All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

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Happy reading!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

It takes special determination to continue reading Tatiana de Rosnay's Sarah's Key beyond page 15, on which we find our heroine, Julia Jarmond, musing, "Why did I have such an impossibly attractive husband? I wondered for the umpteenth time." But, de Rosnay hooks the reader with the startling arrest of the book's title character in the first few pages, and curiosity about the significance of the title makes us more tolerant than we might be otherwise. Knowing that Sarah's Key is based on true, horrific events makes us more forgiving of the storyteller.

Sarah's Key is the story of the historic roundup of French Jews by French police officers in July 1942. The event was called Vel' d'Hiv'. In de Rosnay's story, a modern-day American reporter living in France covers a memorial service honoring Jews who were imprisoned in the Vel' d'Hiv' roundup. Snatched from their homes, they were herded into the bicycle racing stadium with what they could carry and left there under guard--thirsty, hungry, ill, and sometimes dying. Later they were transported by rail to concentration camps where most of them died.

Between short chapters narrating Sarah's story is the story of Julia Jarmond, a reporter living in Paris, married to a Frenchman. As Jarmond covers the memorial event, she encounters a dismissive and uninterested attitude about Vel' d'Hiv' from her husband and his family, and discovers a startling connection between Sarah and Jarmond's in-laws. Jarmond is challenged by the lack of information and interest from French citizens about Vel' d'Hiv' and the role of their government, acting at Hitler's direction. De Rosnay draws this to the reader's attention while highlighting the betrayal French Jews felt at the hands of French police officers who had, until their arrest, protected them like any other French citizen.

Sarah's story is more compelling than Julia's, and that is what makes the book appealing. Sarah is a 10-year-old French girl captured in the roundup. She is too young to understand why she wears the yellow star and why the French police are taking her and her mother away. She doesn't understand why her mother is so afraid. When the police arrived to arrest them, her little brother refused to go with her and her mother, and hid instead in a special cabinet that had been their hiding place. Sarah locked the cabinet and hid the key, promising to return as soon as they were released. As the hours turned to days of imprisonment in the bicycle stadium, Sarah became frantic, determined to escape to save her brother.

De Rosnay's story is engaging, and her handling of the arrest and imprisonment of Sarah and her family is powerful. Her characters, however, are predictable: the kindly French police officer who helps Sarah, the grandparent-like couple who offer Sarah shelter, the philandering French husband going through a mid-life crisis, the spunky teenage daughter who is wise beyond her years, the crusty but caring editor, the gay couple who offer Julia a shoulder to cry on, the cold mother-in-law, the wise but dying grandmother--but you get the idea. Although Julia Jarmond is a seasoned reporter, de Rosnay seems to feel it necessary to educate the reader about what Julia's and her photographer's jobs are (p. 28):

"Nothing wishy-washy," he (Jarmond's editor) said. "No sentimentalism. Facts. Testimonies. And"--glancing at Bamber (the photographer) --"good, strong, photos. Look up old material as well."

Why de Rosnay didn't have Jarmond respond on behalf of her readers, "Well, duh," is beyond me.

De Rosnay deserves credit for educating her readers about Vel' d'Hiv' and pricking the French conscience about their involvement. You can learn more about Vel' D'Hiv' through this Economist Article, "Remembering the Vel d'Hiv'", the Memorial de la Shoah, or the Wikipedia article on the subject. Sarah's Key was published in 2007 by St. Martin's Press. This printing includes a book club guide. De Rosnay's website can be found here.

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