until rather late in the book.  It also isn’t filled with lengthy rounds of does he love me, do I love him, we totally just misunderstood each other, but let’s not talk to each other to get it straightened out type of stuff that can get rather tiring.  It’s actually a rather sweet, mature romance that overcomes obstacles rather than trying to avoid them.

I’m not sure what I think about the spiritual content of this book.

I’m not sure what I think about the spiritual content of this book.  Gretl’s four years in Poland are spent attending a Catholic school, mass, and living with Jakób’s devout Catholic family.  However, even though the family is devout, their actions are anything but Christian.  The nuns at Gretl’s school are presented as loving individuals and seem to display a genuine faith.  As a whole though, the community surrounding this family as well as Jakób’s family do not seem to put their faith in Christ, but rather the Black Madonna.  Gretl’s family in South Africa are protestant and they are portrayed as loving Christians.  They are not without fault, as Gretl’s father is quite anti-Catholic.  But the church they attend is shown to be harsh, bland, and thoroughly unattractive.

Though faith is very central to their lives, it seems like it isn’t a determining factor in how they make decisions.  At one point, a person’s own happiness seems to take precedence over their belief.  In all fairness, the belief is wrong, but given their strong feelings, I was surprised when the answer was happiness over belief.

In the end, I’m left with very mixed feelings about the spiritual content.  While I like that Catholics as a whole are not portrayed as heretics, there is no correction to the belief that the Black Madonna had saved them or that praying to the Virgin Mary is beneficial.   The book doesn’t endorse this belief; it just doesn’t dissuade it.

Overall though, I’m not sure the author is trying to promote any sort of spiritual theme, but rather a social statement about prejudices.  In many ways, the idea of how we view people based on heritage, beliefs, and culture is at the heart of this book.  From Gretl being part Jewish and on a train to Auschwitz to the Polish people hating Germans to the German adopted children needing to be pure Aryan protestants to the anti-communist and anti-Catholic sentiments of Afrikaaners, this book very much addresses the nonsensical nature of these long held prejudices.

Despite my mixed feelings about the spiritual themes and the oftentimes rough writing, I still love this book.  The healthy portrayal of family is thoroughly refreshing and I am completely behind the idea of looking beyond old prejudices.  The romance is not heavy and fits nicely into the story.  This is really a great book and one I highly recommend.

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