The Last Train to London is a second look at Meg Waite Clayton’s novel, which proves the value of book recommendations from reviewers you trust.
Ann Ronald’s stellar review of Meg Waite Clayton’s The Last Train to London in December 2020 was more than enough to get me to read the book for myself. Way back when, Clayton Books in Contra Costa County hosted an event for the author’s second novel, The Wednesday Sisters. Now, having read The Last Train to London, how much fun to know, early on, just how good the author was and continues to be.
So, if you haven’t read The Last Train to London, let me add to Ann’s thoughts about why this book is so special. Most Holocaust stories occur during the horrific years of World War II, from September 1939 – to September 1945. Clayton’s Kindertransport novel begins May 1938 at a train station in Bad Bentheim, Germany, and ends in Paris, France, 1940.
The novel’s factual historical character is Truus Wijsmuller, a childless Dutch housewife who, in her efforts to keep the Kindertransport operating as the Nazis close in on all the countries surrounding Austria, gives new meaning to bravery and dedication. Clayton’s fictional characters are Stephan Neuman, the young (not yet eighteen) playwriting son of a respected Jewish Viennese businessman, and Zofie-Helene, the mathematically brilliant teenage daughter of the Christian editor of an anti-Nazi Viennese newspaper. As Germany closes in on Austria, young Stephan, and Zofie, by a chance meeting, become friends, a friendship that will challenge their youth, their families, and their survival under Nazi occupation, until escape becomes inescapable.
The opening chapter is a spectacular introduction to Truus Wijsmuller. A train pulls into the last station before leaving Germany and enters the Netherlands (Holland). Truus is on the train with three Jewish children she is transporting to a Dutch family committed to taking in the children. Seconds before a Nazi border guard enters the train car to check her passport, Truus sends the children (including a baby in the arms of an older sister) into the washroom where they are to remain until it is safe. The children have already practiced how they should behave in the washroom. The Nazi confronts Truus and waits with some impatience for her to dig out her passport from her handbag. He can hear the children in the washroom and asks if they are hers, reminding her that each child must have a visa to leave Germany. He is a young man, and Truus nods yes that the children are hers, and then asks if he has children of his own. In fact, he answers, he and his wife are soon expecting their first child. Truus makes small talk about the value of children, all the while still rooting through her handbag and cleverly letting him see her stunning ruby solitaire ring. The ring’s apparent value is not lost on the young guard, and we immediately understand two things: one that the children will be permitted to leave Germany with no visas and two, Truus Wijsmuller is as subtle as she is savvy.
The tension of that first chapter continues nonstop as we follow Stephan and Zofie from friendship into love and from secret tunnels beneath Vienna to the last Kindertransport to London. And that tension-filled buildup to get the last train of Jewish children out of Germany and other countries now occupied by the Nazis is where the author shines. The intricacies of securing children to place on the Kindertransport without be caught by the Nazis is amazing. Truus Wijsmuller’s role is heroic, brave, and utterly selfless. I don’t want to give anything away, but the stealth, subterfuge, and bravery on the part of every single person involved in making the Kindertransport work is something the reader will not soon forget. The author gives us such characters in Stephan and Zofie and their families, combined with the facts she gathered from her research, her novel stands out. We may already know essential facts of the Kindertransport, but Clayton’s combining Truus with such well-developed fictional characters, gives the novel an unforgettable depth. And that depth continues as we follow what these children face when they finally arrive in England.
I would not pass up anything written by Meg Waite Clayton. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Meg Waite Clayton: Beautiful Exiles; The Race for Paris; The Wednesday Sisters; The Language of Light; The Wednesday Daughters; The Four Mrs. Bradwells, The Postmistress of Paris.