The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

World We KnewIn recent years, Hoffman has occasionally turned her magical realist lens to Jewish subjects–many of you may remember The Dovekeepers. This title is more like her earlier novels, although it is a historical. It’s set in Europe during World War II and follows 3 teenage girls who join the Resistance. It opens in Berlin in 1941, where Hanni, very much aware of what the Nazis have in store for the Jews, is desperate to find a way to protect her daughter Lea. She convinces Ettie, the daughter of a rabbi, to make a golem to protect Lea. The golem, called Ava, must travel with Lea and keep her safe. Hanni tells Lea that once she is safely out of the war, she must do what is done to golems, that is, to kill her by erasing the first letter of the word on Ava’s arm. The word is emet, truth. By erasing the first letter, it turns the word into “met” which means “death.” So that’s hanging over the story as we travel with Lea and Ava. Ettie, the teenage maker of the golem, also leaves home, with her sister Marta. 

Hoffman tells the story of how these young women, and several other characters, find the courage to survive–or not–in rural France. You may recognize the names of the French villages, convents, and orphanages that were refuges for Jews during this time, but despite these historical elements, the story has all the trademarks of Hoffman’s magical realist fiction, where events don’t have quite the consequences that they would in the real world and Ava, the golem, provides that witchy quality that Hoffman’s loves. Ava is a lovely creation, reminding us that the monsters we create don’t always remain inert creatures. There’s danger, murder, romance, and a tearjerker ending.

This novel reminded me of the very recent wildly popular novel All the Light We Cannot See. They’re both very much fairy tales, with elements of coincidence and not-quite-believable elements furthering. If you’re a Hoffman fan, or if you were swept up in All the Light We Cannot See, then this is for you. I think it would provide good discussion for book groups. Since the main characters are all teenagers, I tried to think about whether this would be a good novel for  high school age readers. Many teens do read Alice Hoffman’s novels, so this one may work for them too. 

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