Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

I bought and read Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse after finding out there was going to be a "buddy read" (really, a small group discussion) on Instagram. I ordered the book, signed up for the group, and dived right in. It's apparently classified as Young Adult but it didn't have the feel of a YA. It was much like any other WWII book I've read, with plenty of tension although lacking any harrowing scenes like torture. 

It's 1943 in Amsterdam and Hanneke Baker rides her bike around town delivering goods bought on the black market. She's doing it as part of her day job and she knows there's some danger but so far she has had few problems beyond the occasional attention from German soldiers — not for what she's doing but because she's a young lady. 

On one of her deliveries, she's asked to help find a missing girl, Mirjam, who was staying in a hidden room at a widow's home. The widow has lost her entire family, misses her young companion, and is worried about what's become of her. Hanneke is hesitant but reluctantly agrees. Then, she begins to look into Mirjam's life for clues and it's there that she comes across something unexpected, the brother of the man she loved and intended to marry. He knows the young woman Hanneke wants to talk to and invites her to a dinner party, where she can ask her questions. 

At home, Hanneke's parents are unemployed and one is disabled. So, Hanneke is the sole income earner in her household and it's this that she thinks about at the dinner party.  When no food appears and the "dinner" turns out to be something else entirely, a meeting of one little faction of the Resistance, Hanneke is not interested in helping out. How can she? She is responsible for her parents and they would be helpless without her. Even staying out past curfew makes them crazy with worry. 

The main questions are always whether or not Hanneke will be able to locate Mirjam, what became of her after she left the widow's house, why did she leave, will Hanneke join this Resistance group, can Hanneke trust the Resistance members or are they hiding something from her, and will Hanneke's new Jewish friends be able to survive the war or continue working at the local detention center and nursery, from which they know people are regularly being deported to concentration camps. It's a little harrowing, at times, but only a few scenes are particularly frightening.

Recommended but not a favorite - I love WWII books, enjoyed Girl in the Blue Coat, and gave it 4/5 stars but it's not a favorite WWII read because it felt more like a mystery than a WWII book, in a way. And, yet, it becomes more interesting as the story progresses. It was particularly fascinating to be in the head of someone with Hanneke's dilemma about her parents and just how much danger she could or should put herself in. I often wondered what I would do in her situation. I don't think one can really know till the circumstances exist in real life.

There are a few unexpected twists and the ending is definitely surprising (what became of Mirjam). It leaves you with a question that I can't mention because it's a spoiler but I didn't feel like it was one that annoyed me. It's simply unknowable. 

I especially enjoyed being part of a small group discussion. I felt like I got a lot more out of the book by reading other readers' thoughts, just as in an F2F discussion group. The only problem I had with this particular type of group is that sometimes it's easy to fall behind. At least in this case, the discussion moved quickly. While you're reading a discussion question, answering it, reading other replies, and then formulating your own thoughts to those replies, it can feel like you have to race to keep up with the conversation. But, I enjoyed it so much that I plan to keep my eyes peeled for more buddy reads, especially while my F2F group isn't meeting (in person or otherwise). 

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