Title: Sarah’s Key
Author: Tatiana De Rosnay
Narrator: Polly Stone
ISBN: 9780312370848
Pages: 293 pages
CDs/Discs: 8 CDs, 10 hours
Publisher/Date: St. Martin’s Griffin, c2007.

“I’m going to our secret place,” he whispered.
“No!” she urged. “You’re coming with us, you must.
She grabbed him, but he wriggled out of her grasp and slithered into the long, deep cupboard hidden in the surface of the wall of their bedroom. The one they played hide-and-seek in. They hid there all the time, locked themselves in, and it was like their own little house. […]
The girl could see her brother’s small face peeking out at her from the darkness. […] Maybe he’d be safe there, after all. […] Maybe she should leave him there for the moment. The men would never find him. She would come back to get him later in the day when they were allowed to go home again. And Papa, still in the cellar, would know where the boy was hiding, if ever he came up. […]
She closed the door on the little white face, turned the key in the lock. Then she slipped the key into her pocket. The lock was hidden by a pivoting device shaped like a light switch. It was impossible to see the outline of the cupboard in the paneling of the wall. Yes, he’d be safe there. She was sure of it.
The girl murmured his name and laid her palm flat on the wooden panel.
“I’ll come back for you later. I promise.”(8-9)

Ten-year-old Sarah is awoken one night during the summer of 1942 by the French police at her door. Her father had expected that they’d come for him, so he had hidden in the cellar of their home. Instead, they are rounding up whole families of Jewish citizens. Sarah locks her brother in the hidden cupboard, intent on keeping him safe from these strange men, and promises to return. Sixty years later, an American journalist named Julia Jarmond is investigating the details of the round-up, and stumbles upon Sarah’s story during her research. Little does she know the link that exists between Sarah and the secrets that have stayed hidden and locked away, just waiting for the right person to let them out.

It’s a Holocaust novel, and with any novel that deals with the Holocaust, you start it expecting hardships, sadness, and death. In that respect, the novel delivers, as Sarah looses her old life, the life she used to know, in heart-breaking circumstances that can never be reversed. The descriptions and human emotion are really what grabs readers interest, as opposed to the action. It’s like reading a human interest story in the newspaper, the ones where high school sweethearts end up getting together 30 years later, or when twins discover each other during a chance encounter. So in a way it’s very predictable, and while predictability isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you somehow know that things will happen the way they end up happening.

But it’s also about life, as Julia is a vibrant woman, living in France with her family as they renovate an apartment that has been in the family for years. Julia has come to the realization that life is precious, and she’s taking steps to improve the quality of her life. While her revelations about her relationship with her husband seemed to cut in at odd moments and drag me away from the central plot, I understand what de Rosnay was trying to do in showing Julia’s life outside of her research about the roundup.

I’m glad I listened to the audiobook as opposed to reading it, because I think my unfamiliarity with French terms would have made my reading falter. Narrator Polly Stone does a great job with the different accents and tones, distinguishing from Julia and Sarah’s story so readers know instantly whose story is being told. I wish there were some longer transitions, because when revelations arrive I would have liked time to process them instead of getting wrenched to the other person’s story so quickly. But I’m not blaming the narrator for that, who really transports you to France with her narration. I’m curious how the shifts in perspective translated in the movie by the same name that’s based on the book.

I think the biggest impact this book had on me was learning about the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. It’s brought up time and time again in the book that no one learned about it, no one talked about it, and no one wanted to remember it. I have to wonder if anything has changed since de Rosnay wrote the book, and I find myself comparing it to the US roundup of the Japanese into Internment camps. Now don’t misunderstand me, I realize that the US didn’t then send them off to execution, but we seem to have developed the same attitude in that we know it happened but don’t talk about it. de Rosnay quotes a 1995 speech given by then President Jacques Chirac, where he summarizes the events very succinctly:

“These black hours will stain our history for ever and are an injury to our past and our traditions. Yes, the criminal madness of the occupant was supported by the French, by the French state. Fifty-three years ago, on 16 July 1942, 450 policemen and gendarmes, French, under the authority of their leaders, obeyed the demands of the Nazis. That day, in the capital and the Paris region, nearly 10,000 Jewish men, women, and children were arrested at home, in the early hours of the morning, and assembled at police stations. . . .France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man, land of welcome and asylum, France committed that day the irreparable. Breaking its word, it delivered those it protected to their executioners.”

I’m left wondering what other stories from history we are loosing as the people who lived through it begin to disappear without sharing their story. Will we be as dedicated as Julia in finding them again?

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