In 1914 Pittsburg, Hazel Renner, is a German-American girl that is trying to decide what to do with her life. She loves art and teaching, but her ambitious parents want her to be a doctor with her healing touch. As WWI starts in Europe, Hazel and her family start to experience unpleasantness from other people in Pittsburg for their German or “enemy” heritage. Hazel decides to take a teaching job in a small town, but her healing touch ends up being more of a curse than a benefit. Hazel discovers that there is more to her past then she realized and she goes in search of pieces of the puzzle to solve this mystery. She discovers her past included living in an American castle in New Jersey as the daughter of a servant of an exiled German baron. She uses her artistic gifts to help the Baron and meets Tom, the gardener, who was her childhood playmate. As America enters WWI, the lives of all of them are forever altered.
This novel is a hard one to classify. It had magical realism with the healing gift, but also was a fantastic look at how German-Americans were treated in WWI. There was loss, romance, war, and a search for identity and belonging. I enjoyed all of the characters and Hazel learning more about them and herself as the book progressed.
For me, I really loved seeing how German American immigrants were treated in America during this time period. My own Great-Grandpa immigrated to America in 1898 as a 6 year old boy with his father, a veteran of the Prussian-Franco war. My Great-Grandpa was very proud to be a German and family lore has it that he was too proud and put into jail for this during WWI. Reading how German Americans were treated in this novel, I can imagine that this most likely did occur. I never realized that German measles were renamed “Liberty Measles” and dachshunds were renamed “Liberty Pups.” Ha! It was a tragic time in history with the fall-out after the war with the return of so many soldiers with “shell shock” and the terrible flu epidemic that took so many lives.
I also enjoyed how the book ended with a great interview with the author who gave more details on how she researched the novel and that indeed the way that Germans were treated in America was based on fact. There is also a great reading group guide if this is chosen by your book club.
Book Source: Review copy from William Morrow – Thanks!