Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn’t be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day.
Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village, wounded, but alive. Risking the safety of herself and her family, she hides Sam—a Jew—but Helena’s concern for the American grows into something much deeper. Defying the perils that render a future together all but impossible, Sam and Helena make plans for the family to flee. But Helena is forced to contend with the jealousy her choices have sparked in Ruth, culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all—and setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate across continents and decades.
Set in 1940, The Winter Guest is a hauntingly evocative tale of two sisters – twins – who are struggling to care for their three younger siblings in rural Poland at a time of great upheaval and uncertainty. Their father is dead, and their mother is ill in a hospital in Krakow, and the two girls, Helena and Ruth, are trying to fulfil their mother’s last wish by keeping the family together and keeping them all safe. But with severe food shortages, and the ever-present threat of the encroaching German army, life is tough and getting tougher.
While identical in outward appearance, Helena and Ruth are actually as different as chalk and cheese. Helena is a bit of a tomboy and was her father’s companion of choice when it came to hunting expeditions and performing tasks around the home. Ruth has always been regarded as the prettier of the two and is the one imbued with the more traditionally feminine traits – so the pair has fallen into the roles of male and female parents, with Ruth responsible for running the home and the bulk of the child-rearing, while Helena chops wood, fixes things, and hunts for food.
The girls are close – as twins often are – but there are lots of resentments bubbling under the surface, too. Helena resents Ruth for being their mother’s favourite, while Ruth envies the fact that Helena gets to escape their small dwelling every so often. It’s not that Ruth particularly wants to be out trudging through the forest on the weekly visit to the hospital, or out in the cold chopping firewood, it’s more that she is jealous of that little bit of freedom and time to herself that Helena has at those times.
The delicate balance between the sisters is further upset when, on her way back from visiting her mother, Helena finds a wounded American soldier in the woods, and decides to help him, without telling her sister and knowing that doing so could endanger her family. The young man is called Sam Rosen, and is one of a small group of American soldiers who were parachuted into Poland in order to make contact with the Polish partisans (which explains the presence of an American soldier in Poland in 1940, more than a year before the US entered the war).
Helena takes Sam to a small, dilapidated chapel and tends to his injuries as best she can. Over the next few weeks, she visits him as often as she is able, taking what small quantities of food she can spare, and they develop a fondness for each other. The development of their relationship more or less takes place off screen, as one chapter ends with Helena’s feeling an attraction for Sam, and the next begins a few weeks later, during the course of which they have their first kiss. I recognise that this is a work of Historical Fiction rather than an Historical Romance – but the romance is actually quite important as the catalyst for certain decisions and actions that occur in the latter stages of the novel, which makes me think that it should have been developed a little more strongly in order to give greater weight to those events.
Fortunately, however, by the time Helena and Sam have decided they’re in love, I’d been drawn in by the dynamic between Helena and Ruth, Helena’s growing conviction that trying to stay out of things isn’t going to save them, and the potential impact of the discovery she makes concerning her mother – so I was able to live with the lack of relationship development and immerse myself in the rest of the story.
I found the book a bit slow to start and it took me a while to get into it, but there’s no denying Ms Jenoff’s skill in setting the scene for her story. The undercurrents running between the sisters are quickly established and her descriptions of the deprivations felt throughout rural Poland and the suspicion and fear that are spreading throughout the community are very strongly realised. The way that Helena comes to the gradual understanding of the truth of what is happening to the Jewish population is excellently handled, and the pervading atmosphere of paranoia jumps off the page.
The sibling rivalry between Ruth and Helena is very well-written, and actually feels quite true-to-life in that sometimes, their petty jealousies eclipse the bigger picture for both of them. When Helena has to tell Ruth about Sam, Ruth immediately thinks that Helena is planning to leave with him, and in her determination not to let that happen, sets in motion a train of events that will have tragic consequences.
While the story is engrossing, there are some aspects of it that are not particularly successful. I’ve already mentioned that the romance isn’t very convincing, and neither is the way that Helena is able to so easily contact the Resistance in Krakow, to ask for help in getting Sam to safety. She’s been told that the churches are generally used as meeting places, so she goes to one and asks a random man – and voilà – the resistance leader no less, makes contact with her. The story is book-ended by two short sections set in modern-day New York, with the Epilogue very effectively tying up the loose ends left in the final chapter – but I couldn’t help but feel a little cheated, because the book “proper” ends on a cliffhanger, and we don’t get to see it resolved, or get much information as to what happened in the sixty-odd years between the two chapters.
Fortunately, those weaknesses didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of the novel, which is intelligently written and, after the first few chapters, well-paced. Ms. Jenoff doesn’t sugar-coat the privations suffered by the family or the horror of what is happening to both the Jews and the Poles under the Nazi occupation, but the descriptions are subtle rather than graphic, and are often the more effective for being understated. After a slow start, The Winter Guest turned into a gripping read which packed quite an emotional punch, especially in the later part of the story, and I’d certainly recommend it to anyone looking for an absorbing and informative piece of World War Two-set historical fiction.