Historical Fiction: Sarah’s Key The horror of the Holocaust is known by almost everyone in the world. We know of Hitler, the German army, however what tends to go un-noticed or forgotten are other countries’ implications. This is what Tatiana de Rosnay’s book Sarah’s Key brings up throughout its pages. Utilizing a fictional character set in the historic time of 1942 during the round-ups of the Holocaust, the reader is able to get a better sense of the great amount of pain the French Jewish people of France faced.
Including these historically based chapters that were woven within another interlinking plot helps the reader learn at the same pace as the book’s main character Julia. The reader begins to rely on Julia for emotional support when learning information of such a shocking historical moment. The book offers the reader a way to learn and remember a forgotten past. Tatiana de Rosnay alternates her story between the past and the present. In the present journalist Julia Jarmond discovers the story of Sarah Starzynski, a young French Jewish girl, while researching for an article to cover the 60th anniversary of the roundup.
She discovers that the apartment she is about to move into with her family was once, sixty years ago, the home Sarah had been taken from during the roundup known as “spring breeze”. Julia becomes intrigued to the point of obsession with Sarah’s story and wants to know every aspect of her life, and how it is that the French police were able to do such a horrific thing. Most of the population during the time of the war simply thought, “It’s the French police, no one will harm them…nothing was in the papers… No one seemed preoccupied. So we weren’t either” (68).
Julia later learns that her in-laws, who acquired the apartment after Sarah’s family, knew a lot about the situation yet do not want to talk about it. Having the fictional life of a current woman greatly aids in having the reader relate to Sarah and the historical events; it makes it seem more convincing to have someone like Julia who is researching the subject. Alongside Julia the reader learns more about the life of the Holocaust victims and just how implicated the French people and police were in having many Jews sent to Auschwitz.
We also learn how implicated Julia’s in-laws were in Sarah’s life, this also helps us get a sense of how the general civilians of time have learned to live with what their country had done. “Tears began to trickle down his face… This was no longer my arrogant father-in-law. This was somebody with a secret he had carried within him for years” (157). Seeing these strong emotions strengthens the bond the reader has with these fictional characters that are reliving a very real historical event. It is virtually impossible to conceive the horror of 4,000 abused and murdered children.
However, when we are introduced to a single victim and get to know her, we care very much indeed. The figures of deaths and brutalities are no longer just numbers, the reader feels the pain of Sarah realizing she could not go back and save her brother in the cupboard of her apartment: “Her fear was so great it seemed to engulf her… [she] had promised [her brother she would] come back” (23). Sarah is a fictionalized character that brings a whole rush of emotions to the setting of the story as well as the other characters in it.
It makes those who read this story realize just how powerful a group of people can be, and how important it is to never forget our past. “It is quite amazing the number of French people who still don’t know what happened” (43). DeRosnay uses a sort of modification to a classic flashback by using two different main characters. This is different to many other historically based novels and makes her story that much more unique and intriguing to read. “[Julia] had become obsessed with the Vel’ d’Hiv’ children.
And one child, in particular” (199). It becomes easy for the reader to become wrapped up in Sarah’s predicaments and Julia’s path to discovering them. To some readers the incorporation of Julia’s story does not bring a break from the dense material of Sarah’s story. They rather find that her trivial life problems minimize the historical message apparent at the beginning of the novel. Julia’s personal life litters the plot with insecurities and marital problems that minimize the impact of the historical, yet still fictional story of Sarah.
Sarah’s fate and life that she later lives in America would have offered a different side to the story, without undermining her story or the goal of informing the readers of the French peoples mistakes during the war. Incorporating Julia’s life problems turns the focus away from the travesties of the war and leaves the reader questioning Julia’s fate and future rather than reflecting on the violent acts of the war. The reader could easily fall into a sense of pity for the injustice Julia faces being an American: “Just the sort of thing an American would do.
No respect for the past” (266). The author’s ultimate goal of this book is unclear, although it is most certainly safe to say that having readers finish being more invested in Julia’s story was not her goal. The author mentions that she knew little of the Velodrome d’Hiver and the French roundups; it was considered something of a taboo in her years at school. This book, which can easily be read in a class setting, offers a way to learn about history in a less conventional way. When doing research Julia realizes that “many of the books… were out of print. She] wondered why… Because no one cared anymore? ” (29). Thus although Julia’s life problems may seem insignificant when compared to Sarah’s, her story still helps bring to light certain feelings students or any reader would feel when learning about this history for the first time. Readers can relate with Julia’s frustration of how little is known on the subject, they feel her sadness as well, which is comforting when faced with such a subject. Sarah’s Key would not necessarily be classified as a historical novel. It does however offer historical knowledge evoked through fictional characters.
This makes the information presented seem more relatable and accessible to a greater variety of people, rather than simply displaying the facts of the Holocaust. By including Julia’s story the reader is able to learn at her pace as she writes a piece for her job as a journalist. This is a very plausible situation and helps make Julia’s story all the more realistic, despite being a fictional story. Sarah’s story is also deemed more relatable since it offers an emotional and personal look into a historical time that is often stated in numbers and facts.
Getting to follow Sarah at such a young age brings insight to what children and families were feeling at this time of hysteria. Learning this information can be frustrating for readers since many people know little of the French police’s implications in the roundups. This same frustration is mirrored in Julia, and is another level that the reader is able to connect with. The novel Sarah’s key has proven itself to be a new sort of historical novel that informs and brings a new sense of connection to historical knowledge.
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