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I was very lucky to have been given the opportunity to review Alice Hoffman’s newest upcoming release, The World That We Knew, prior to its release date*. When this fun surprise showed up in my mail box, my first reaction was major heart eyes at the cover. Pictures truly don’t do it justice, as it’s so simple yet so stunningly unique.
WWII has just begun and the Nazis are quickly taking over all of Germany. Hanni knows she must protect her twelve year old daughter, Lea from the dark and unjust actions that are sure to come. The only way to do this is to send her away from Berlin and out of harm’s way. Hanni visits a local rabbi well-known for his magical ability, yet it’s his daughter Ettie who grants Hanni’s wishes. Hanni knows Lea would not be able to survive on her own without guidance and protection. Because Hanni must stay back in Berlin with her sick and elderly mother, she must provide the next best thing.
Together with Ettie and her Jewish rituals, the women create a mystical golem specifically designed to protect Lea as if she were her own mother. Made with the same amount of love and desire Hanni feels towards Lea, the golem will serve as Lea’s compass as she navigates through the world’s darkest time period alone. Ava, the golem, is brought to life through Jewish rituals and chants and although she is made without a heart or soul, unable to feel emotions as humans do, she is as human-like as a golem can be. Resembling a tall, beautiful woman with black hair and gray eyes, Ava can communicate with non-human specimen and knows exactly what she must do to protect Lea. She made a promise to Hanni that she would guide Lea to the end of the war – to safety – and she’s determined to follow through on her word.
Ettie, Lea and Ava’s stories are intertwined throughout the book, giving us a different view of the Holocaust while painting the heartbreaking picture of what it’s like to move through hardships without a mother. Traveling from city to city, passing through various orphanages and refugee homes, helping smuggle Jewish children across the border to a better life, and meeting people through pure destiny along their path to safety, the three girls define what it means to persevere and risk everything to protect those they love.
This book absolutely shook me to my core and grabbed my heart. I was pleasantly shocked how much this book affected me while also simultaneously portraying every thought I’ve ever had of being ‘motherless’. The World That We Knew is so much more than yet another Holocaust or WWII story. Layered beneath the heartbreak of so many innocent souls perished in the concentration camps is a story of three women suffering losses of their own: Ettie is seeking revenge for the sister she lost before her very eyes at the hands of the Nazis, Lea is longing for her mother’s love while trying to cope with the fact that she more than likely will never see her again, and Ava is fighting the urge to develop human emotions towards the people and things she’s met along her journey in this new realm, knowing she can’t stay in this world forever.
The World That We Knew is historical fiction mixed with mystical magic and explores grief in a way that is so profound it nearly left me speechless. Hot tears rolled down my cheeks more times than I can count throughout this book. For the first time in a long time, and for the first time this year, a book has spoken so deeply to my soul it’s as if I wrote it. It’s a fascinating realization that this book is written about WWII, yet it feels like my story is portrayed among the very same pages. There were sentences that described the precise emptiness that I feel since losing my mom in a way that has been unmatched thus far.
I usually never grab books related to magic or mystic creatures because that just isn’t the genre I care for. And to be honest, I was a little curious how Hoffman was going to mix something as serious and dark as the Holocaust with a whimsical creature created from mud and sticks. She couldn’t have nailed it any more perfectly if she tried. Truthfully, I am blown away by this story and am in total awe of the meaning beneath the words. What I think is so magical about this story is the fact that it will mean something different to every reader. Whether you’re searching for meaning in life, doing some serious soul-searching or grieving a loved one, The World That We Knew has something for everyone to grasp to when they’re feeling lost and unheard.
*releases 9/24/19. Many, many thanks to Simon & Schuster and Alice Hoffman for the advanced reader copy. All opinions and thoughts are my own*