The story of how ordinary citizens managed to save 7,000 Danish Jews from falling into Nazi hands is one that has been recounted before, but not, perhaps, with the richness and vigor found in the epic new novel by Beth Gutcheon, Leeway Cottage (William Morrow, 2005, 24.95).
Spanning several decades, its focus stays on Laurus Moss, a Jewish musician from Denmark, and Sydney Brant, the American woman with whom he falls in love. This portrait of a marriage is broad, sprawling and filled with a pantheon of supporting actors; Gutcheon has a graceful, sure-handed way of limning fully breathing, palpable individuals, often with only a few strokes.
One of the most memorable is Laurus’s younger sister, Nina, “a luscious girl, the darling of her family” with a “laugh that starts in her chest and bubbles up as if her throat were a glass overflowing. ” Her fury against the German invaders soon translates into action; small acts of resistance and sabotage lead to smuggling entire families out of the country. She is caught by the Nazis, sent to a concentration camp, and we pick up the thread of her story after she is liberated, a survivor story with a happy ending. Or is it?
No longer the laughing, lovely girl of her brother’s memory, Nina has become a pinched spinster who wears her sorrow like “a poisoned cloak.” Her nieces and nephews think she is strange; her sister-in-law finds her “a pain in the ass.” Now we catch only glimpses of Nina’s life, and her eventual death as old woman. It’s then that the author catapults us back in time, to the months of her imprisonment. In a chapter as harrowing as it is brave, we learn the day-to-day degradations Nina is forced to endure: the physician’s internal exam, after which she feels “she will never again be completely human,” the smell of shit and lime from the outdoor pits that pass for toilets, the sight of corpses that bear marks of the prisoners who have tried to eat them. The worst is still to come: Nina is given the job of quieting the children who are about to be gassed, and carrying their bodies to the crematoria. It is only after coming to the end of this extraordinary piece of writing—writing that reads like testimony as much as it does fiction—that we fully understand why, despite her “rescue,” the rest of Nina’s life unfolded as it did. She deserves to become one of the great literary heroines of Holocaust literature; although Nina Moss did not exist in any literal sense, her story, as we now know, is all too real. Read it and weep.
Yona Zeldis McDonough is Lilith’s fiction editor. Her new novel, In Dahlia’s Wake, was published by Doubleday.