Girl in the Blue Coat won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best YA Mystery and is one of the most thrilling and engaging books I have read in a while. I started this book one afternoon and tore through 200 pages in no time, and I couldn’t wait to finish the last 100 pages the next day. Set in 1943 Amsterdam, Girl in the Blue Coat tells the story of Hanneke Bakker, an 18-year-old girl who is trying her best to support her parents and herself during WWII. The Nazis have occupied Hanneke’s country, creating danger and hardship for the Dutch people and especially for the Jewish population, who are being rounded up and deported. Hanneke is also grieving the death of her boyfriend Bas and struggling with feelings of guilt. Out of the blue one day, an acquaintance asks for Hanneke’s assistance in finding a girl who has gone missing, a girl in a blue coat who also happens to be Jewish. If she is to save this girl, Hanneke will have to battle her fears and guilt while outwitting Nazis, earning others’ trust and learning to live for more than just herself.
When we first meet our narrator Hanneke, she is engaged in black market activities. While she has a job working in the office of an undertaker, her boss employs her more often than not in making deliveries of black market items to his customers. With the Nazi occupation, residents of Amsterdam have been given ration cards which strictly limit the types and amounts of food items and other necessities they can purchase. The undertaker is able to take advantage of his position to take the ration cards of the dead and use them to acquire extra goods which can be resold or bartered for hard-to-get items like cigarettes. It’s a thriving business but also a dangerous one if Hanneke gets caught. With soldiers on every corner, the danger of being detained and searched is high, but Hanneke is pretty and smart. She has learned how to read situations and talk to soldiers in a way that distracts them from the basket on her bicycle. When one of her clients, Mrs. Janssen, invites Hanneke in for real coffee (extraordinarily difficult to come by), Hanneke is wary. She knows that some clients try to butter you up in order to get special favors, and Hanneke is not about to get sucked into that. She is abrupt and business-like with all the clients, but Mrs. Janssen is insistent. She then reveals to Hanneke the secret room in her pantry where she had been hiding a teenaged Jewish girl named Mirjam. Mirjam has disappeared and Mrs. Janssen is distraught. She explains her connection to Mirjam and begs Hanneke to please help find the girl before the Nazis do.
Hanneke is reluctant to get involved with this business. She hates the Nazis, but since the death of her boyfriend Bas at the very beginning of the war, she has turned inward and focused on herself and her family. Running deliveries for the black market is dangerous enough. Yet when she thinks of Bas, and when she sees students and is reminded of her life before, she realizes that she is going to help Mrs. Janssen. Her investigations will lead her to the Dutch resistance, where she will reconnect with Bas’ older brother Ollie and become acquainted with some Jewish members of the underground resistance. The resistance is focused on trying to help as many Jews as possible, forging papers and smuggling families to safe hiding places. Hanneke’s connections would be very helpful to them, but her interest is solely on finding Mirjam. Yet as Hanneke gets closer to the truth about Mirjam, she also sees more clearly the dangers that many of her friends are volunteering to face and that they really need her help.
Author Monica Hesse brilliantly sets up the plot lines of this novel. While Hanneke is trying to solve the mystery of Mirjam’s disappearance in real time, she also has flashbacks to her life before war, a life which involved a loving boyfriend and a best friend named Elsbeth. Throughout the novel, Hesse slowly teases out how these relationships formed and how they fell apart. Being a teenager is never easy; people fall in and out of love, and sometimes best friends have a falling out, only to reconcile once again. Or not. Hesse uses the backdrop of war to highlight such relationships and how much more fraught they can become in a time of conflict and persecution. Hesse’s characters are so very human and so young; it’s a credit to her writing that the reader can feel compassion for each of them, even when they make bad decisions. Hesse also does a fantastic job making sure she has accurate and pertinent historical facts to make this story feel real. Hesse is a journalist and her attention to detail is evident throughout. The descriptions of the resistance’s work in Amsterdam will have readers on the edge of their seats; the fate of Jews there will have readers in tears.
Girl in the Blue Coat is a brilliantly told tale of teenaged friendships and love, and of learning to be brave when you are scared to death. Readers who are interested in WWII, the resistance, and the Holocaust will want to pick this one up.