Friday, March 1, 2019

Hunters and Hunted

To find a new angle on a topic as saturated with fictional and nonfictional treatments as World War II is a challenge for any author. As Kate Quinn mentions during my most recent New Books in Historical Fiction interview, the war is garnering a great deal of attention at the moment, perhaps because the last members of the generation that lived and fought through it are passing away.

It’s all the more remarkable, therefore, that Quinn does uncover such an angle in her latest novel, The Huntress, released earlier this week. In fact, it would be fair to say that she uncovers three or four different angles, which perhaps explains why her book provides such a good read.

The first detour from conventional approaches to World War II is Quinn’s decision to focus on a female war criminal, not one of the usual leaders or even camp guards, and to pick up her story at the moment when she goes on the run to escape arrest and prosecution at Nuremberg. After an initial short scene from the point of view of this character, the Huntress of the title, we move to the perspective of Jordan, a seventeen-year-old American presented with a new stepmother and stepsister. It’s 1946, and Jordan, a typical American schoolgirl with no direct experience of the war—or, indeed, much experience of life—represents another new angle on the story.

Jordan’s new family members appear to conceal more than a few secrets and sometimes behave in puzzling ways. But what fugitive from the war zone doesn’t have memories she’d rather forget? And the new stepmother is, on the whole, loving and kind. She revitalizes Jordan’s lonely father and even supports Jordan’s own desire to attend college and become a photographer. The new stepsister is even more adorable, winning Jordan’s heart from the moment of their first meeting. Jordan chides herself for her suspicious nature and tries to push her sense of something “off” into a back corner of her mind where it belongs.

This brings me to the third and fourth elements that set this novel apart. From Jordan’s introduction to her new stepmother, we move forward four years to make the acquaintance of Ian Graham, a British war correspondent turned war crimes investigator, who’s intent on tracking down the Huntress and bringing her to justice, not least for the murder of his brother. He receives assistance from his green-card wife, Nina Markova—a former lieutenant in the Soviet Air Force bomber regiment known to its enemies as the Night Witches. Because Nina, it turns out, is the only survivor of the Huntress’s atrocities and thus the only person who can identify their quarry by sight. And how that happened takes us back to Nina’s girlhood on the shores of Lake Baikal in Siberia and forward through her military career and the sequence of events that lead to her encounter with the Huntress.

To say more would be to give away too many details of this wonderfully complex and beautifully realized story. Suffice it to say that the overlapping threads all come together in a satisfying conclusion. So listen to the interview, read the transcript, and most of all, buy the book. You won’t regret it.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

When we think of World War II, we envision a catastrophe of massive proportions: millions killed in concentration camps, on the battlefield, during bombing raids and in the nuclear explosions that ended the war. But World War II can also be seen as a vast collection of small catastrophes—a dozen executions or experiments here, a casual act of antisemitism or cruelty there—committed by otherwise ordinary people who either had no moral compass to start with or lost their bearings in an environment that brought out the worst in them. That insight drives The Huntress (William Morrow, 2019), Kate Quinn’s fast-moving, compelling mystery about Nazi hunters in the decade after VJ Day.

Ian Graham, a British war correspondent, is chasing an escaped Nazi known only as die J├Ągerin, the Huntress. He is determined to see her tried for her crimes, and his motives are both professional and personal: she murdered his younger brother, as well as a dozen Polish children. With the help of the intrepid Nina Markova, former lieutenant of the Night Witches and the only survivor who can identify the Huntress by sight, Ian follows his quarry’s trail across the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, in Boston, seventeen-year-old Jordan McBride welcomes Anneliese, soon renamed Anna—the love interest her lonely father brings home. A budding photographer, Jordan wants first and foremost to go to college, a goal that Anna supports but Jordan’s father overrules. He considers higher education unnecessary for a young woman in 1946, especially one with marriage plans in her future. But the camera does not lie, and Jordan’s photographs soon raise questions about what Anna really left behind when she fled Europe the year before. And before long, Jordan has to wonder why Anna seems so eager to get her new stepdaughter out of the house.

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