THE LAST TRAIN TO LONDON
The Last Train to London, Meg Waite Clayton’s well-researched and engaging historical fiction can introduce a reader to unsung heroes of the past. Such was the case, for me, as I read this novel. There I met Geertruida Wijsmuller, fondly called Tante Truus by her friends and by the thousands of children whose lives she saved. Back when I studied World War II, history was festooned with dates and battles. Rarely were behind-the-scenes heroics mentioned, and even if they were, I don’t recall women getting very much attention. I wish I, and a whole host of other little girls looking for role models, had learned about what Tante Truus accomplished in the late 1930s as Europe was spiraling downward into tragedy and war.
An Amsterdam native who worried about children caught in the impending chaos, Tante Truus took it upon herself to spirit youngsters out of Nazi Germany and into the relative safety of the Netherlands and Great Britain. Altogether, she is given credit for rescuing perhaps 10,000 boys and girls. Clayton focuses her novel, however, on one particular rescue mission, where Tante Truus faced down Adolf Eichmann and helped 600 Jewish children escape the Nazi clutches. As their parents’ properties were being confiscated and their families were being forced into a Viennese ghetto, these children fled, alone and scared, shepherded only by Tante Truus and the few other men and women she could recruit.
To heighten the tension of The Last Train to London, Clayton adds two imagined families who are caught in the tragic Austrian circumstances. One, the affluent Jewish family of Stephan Neuman, has been producing exquisite Viennese chocolates for generations. Stephan, a young teenager, and his younger brother Walter have grown up surrounded by fine art, music, the theatre, and boundless wealth. All that ends when the Nazis enter Austria. Stephan’s best friend is Zofie-Helene, a mathematics prodigy whose parents publish an anti-Nazi newspaper and are vocal critics of the invading regime. For many of its pages, The Last Train to London goes back and forth between Tante Truus’ efforts to evade Nazi immigration restrictions and the irrevocable changes being made to Stephan and Zofie’s lives. The two adolescents’ stories lend a personal touch that makes the book more urgent. Tante Truus doesn’t really know the children she is rescuing (which makes her true-life story all the more profound), but the reader of Clayton’s novel knows some of them very well.
The novel opens in 1936, when Stephan’s family privileges are intact and when the Nazis first entered Vienna. I must admit I found some gruesome parallels to 2020 events recently in the news—anonymous armed troops patrolling the streets, for example, and cadres of willfully violent young men egging each other on. I was particularly uneasy with the Austrians’ insistence that everything would be fine, that nothing dire would happen, that the citizens should just cooperate with Hitler’s demands and believe whatever he promises. By 1938, the situation is dire, and the disastrous calamity of the Nazi invasion is self-evident to all. Tante Truus’ last train left Vienna on December 10, 1938. Her Kindertransport operations continued for nine more months until World War II officially was declared, but Clayton wisely restricts the scope of her story.
I have read countless World War II novels, and there have been some excellent recent ones (like Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale, that I enthusiastically reviewed for “Bookin’ with Sunny”). Meg Waite Clayton’s The Last Train to London is one of the best. It combines careful research about a pivotal event that saved 600 lives with devastating descriptions of archetypal families, lives and livelihoods upended and destroyed. The novel is well-written, too, with an attention to detail that pulls a reader even more deeply into the narrative lines. Best of all, The Last Train to London gives us a flesh-and-blood female hero, Tante Truus, who braved Nazism and misogyny and seemingly insurmountable odds with equal fervor; and really did call Adolf Eichmann’s bluff. – Ann Ronald
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
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