The Forest of Vanishing Stars – by Kristin Harmel – independent book review – Historical Fiction (World War II)

I read this book in 24 hours and gave it five stars on Goodreads. It’s suspenseful, terrifying, sobering, and inspiring — all at the same time!

With so much historical fiction coming out these days about World War II, this is a refreshingly different take. Based on a true story and supported by survivor interviews, Kristin Harmel explores the Jewish refugees who spent large parts of the war hiding from Nazis in woods and forests. 

Close to the end of World War I, an elderly woman, Jerusza, kidnaps a two-year old girl from her home in Berlin to raise in the forests in Poland. The woman takes this drastic isolating action out of instinct alone. Though she is certain the little girl she calls Yona is destined for something important. 

Yona has no friends, peers, or other company — except for Jerusza. She is not allowed to venture into nearby towns and villages or to find out about current events. But what she does learn is how to use wild plants to heal, to build shelter in all seasons, to find enough food, to move silently, and to hide. Jerusza also supplies all the books Yona needs for a broad education and teaches the girl fluency in half a dozen languages. 

Twenty years pass and Jerusza dies. Yona finds herself living alone in the forest. Until she meets a small group of Jews, recently arrived in the forest, hiding from Nazi soldiers bent on murder. Yona realizes that if she is willing to give up her solitude, she can share her knowledge to help these people survive. 

Kristin Harmel
Photo from her Website

It’s a novel full of action that steadily builds toward a climax (full of surprises!) that will have you madly turning pages. The story includes a full range of human emotions and experiences — fear, romance, jealousy, mistrust, sacrifice, desire for revenge, bravery, selflessness, and love. But for me (who has read many, MANY books about World War II) what stands out the most is the way Harmel explores the ways in which great loss permanently impacts individuals, in many different ways. And how, nevertheless, we remain remarkably resilient.

Don’t miss this one!

More about the author, Kristin Harmel.

More about the true story she used as the basis for her novel.

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