In the last months of the Nazi occupation of Poland, two children are left by their father and stepmother to find safety in a dense forest. Because their real names will reveal their Jewishness, they are renamed "Hansel" and "Gretel." They wander in the woods until they are taken in by Magda, an eccentric and stubborn old woman called "witch" by the nearby villagers. Magda is determined to save them, even as a German officer arrives in the village with his own plans for the children.
Wow. Did you ever read one of those books that you just wanted to hug to your chest forever and just read it over and over again? Of course you have. This was that book for me. This is not an easy book to read. I have never before read a retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this one was so dark. Then again, the story of Hansel and Gretel is kind of dark anyway. Two children are running from the Nazis, along with their dad and their stepmom. The stepmom pushes the dad to leave the children behind in the forest. She pushes it as a way to protect them from the Nazis, but there is a part of her that knows it will be easier on the run without the children. It's easy to blame the stepmom and push her as evil for pushing that decision, but she's not evil. She's just doing what she thinks is best under HORRIBLE circumstances. The book also shows the stepmom's POV throughout the book and she cares more than she admits. She also does some things to show just how much she cares.
“There is much to love, and that love is what we are left with. When the bombs stop dropping, and the camps fall back to the earth and decay, and we are done killing each other, that is what we must hold. We can never let the world take our memories of love away, and if there are no memories, we must invent love all over again.”
Let's talk about those children. I honestly can't remember their specific ages. I think they might be ten and nine . . . maybe? But man, they are independent and resilient and they go through some heartbreaking things. Gretel especially just goes through so much for her young age. Magda is seen by her villagers as something of a witch, but she risks her life to take in these children. She (and her family members) knows the kids are Jewish, but they take them in anyway. The Nazis have taken over their village so the lies aren't easy, but she does it. There are so many side characters in this novel that shows unbelievable courage and bravery and there was so much tragedy in this book. Obviously, that is a given since this book is set during WWII. But the author does not shy away from some of the horrors in this book. This is NO children's fairy tale. This book is graphic and horrible and it will make you cry buckets. (Here's a tip: DON'T read this book on a crowded train. You will not be able to hide your tears and your husband will tease you mercifully for it. But now my husband has a new term for my sad face: "book sad." Ha.)
This book has several different POVs so we can see why every person makes the decision they do. We get to see the children's growth while living with Magda and their tragedies and we also see the dad's story and the fact that he will never stop looking for his children. I rooted for them to be reunited so badly. I won't give away what happens, but I will say that the ending had its tragic moments and its hopeful ones. This writing was so eloquent and beautiful. The author did an incredible job of bringing to life the setting of Nazi occupied Poland. In the author's notes at the end of the book, the author said she spent about three years researching the different facets of this story and it shows. This book stayed with me long after I finished it.
Buy/Borrow/Skip: Buy this one!!