As my semester ended and the break began, I indulged in my usual ritual of checking out lots of books to binge over the holidays. I hit up both my community college library (which has a stellar YA collection) and my local library. At the library, I ended up grabbing two novels from the New Reads bookshelf that on the surface had a lot in common but ultimately were very different reads.
The Keeper of Hidden Books by Madeline Martin is set during World War II during the occupation of Warsaw. The book starts as the Nazi’s have begun to invade Poland and the people of Warsaw are preparing for war. The story follows high-school-aged Zofia and her friend, Janina, whose friendship is intertwined with their love of books. Janina is the brave outgoing one while Zofia is quieter and more reserved. Zofia and Janina both work at the Warsaw library, and as the city prepares for the invasion, Zofia and Janina meet with a small group of friends to read books that Hitler has banned.
Though she is concerned about the future, Zofia has no idea the challenges she will face after the Nazis take over Warsaw. Her father, a prominent doctor, is imprisoned; Janina, who is Jewish, is sent to the “ghetto;” and the Germans slowly take over all the libraries—banning and destroying books and replacing them with “appropriate” German literature. Zofia speaks German and so is able to hold on to her job at the library and works with other employees to secretly hide books on the Nazi’s list and to work for the resistance.
The story is based on true events and that was the best part of this novel—the stories of how regular people, many of them librarians, took enormous risks to protect books and Jewish people—in much the same way—sneaking them out and finding safe places for them to be. Martin doesn’t hesitate to show how the occupation brought out the best (but also the worst) in people. All that said, this book was much more of slog than I expected and I think it was because I felt like I was reading the “history” versus the “story.” I soldiered on because I wanted to see what happened but I wasn’t captivated.
I really felt the difference when I tackled my second book about “books.” The Bookbinder by Pip Williams takes place right as the British are entering World War 1 and is set in Oxford. Peggy and Maude are twin sisters, who live on a canal boat and work at the book bindery for the university press. They are definitely “town” to Oxford’s “gown.”
Though they are physically identical, Maude is different or “touched” (or to modern readers, neurodiverse.) She communicates only by repeating words and phrases that she hears others use. Though Peggy senses that Maude is often emotionally wise, she also knows that her twin sister is her responsibility, now that their mother has died. This duty, along with her strong internalization of the class divide, keeps Peggy from pursuing the dream her mother had for her—to attend Sommerville College, Oxford’s women’s college across the street from the bindery. It is a dream she shares but has buried deep inside her.
Like The Keeper of Hidden Books, this is a novel about the power of literature and reading to help people imagine different realities for themselves. Peggy is surrounded by books—both in her job and at home—where she and her mother created a floating library of purchased books and partly-bound “reject” books from the bindery. However, she feels stuck—by her lack of resources and by the need to care for Maude, who can fold paper precisely at work but can’t function independently.
However, the world is changing as England enters World War 1 and Peggy’s more local world is changing too. The town and the bindery become host to many Belgian refugees and one, Lotte, develops a special connection to Maude. Sommerville College is turned into a hospital and Peggy’s volunteer efforts connect her both to Gwen, a Sommerville student, and to Bastiaan, a Belgian officer. These relationships will both help and hinder Peggy’s journey to creating a new future for herself.
Unlike while reading The Keeper of Hidden Books, I devoured this novel and I credit Pip William’s writing and the way she fully puts you in Peggy’s conflicted world—one that is both large and small. The tension between Peggy’s hunger for knowledge and her feeling that so much of the world is telling her to “bind the books, don’t read them” is what makes this novel so compelling. However, this is also a novel firmly rooted in the historical moment—showing the changing roles of women as well as the many different ways war traumatizes and damages.
The Keeper of Hidden Books: 3 Stars
The Bookbinder: 5 Stars