Also by this author: The Room on Rue Amélie
Published by Gallery Books on July 6, 2021
Genres: Historical Fiction
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FTC Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Netgalley. All opinions are my own.
Kristin Harmel is fast becoming one of my favorite authors of WWII historical fiction. I love how she always manages to uncover and shine a spotlight on some aspect of the war, and in particular of the various Resistance movements, that I was completely unaware of. In the case of her latest novel, The Forest of Vanishing Stars, Harmel’s subject matter are groups of Jewish refugees who flee from the Nazis and try to survive by hiding in the vast forests of Poland. The author’s note at the end of the novel is just as fascinating a read as the book itself because Harmel shares the details of her research, including information about the real-life groups of Jewish refugees she based her fictional groups on.
The Forest of Vanishing Stars centers on a young woman named Yona who is stolen from her crib by an elderly Jewish woman when she is only two years old. It is unclear at first what the old woman’s motivation is. She seems to have some mystical powers that allow her to see the future and she “sees” that Yona is destined for something special and that she must teach her so that she is ready when the time comes. The old woman raises Yona in the forest and gives her what seems like the oddest of educations. She teaches her all about how to survive in the forest – how to build various kinds of shelters, how to gather and preserve food, how to use plants and herbs for medicinal purposes, and how to defend herself. She also teaches Yona many languages: Polish, German, and Russian to name a few. The old woman dies soon after Yona’s education is complete and she is left to wonder what exactly she is meant to do with all she has learned. It soon becomes clear when she encounters a large group of Jewish refugees fleeing for their lives deep in the forest. They are doing everything wrong and if they continue as they are, they will all surely perish. Yona makes it her mission to ensure that they all survive and begins to teach them everything she knows about living off the land and about how to stay hidden.
The survival aspect of the story is definitely compelling enough in its own right, but I especially adored the character of Yona. She is such a special young woman and I loved how fully she devoted herself to caring for this group of people even though they are complete strangers and she could be executed if she is caught helping them. I admired her bravery and her selflessness. I also became quite attached to the group of refugees. They are all so eager to learn everything Yona has to teach them and they become just as devoted to her as she is to them. They become a family and it’s just beautiful to see that bond form when everything around them is so dark and treacherous.
Made all the more poignant by Harmel’s characters and her exquisite storytelling, The Forest of Vanishing Stars is a story of strength, resilience, love, family, and sacrifice. If you think you’ve read it all when it comes to WWII historical fiction, I highly recommend giving Kristin Harmel’s novels a try. I’ve enjoyed all that I’ve read from Harmel so far and The Forest of Vanishing Stars is my favorite yet; it’s a real gem.