When I reached page 239 of Monica Hesse’s 301 page novel, Girl in the Blue Coat, I thought to myself that the story should have ended there. Both the narrative line and the thematic import reach a climax in the scene that ends on page 239. Everything that would follow, I assumed, would be overkill, would belabor the obvious. Wrong! The final sixty pages of Girl in the Blue Coat negated my assumptions and turned my expectations upside down. And rightly so, because Hesse wants her readers to understand that nothing in a time of war is as it appears. Nothing!
Hesse’s protagonist is Hanneke, a young woman who lives with her parents in occupied Amsterdam. They think she does secretarial work for a local mortician, but in reality she is helping her boss support a thriving black market business. Hanneke’s job is to acquire black market goods wherever and however she can, then connect those rations with eager customers. Careful and cautious, Hanneke goes out of her way not to know too much about her contacts and her clients, ignoring the particulars about what is happening to the Jewish residents of Holland in 1943.
Step by step, however, she is drawn deeper into understanding the occupation, and into participation with the resistance. Hesse truly gets inside Hanneke’s head, developing a character who moves from self-imposed innocence toward a much more mature self-knowledge. What might any one of us do in wartime? How might we interact with the occupying forces? Ignore? Cooperate? Resist? Revolt? Hanneke goes through many stages, one step at a time, just as a college-age girl might experience the defining moments of her generation. Her boyfriend joins the Dutch army, her fretful parents turn blind eyes to their daughter’s odd comings and goings, a circle of new friends embroils her in intrigue.
All the while, Hanneke is hesitant. She doesn’t want to get involved. Or does she?
Girl in the Blue Coat approaches World War II and the holocaust from a different angle than many WWII novels that I have read. That angle is the angst of a young woman coming of age, a young woman unsure of her loyalties and her allegiances. When her best friend falls in love with a German soldier, a horrified Hanneke severs their friendship. When asked to help locate a missing girl, a girl in a blue coat, a diffident Hanneke hems and haws. When members of the Resistance ask for her help, she cannot commit. Or can she?
Hanneke’s journeys, both physical and psychological, form the core of Girl in the Blue Coat. I couldn’t predict what choices she might make. And I certainly couldn’t envisage what occurs in the final sixty pages of Hesse’s very astute novel. In some ways, I suppose, this novel casts the two sisters of Kirsten Hannah’s The Nightingale, a novel of occupied France that I recently reviewed for Bookin’ with Sunny, in a single persona. Hanneke combines insecurity with flirtatious self-assuredness, timidity with boldness, a wistfulness tempered with realism. However, she most definitely is not a split personality. Rather, she is a normal young woman caught horrifically in abnormal times. Her story, her search for the Girl in the Blue Coat, is all too plausible, and her post-adolescent/young adulthood hesitations are all too believable, too. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Monica Hesse: Stray; Burn.
Based on Ann’s review of The Girl in the Blue Coat, I went to Monica Hesse’s website and not only found the titles of her two earlier books (noted above), but also important articles written by her for the Washington Post. This is first, but I am linking Hesse’s website to this review and thanking Ann for not only a great review that has led me to a book I’m pretty sure I’m going to like, but additionally, led me to the discovery of a new author who looks like a writer to follow! – Sunny Solomon