The Winter Guest
Harlequin MIRA / August 26, 2014 / $14.95 print & digital
Life is a constant struggle for the eighteen-year-old Nowak twins as they raise their three younger siblings in rural Poland under the shadow of the Nazi occupation. The constant threat of arrest has made everyone in their village a spy, and turned neighbor against neighbor. Though rugged, independent Helena and pretty, gentle Ruth couldn't be more different, they are staunch allies in protecting their family from the threats the war brings closer to their doorstep with each passing day.
Then Helena discovers an American paratrooper stranded outside their small mountain village, wounded, but alive. Risking the safety of herself and her family, she hides Sam—a Jew—but Helena's concern for the American grows into something much deeper. Defying the perils that render a future together all but impossible, Sam and Helena make plans for the family to flee. But Helena is forced to contend with the jealousy her choices have sparked in Ruth, culminating in a singular act of betrayal that endangers them all—and setting in motion a chain of events that will reverberate across continents and decades.
Since her debut novel, 2007’s The Kommandant’s Girl, Pam Jenoff has wowed audiences with her intense and heartfelt World War II romantic fiction. In this latest release, Jenoff combines intrigue, mystery, and sibling rivalry to deliver a thrilling perspective on how the past affects the present.
Our story begins with a warning:
“They’re coming around again,” Cookies says in a hushed voice. “Knocking on doors and asking questions.” I do not answer, but nod as a tightness forms in my throat.
This is where we meet Helena, now a resident of Westchester Senior Center but once a member of a struggling family in Biekowice, Poland. She is alone, but her memories sustain her, especially those of twin sister Ruth. She has no desire to share her story from many years ago with the eager reporters who roam the halls of the home hoping to capture all the experiences of the past before the generation that lived through it is gone. But when the knock comes it is not staff or reporters that appear at Helena’s door but the police:
“Mrs. Nowak?” the policeman asks. The name slaps me across the cheek like a cold cloth. “No,” I blurt.
“Your maiden name was Nowak, wasn’t it?” the woman presses gently. I try to place how old she might be. Her low, dishwater ponytail is girlish, but there are faint lines at the corners of her eyes, suggesting years behind her. There is a kind of guardedness that I recognize from myself, a haunted look that says she has known grief. . .
“Some human bones have been found at a development site near Biekowice,” she says. “And we think you might know something about them.”
And with that, Helena plunges sixty years into the past, when she and her siblings lived on the outskirts of a small village, a place seemingly safe from the war even while it struggled with the deprivations caused by what was going on in the greater world. That safety changes one icy morning when Helena begins her weekly trek to visit her mother at the hospital and finds Nazis on the road. She makes it past them by sticking to the woods along the outside of the street but determines to circumvent them on her way home by taking the high pass over the mountain. This choice marks the whole rest of our story as Helena’s discovery along that quiet, forested area changes the course of many lives forever:
Beneath a scraggly pine tree there was a lump, too long to be an animal, huddled in a pile of leaves. As she neared, the air grew thick with the metallic smell of blood. She pushed aside the branches, then stopped with surprise. A man lay on his side, almost hidden by the leaves. He didn’t move but his torso rose and fell with labored breaths.
The man is an American soldier and being caught aiding him would bring the death penalty. Helena assists anyway, but trouble comes not just from expected quarters but unexpected when the sibling rivalry that has always simmered between her and Ruth comes to the forefront as they find themselves in an odd competition for love, a competition that had always been a part of their lives:
“Jealous, even as a baby,” their mother had remarked of Helena more than once over the years. “You would give me such a look when I held your sister instead of you.”
I wasn’t jealous, Helena had wanted to respond later, when she was old enough to understand. I just wanted to be held, too, to be a part of things before you had to set us down and move on to the next task or chore.
The soldier’s arrival seems to highlight the differences in the sisters; Helena, strong and practical, who has taken the place of their father as hunter and provider and sweet, homemaker Ruth:
It should have been Ruth here, Helena reflected. She had always been closer to Mama, sitting at their mother’s side, learning with rapt attention how to cook and sew while thick-fingered Helena followed Tata into the woods, gathering kindling and roots.
Even the villagers seem to sense the difference, remarking on it in regards to their appearance:
“The pretty one," she’d heard people remark more than once about Ruth – but how was that possible when they were twins and meant to look just the same?
Their approach to love is different as well, as highlighted by what Helena thinks after she first meets Sam:
Her heart skipped as she remembered the bit of pale flesh that she glimpsed through the fabric. Enough, she admonished herself. This was not a schoolgirl’s crush, like Ruth always seemed to have on various boys when they were younger – this was about the soldier’s survival.
The rivalry between the two sisters adds a delicious tension to a situation already fraught with peril. As the police and Germans arrive in their small village looking for the fallen plane and the downed Americans, Helena finds herself torn between keeping Sam safe and protecting her family. Ruth finds herself torn between her love for her sister and her own desire for love. And Sam finds himself torn between passion and duty.
Rich in historical detail and offering a fascinating glimpse into one family’s struggle to survive a desperate situation, The Winter Guest looks deep into the human spirit to show us triumph in the midst of tragedy. Fans of Pam Jenoff will not be disappointed in this gripping, intense tale of love blooming under the most unlikely of circumstances.
Learn more or order a copy of The Winter Guest by Pam Jenoff, out August 26, 2014:
Maggie Boyd, blogger, reviewer, avid reader