Review: The Girl from the Train – Irma Joubert

Irma Joubert. The Girl from the Train. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2015.

This week’s book arrived to me as a complete surprise from the publisher. In all honesty, I’m not sure if I would have picked up the book from a store or library. When it landed on my front porch, it suddenly became a worthwhile book to try. After reading it, I’m certainly thrilled to have the opportunity to share it with all of you!

Irma Joubert’s novel, The Girl from the Train, had been an international bestseller in South Africa and The Netherlands before arriving here in the United States. Translated for the first time into English, the novel is now being released by Thomas Nelson and HarperCollins Christian Publishing. In the midst of World War II, young Gretl Schmidt escapes from a train heading toward Auschwitz. Despite the help of a picture of her German SS soldier and her Lutheran baptismal certificate, Gretl’s Jewish grandmother was her only means of identity. Hiding the truth of her past becomes essential to her survival. On her perilous journey toward safety, she meets Jakob Kowalski, a young Polish man determined to free his country from the grips of other nations. On his family’s farm, Gretl finds a delicate form of shelter, but the war and her hidden identity each continue to touch her life in countless ways. The realities of communism encroach on Gretl’s life, forcing Jakob to send her to an orphanage in Germany with the hopes that she is relocated to the safety of a Christian family in South Africa. After years of ever-changing languages, names, and religious identity, Gretl’s life in Africa seems idyllic. However, she must finally determine for herself who she really is by coming to grips with her unique past.

Overall, The Girl from the Train could be summarized in one word: brilliant! After reading Christian historical fiction and scholarly monographs on related subjects for years, this novel is the first I would distinguish in the rare caliber of literature. Ms. Joubert accomplishes a rare feat in fully engaging her readers with a timeless story of perseverance and faith in the midst of exceptional trial. Additionally, she brings to life the incredible stories of Poland’s Home Army, Germany’s war orphans, and the racial and political persecution that perpetuated the challenges faced by the real-life individuals personified in Gretl’s character. Perhaps of most interest to Christian fiction readers, the novel reveals the fascinating lengths that religious identity played within the period, especially as Gretl is forced to change her affiliations as a result of family, politics, and war to survive. In the moment when Gretl’s South African adopted father denies the existence of the Holocaust, without realizing his own daughter’s heritage or wartime experiences, The Girl from the Train became one of the most compelling books of the year. Personally, I think The Girl from the Train has the potential to be this generation’s answer to Bryce Courtenay’s The Power of One, capturing the human experience and personifying it within a character’s ability to overcome some of history’s greatest challenges.

Fans of Christian historical fiction, especially as related to the Second World War and European history, will find The Girl from the Train to be an absolutely fascinating read. In comparison to many other World War II-era works being recently released, I found the writing, historical research, and overall development of the characters to be much more complex and compelling. That advantage may lead some readers to consider the novel to be more dense and challenging to read than other books in the genre. Personally, I believe that this book is well worth that effort and should be considered one of the finest books of the year!

Special thanks to Thomas Nelson and the Fiction Guild for the advanced copy of The Girl from the Train!

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