The Blood Years

HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray. Oct. 2023. 400p. Tr $19.99. ISBN 9780062990853.
Gr 9 Up–Arnold’s gripping novel of sisterhood and survival amid both Soviet and Nazi occupation illuminates a little-explored part of the Holocaust in Romania, based on the life of the author’s grandmother. Growing up in Czernowitz, Rieke Teitler’s world revolves around dance lessons with her sister, Astra, and her grandfather’s watch-repair shop. But in 1939, disaster strikes three times: Rieke develops tuberculosis, Astra falls in love with a much-older man, and Romania is caught up in WWII. As Rieke struggles to survive persecution and her worsening illness, she must also find her own path between the moral polarities of her grandfather and sister. Religious Opa wants to “build this world with love” in the face of hatred. By contrast, Astra insists “Sometimes we choose between bad, and worse.” Arnold gives the characters and moral dilemmas breadth and depth. Astra’s selfishness is sometimes pragmatic and life-affirming; her much-older husband is a philanderer and also a life-saving doctor. Later, a smuggler sexually abuses Rieke—but also gives her food that allows her family to survive. The truth is difficult, but as one character says, “knowing is better than not knowing.” Rieke must learn to make choices and maintain her ability to love. The complex setting is another truth, expertly revealed. Arnold represents the full cultural complexity of Czernowitz, which has belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Romania, and modern Ukraine. A historical afterword includes photographs of Rieke and Astra’s real-life counterparts.
VERDICT Arnold’s wrenching tale of two sisters surviving the Holocaust in Romania is a must-read.

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