Off the Shelf: Sewers and Sanitariums

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Even when I promise myself I’ll take a break from World War II novels, there are always some that grab my interest. For example, I’ve enjoyed Pam Jenoff’s work and, when I saw that her latest novel “The Woman with the Blue Star” (Park Row Books) was getting good notices, I couldn’t resist asking for a review copy. I don’t remember where I heard of Sylvia True’s “Where Madness Lies” (Top Hat Books). It was the subject matter that drew me to it, although I’m normally not a fan of books that focus on mental illness. Both works feature Jewish characters who are affected by the rise of the Nazis: one takes place before Hitler’s takeover, while the other focuses on life after World War II has begun.

“The Woman with the Blue Star” offers two narrations: Sadie Gault tells of how she, her parents and another Jewish family escape from the Krakow ghetto through the sewer. Unfortunately, they find themselves unable to leave because German troops are watching all the exits. Is it possible to live in a sewer? It’s not easy; however, they have no choice but to stay hidden – that is, until circumstances make it even more dangerous to remain. Ella Stepanek, the second narrator, has lived alone with her stepmother since the death of her father. She’s lonely because her friends no longer trust her since her stepmother has befriended the Germans who are ruling the city. Ella longs for her boyfriend, who has just returned from the war, but who also no longer desires her company. When Ella accidentally spies Sadie through an opening in the sewer, the lives of both young women change. 
The novel opens with what has become a common literary device in World War II novels: a section taking place decades after the war that contains no names, so readers are left to guess who the characters are. That doesn’t mean Jenoff’s work was any less affecting, especially since the ending did turn out to be a surprise. While the beginning of the novel was interesting, it wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way through that it became truly exciting and moving. Ella and Sadie are intriguing characters because they don’t act like traditional heroines: each has to force herself to leave her comfort zone and be brave. Readers and book clubs that enjoy learning about different World War II experiences – in this case, one the author says was inspired by a true story – may want to add this to their list.

While Sadie’s dilemma is based on her being Jewish, the Jewish characters in “Where Madness Lies” must also deal with mental illness. The author, who notes this is a fictional account based on her family, focuses on two generations: Sabine in contemporary times who, unable to cope with life, has submitted to voluntary admission to a mental health facility. When her grandmother, Inga, discovers what’s happening, she travels from Switzerland to Boston to be with her granddaughter. 

In other sections, readers learn about Inga’s early life in Germany before the war and the mental illness that affects her sister, Rigmor. Inga and her mother, Frieda, are at odds about the best treatment for Rigmor. Frieda wants to keep her daughter safe at home and take care of her herself. Inga, who has studied psychological theories of the time, recruits a psychiatrist, Arnold, to befriend Rigmor. When Rigmor continues to decline, Inga and Arnold arrange for Rigmor to be placed in a sanitarium, which is more like a hotel than a hospital. But the world changes when the Nazis take over the government and demand that all individuals with mental illness be sterilized. The question becomes, how can the family save itself and protect Rigmor?

“Where Madness Lies” was a compelling novel: I read its 330 pages during one day on a weekend. In addition to the numerous plot questions raised, the author offers insight into familial relationships. What was particularly fascinating was seeing the very different ways Inga and Sabine viewed their interactions. I did manage to guess some of the family’s secrets, which was very satisfying since readers are given few clues. Book clubs interested in discussing ethical dilemmas should find much to discuss since the novel offers a different view of the suffering that Hitler’s policies caused, in addition to providing a moving and gripping tale of how treatment for mental illness has changed.