Hidden Among the Stars
I know whenever I pick up a novel about World War Two that I will most likely be reading a story that has a lot of heartache and sorrow in it. I hadn’t, however, expected Hidden Among the Stars to affect me quite as powerfully as it did. A haunting, atmospheric tale of love and loss, this book will stay with you long after you have finished the last page.
Callie Randall might tell you she’s happy with her life, but that would be a lie. After her fiancé cheated on her and left her brokenhearted, she has retreated into the comfortable shell of routine, replacing happiness with a resigned contentment. She works at The Magic Balloon, the bookshop she owns with her sister; plays with her nephews, hosts story hour and manages her blog about items left inside used books. The blog isn’t very successful at reuniting owners with their forgotten pictures or letters but Callie loves doing it. Her most recent post regards a copy of Bambi with cryptic notes written in German beside the text.
Eighty years ago, there was a girl named Anika Knopf also suffering from a broken heart. A servant at a lavish estate in the Austrian countryside, she has been in love with the owner’s son, Max Dornbach, since they played together as young children. As young adults, their paths diverged, with Max attending a fancy school in Vienna and Anika staying in the countryside dusting and vacuuming his family’s summer home. She has never let go of her dream of marrying him, though; of having him fall in love with her when he comes back during the summer months.
When Hitler’s troops sweep into their country in 1938, everything changes. Max, furious with the Nazi’s invasion and appalled by their regime, begins to hide his Jewish friends’ most valuable possessions on the grounds of the estate. He enlists Anika’s help, knowing he can trust her to stay quiet and guard the treasure. But when Max brings Luzia Wies, the young Jewish woman he’s been in love with for years, to hide at the castle, it complicates everything and places their plan, and even their very lives, in jeopardy. Especially since Luzia has a particularly determined Austrian Nazi hunting for her. A man who just happens to hold a grudge against Max and the Dornbach family.
In the present, Callie is surprised to receive a call from Dr. Joshua Nemeth regarding the notes in Bambi. He is a professor of history, working on reuniting Jewish families with treasure that had been stolen from them during the Holocaust. He is very interested in the notes contained inside Callie’s book, as he believes they may hold valuable information about precious heirlooms hidden in the Austrian countryside. Answering that call changes Callie’s life and reveals a series of secrets kept for many, many years.
There is so much to praise in this novel. I loved the rich imagery used to create the story and evoke the setting. I felt very much as if were experiencing Austria for myself. I loved the way Ms. Dobson captures the emotions of a woman’s heart; Callie’s brokenness was so real for me as she worked through the last of the grief caused by her fiancé’s betrayal and opened herself to love again. I was also deeply impressed by the author’s ability to conjure a very real sense of fear in the reader. My shoulders tensed, and my gut clenched whenever I was reading the WWII portion of the story. We enter that phase of the tale as Austria is being plunged into the dark depths of Nazi occupation and it was horrifying to read about. While gruesome, gritty details are avoided, the terrible events are sketched sufficiently to elicit strong reactions.
I loved the two heroines. Callie, a thirty-year-old living in America, is a delightful introvert whose shy, quiet nature is charming rather than boring. Learning the history of why she is so cautious around people and seeing her open up and blossom under Josh’s attention is very gratifying.
This is woman’s fiction, so we don’t spend as much time with Josh as I would have liked, but his steady, mature nature was a great counterpart to Callie’s own subdued dignity. He was just enough of an adventurer to push her to take chances, but he wasn’t so different from her that I had concerns the relationship would be torn apart by their disparity.
Annika was easily my favorite part of the story. Aged just seventeen when our tale starts, she is a country girl in a time where no internet existed to bring the outside world to bear on her placid existence. She is simple in the best sense; unpretentious, hopeful, and idealistic, anxious to make the best of every situation. She is kind and open hearted, in spite of having a drunken, somewhat abusive father. She loves Max with a pure, sincere schoolgirl’s crush which doesn’t see any dark side to the object of her desire. Her devotion can be both touching and frightening since it has no limits and no thought to care for the self over the beloved. For me, her innocence is what made this story as poignant as it was. Watching someone that fresh and guileless live through the terrors of the occupation was truly chilling.
Max is perhaps my least favorite character. He’s young, though nowhere near as unsophisticated as Annika, so perhaps that explains some of his behavior. I felt the privilege and wealth he grew up with showed in almost his every action, and his love for Luzia seems selfish and entitled, as if he can’t imagine being denied something he wants. That seems to carry on throughout the book; an insistence to do things his way regardless of what others may preferr. Towards the end of the novel he shows growth in this area, but it was a case of too little, too late for me.
Luzia’s sole purpose in life is to survive. Other than that, she doesn’t have the luxury of emotion except for complete devotion to her family. I totally understood this and felt it was perfect and appropriate for the text. Given how systematically Luzia’s life is being destroyed, how determinedly she is being hunted, it was completely understandable for her to be in survival mode.
Few books are perfect and this one has a few very minor flaws. It’s an Inspirational novel and the conversation regarding God and suffering that takes place between Callie and Josh felt more like a public service announcement than a natural dialogue between two people. I had the same feeling regarding the conversation early in the novel about children and scary books, this time explaining why children shouldn’t read fearsome prose. Both, however, are mercifully brief and disrupt the story only for an instant.
If you are in the mood for a rich, evocative, emotional novel I am happy to recommend Hidden Among the Stars.