About two years ago, I went through a phase in which I read a bunch of historical fiction books in a row that were all very similar to one another: they all had at least one storyline that took place during the Holocaust, and another that took place in a different era, either before or after. As both narratives moved along, connections were revealed between the two stories, building to an emotional climax revealing the true power of the human spirit. If this sounds glib, I don’t mean it to; I love these books. I find them inspirational, heart-wrenching and heartwarming. And the novel with which I decided to revisit the genre, Jillian Cantor’s The Lost Letter, was no exception.
In order for these novels to be successful, in my opinion, they must present a viewpoint on the Holocaust that I haven’t seen before. In Jessica Shattuck’s wonderful and moving The Women in the Castle, that viewpoint was one of three widows of German resisters whose lives were thrown together in the wake of their husbands’ actions during the war. In The Lost Letter, the Holocaust-era story was that of Kristoff, the apprentice to an Austrian stamp engraver forced to make stamps for the Germans, while simultaneously using the engraving tools to forge papers for Austrian Jews trying to escape the country. In the face of all this danger, Kristoff falls for Elena, the master engraver’s daughter, a headstrong girl intent on putting the fight against the Germans ahead of her own safety. The second story, which takes place in 1989, is that of Kate, a writer living in Los Angeles who, after discovering a unique World War II-era stamp on a letter in her ailing father’s collection, becomes obsessed with uncovering the story behind it.
The idea of identity is one that has been addressed repeatedly in Holocaust literature, particularly in reference to the way the Jews and other persecuted groups were stripped of theirs by the Germans—so much so that it was nearly impossible to find friends and loved ones in the aftermath of the war. This book, however, took this theme much further, which I thought created a very strong and poignant backbone for the story. In the 1939 story, Kristoff and Elena are forging papers, giving Jews new identities so that they can escape. One of these Jews is Elena’s father, who leaves Austria with hopes of reaching America, albeit with a totally new name. In the 1989 story, Kate is going through a divorce, trying to discover who she is as a person on her own. Meanwhile, her father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, actively losing parts of his identity while rediscovering others. Finally, to a lesser degree, Kate’s Gram gets to travel to Germany after the Berlin Wall comes down, reacquainting herself with her former country and the person she was so many years ago. The book also plays with the idea that it’s possible to have multiple identities over the course of one life, an ideal that I think many people hope can be true. I recognize that adopting a new identity to escape persecution and “finding yourself” in the wake of a break up are wholly different experiences, but I thought Cantor’s use of this idea as the novel’s connecting thread was very successful.
As far as the characters go, the women led the way here (in the same way they did in Cantor’s last novel, The Hours Count). While the 1939 narrative generally stuck with Kristoff, Elena’s strength, resilience and spirit were apparent. You could make the case that Kate does not share those qualities, that she was merely clinging to the mystery of the letter as a way to forget the turmoil in her life being caused by her divorce and her father’s illness, but the other decisions she makes as a result of her newfound drive suggest a woman finally taking her life into her own hands. Benjamin, the stamp appraiser who becomes Kate’s partner in the search, was a sweet addition to the book, as was Kate’s Gram, whose brief appearances made me smile.
Instead of writing the entire novel in the past tense, Cantor decided to use the present tense for the 1989 story. This certainly gave these sections a different feel, which I’m sure was her intention, but it also felt a little odd to be reading sections in the present tense, set in the novel’s present, that were taking place nearly 30 years ago. I respect that the present of a novel can be any time, but in this context in relation to the Holocaust and World War II, which are real events that happened at a specific time in history, it also made me realize that these types of books can no longer have a present set in the actual present; too many years have passed. I’m still trying to unpack the emotions I feel about this fact, so I’m just going to leave it here.
If you immediately knew what kind of novel I was talking about in the first paragraph of this post, and it is a kind you enjoy, I strongly recommend this book. If you enjoy tales of resilience, spirit and hope holding out across generations, I recommend it as well. It’s a pretty quick read, but one that will stay with you, prodding you to think about the person you are and hope to be.