It can be difficult to tell history through fresh eyes.Best-selling author Kristin Harmel has penned a handful of gripping World War II-based tales in the last decade whose characters are weaved into …
It can be difficult to tell history through fresh eyes.
Best-selling author Kristin Harmel has penned a handful of gripping World War II-based tales in the last decade whose characters are weaved into the fray of those battles and the aftermath.
Since her first novel appeared in 2012, the genre of World War II storytelling has exploded. Keeping those stories fresh and new can be difficult, she said.
Enter her newest offering, "The Forest of Vanishing Stars."
In it, Harmel tells the story of Jewish refugees who fled into the forest to escape the Nazi onslaught. The fictional version focuses on the coming-of-age story of Yona, who grew up in those same woods away from the horrors unfolding just outside her gaze. When the forest begins to fill with Jewish families who are lost, frightened, hungry and unprepared for the difficult winter ahead, Yona steps in to help.
At its core, the story is largely true. During the war thousands of families hid in the pine and swamp filled Naliboki Forest, of Poland. The area now calls Belarus home since borders have shifted. There the people learned to live and worked to bring as many into the safety of the forest as possible.
"One of my favorite things is that it wasn't just that people found their way to the forest, this group actually sought people out and wanted to save as many lives as possible," Harmel said of the true story that inspired her novel. "I think that is extraordinary and heroic. I hadn't read about it in fiction before."
The core of Yona's story is how she grapples with her identity as she helps the strangers. Though she is the daughter of a wealthy German family she was raised in the woods with Jewish customs and limited human interaction. After the war begins, those she finds are forced to learn the dangers and the beauty of forest for the first time while she is forced to learn the dangers and beauty of relationships with friends, enemies and lovers.
"In real life nobody saved this group, they saved themselves. They took it upon themselves to do whatever they needed to live. You see that in this story too," Harmel said. "Yona grows and learns to survive as a human being because of her exposure to this group."
Harmel said the development of Yona's character became personal for her, as a means to express how so many people wrestle with their identity.
"Are we born to be who we are because of what's in our blood or because of who raised us? Or are we who we are because that is what we determined we are going to be," Harmel said. "Or is it some mysterious combination of those three."
It was also important, Harmel said, to help highlight the vital roles women played in World War II.
"The more I have dug into historical texts the more I have realized that so many vital things that happened in World War II were done by women. I think one of the reasons World War II books are having such a moment now is that authors are telling these stories that have never been told."
History, she said, hasn't only been shaped by the most famous individuals.
"When I look back at the way we've been taught about history, in general, it tends to touch on people in positions of great power. But I think all of us have the chance to shape the world by shaping our own small corner of it.
"Nowhere is this more evident than in World War II," she said. "When you look at what happened with resistance movements, a lot of women played huge roles and those stories are just starting to come out.
"These are ordinary people without a great deal of official power who still manage to make an enormous difference when they find the light within them in the darkness."