I usually have to distance myself by a day or two after finishing an amazing book and truly being able to write about it. Haven’t we all been there where we close a book and stare at the cover thinking about all the ways we were moved by it and how it will affect our world view? Monica Hesse’s Girl in the Blue Coat is one of those books. You can read an article written by Alexandra Alter for the New York Times who I had the pleasure of talking to based on my love for Ruta Sepetys’ works. You’ll have already guessed that John Boyne’s The Boy at the Top of the Mountain is in my pile to read after being blown away years ago by The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.
But back to Hesse’s Girl in the Blue Coat, a multi-layered masterpiece of action, intrigue, history, and character.Each character introduced is richly imagined and even those with smaller parts are just as integral. It’s the power of Hesse’s descriptions and situations. Bas is never alive in the story but he is ever-present throughout and I would recognize him anywhere. Hanneke runs errands on the black market in Amsterdam. She is uniquely positioned with a real job in a morgue that supports her family, but allows her access around the city to get items for those who want them, however illegal. But it’s Hanneke’s new mission, and her reluctance at first to accept it, that is the problem. She must find Mirjam, who mysteriously vanished from a hideout at the request of her sympathizer. And in this quest, Hanneke is opened up to the underground world working against the German occupation in the Netherlands of which she was only a small part before.
Memorable character: This is a hard choice as I already mentioned, but let’s talk about Ollie. The brother of Hanneke’s dead beau who is an academic working for the underground and reveals himself as gay to Hanneke late in the book. He has as much to fear about his sexuality and persecution as he does from working against the occupation, but it’s his cunning especially when he brings Hanneke in to the fold that shows his brilliance but also his pain. After all, he did lose his brother to the war effort as much as Hanneke lost her boyfriend, but he didn’t rip up the “goodbye” letter like she did.
Memorable scene: Hanneke must grow up sooner and nothing showcases her growing frustration at discovering the dark side of war than when she finally unleashes unpleasantness toward her family. “I forbid you to leave this house again. You are still my child, Hannie.” “Oh Mama, I’m not your child.. I bring the money into the house. I buy the groceries, run all the errands. Mama, I’m the one who takes care of you.” “The daughter I know never would have spoken to me this way.” “That daughter doesn’t exist anymore… She is gone, and she’s never coming back.” I can hear her mother’s heartbreaking along with Hanneke’s. No one wants this.
Memorable quote: How do I pick one, especially with scenes like the one above? I have twenty five highlighted passages and several bookmarked pages that shocked, scared, saddened, and infuriated me. But, nothing is as unsettling as Hanneke’s visit to the Schouwburg and the subsequent answer to the smells after leaving in addition to the death and sickness- “Fear. That’s right. That was the odor I couldn’t place before. That’s the smell of my beautiful, breaking country.”
I advise anyone with a love of World War II historical fiction to put this on their list immediately. It’s the right mix of lawlessness and sabotage, mystery and guilt, with characters willing to take chances. The twists are well worth the wait, but each turn is beautiful with Hesse’s steady hand.