Book Review for “The Last Train to London” by Meg Waite Clayton.
This is the fictionalized story of Geertruida Wijsmuller, aka “Tante Truus” the Dutch, Christian woman who saved over 10,000 mostly Jewish children from the clutches of the Nazis through what came to be known as the Kindertransport. Although this is historical fiction, the essence of this story is not at all made up. Truus was a real person, who was recognized by Israel’s Yad Vashem Museum as a Righteous Gentile for her amazing efforts. Mixed into the reality parts of this story, author Meg Waite Clayton (hereafter MWC), also gives us an up-close view of some fictitious children for Truus to save, which makes this novel all the more poignant.
This isn’t going to be an easy review to write, mostly because I recently learned that the father of my husband’s cousin (the son of his mother’s aunt) was probably on that first train. Furthermore, although my mother-in-law escaped Vienna with her family in a different way, she always said that they lived a year after the Anschluss (the Nazi invasion of Austria), and recalled the infamous Kristallnacht (the night of the broken glass). Also, I have always known that the mother of a good friend of mine was probably on that first big Kindertransport from Vienna with 600 children. Although she passed away not long ago, she did mention her experiences from time to time. Furthermore, while this is probably a coincidence, MWC gave one of the girls on that train the name Erika – the same name as my friend’s mother. So, you see, this one feels very personal to me, even though (as far as I know) none of my own blood relatives were either Holocaust survivors or victims.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I can concentrate on the book itself. I must admit that this novel was a bit slow and slightly confusing at the beginning. This is probably because to begin with, it was difficult for me to see the connection between the young people in Vienna and Truus in Amsterdam, which MWC switches between through a series of relatively short chapters. In fact, at that point in history, there was no connection there. It was as if there were two parallel stories. However, anyone who knows the least bit about this era will easily, and correctly, assume that as Truus starts rescuing Jewish children from Austria, there will be something to connect her to the Jewish children Stephan and Walter Neuman in the other story. Thankfully, by the time I had reached around 10-15% of the book, I was no longer puzzled, and by then I was totally absorbed in the novel.
I think what I appreciated the most in this novel was how MWC developed her characters, and made them so empathetic. This wasn’t terribly difficult with the younger characters, particularly Stephan and young Walter, who we already know were in danger because of their being Jewish. To further develop that, MWC gives us Žofie-Helene, a Christian girl around Stephan’s age, who is a bit of a misfit, being a genius at math. This is apparently what draws Stephan to her, even though he’s interested in becoming a playwright, like his idol (the real) Stefan Zweig. That her mother is a journalist with a newspaper that has been outwardly opposed to Hitler, makes Žofie-Helene and her whole family into targets, almost as much as the Neumans. The dynamic between this little group works beautifully, even as it waxes and wanes with the changing circumstances. Mind you, I did feel like MWC gave us a tiny touch too much of their story near the end of the book, but nothing too much as to ruin the novel for me.
As for Truus herself, we must remember that with biographical, historical fiction, there’s always that fine line authors must walk between making the person human, and turning them into gods to be idolized. This is especially true with personalities that are lesser known to the public, who have been extensively researched by the author. MWC could easily have fallen into the latter trap, since Truus is such an incredibly admirable person, but instead, MWC gave her faults and imperfections that any person could have. Getting into the head and heart of Truus must have been both a pleasure and a heavy burden for MWC, but I believe we received the very best of that effort, and I certainly fell in love with both Truus and her husband Joop.
Of course, the plot of this story was one that MWC had outlined for her by history itself, so all that was needed was to people it properly, and then show us the anxiety and suffering of those who experienced it themselves. This is, I believe, exactly what this novel succeeds in doing, and there were times when I held my breath, worried that something wouldn’t work out, even though I already knew exactly how much Truus achieved in such trying times. And yes, of course, this book made me tear up several times – how could it not?
This isn’t a happy ending story; no novels about the Holocaust have truly happy endings. However, it is a hopeful one, since the story of Truus Wijsmuller’s incredible accomplishments is just one of the many tales of bravery and rebellion that simple people across Europe were willing to do in the face of evil, even at great personal risk. The Talmud tells us that “whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.” Truus saved some 10,000 lives – you can do the math yourself! In short, although I think the exact rating for this book is 4.75 stars, but I’m going to round that up to five stars, and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone and, well, frankly everyone!
Harper released “The Last Train to London” by Meg Waite Clayton on September 10, 2019. This book is available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via Edelweiss.