Sunday, July 24, 2016

Stones On A Grave by Kathy Kacer

Stones On A Grave is part of a series of seven books authored by various Canadian writers for young teens. The series, known as the Secrets, can be read in any order. An orphanage, known as The Benevolent Home For Necessitous Girls burns to the ground in June of 1964, leaving all its residents homeless. The younger girls are sent to various families, but the seven oldest girls, Dot, Malou, Sara, Tess, Cady, Toni and Betty are each given information about their past and told they must now make their own way in the world. Their stories are the basis for the seven novels in the series.

Stones On A Grave tells Sara's story. It begins the night of the terrible fire at the orphanage in the town of Hope. Sarah and the rest of the girls who live there make it safely out of the fire. Sara manages to grab her tin box holding her savings. Their matron, Mrs. Hazelton and their teacher, Miss Webster also make it out. The girls are taken to the church where they are told by Miss Webster that because the fire has totally destroyed the orphanage, no one will be able to return and that plans are being made to help each of the girls. The girls spend the night sleeping on the pews of the town church.

The next morning Sara, who is the oldest of the girls at eighteen, decides to go to her job at Loretta's, a diner where she's worked for the past few years. Normally Loretta's wouldn't be open on a Sunday but the owner, Mrs. Clifford has opened the restaurant to those who helped with the fire. When she sees Sara, Mrs. Clifford is shocked and tells her she can manage fine if she needs to take some time off. However Sara wants to work as it keeps her from worrying about what the future holds for her.

Sara's boyfriend Luke comes to the diner. Sara met him a few months ago when she went to the garage where he works to put air in her bicycle tires. Luke noticing her that day made Sara feel special. Mrs. Clifford doesn't like Luke however and questions him about whether he was involved in the orphanage fire. She also tells him she heard that he's been harassing Malou, one of the seven older girls at the orphanage. Luke denies this and Sara refuses to believe what Mrs. Clifford has said, but when Malou arrives at the diner, he ridicules her in front of Sara.

After work Sara goes to see Mrs. Hazelton at her cottage near the orphanage. Each of the girls has come to meet privately with her and Sara is anxious, wondering what Mrs. Hazelton will tell her. Mrs. Hazelton hands Sara two envelopes; the first contains a document from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation that lists information about her birth. Sara learns that she was born in Fohrenwald, Germany, that her mother's name is Karen Frankel and that she is Jewish. Mrs. Hazelton tells Sara that Fohrenwald was a camp for Jewish refugees who survived the Holocaust. She tells Sara that her mother was imprisoned in a concentration camp which was liberated at the end of the war. Her mother contracted tuberculosis which was passed on the Sara. The second document is a medical certificate clearing Sara for travel to Canada and was signed by Gunther Pearlman, a German doctor. Mrs. Hazelton has no information on Sara's father nor how Sara ended up coming to Canada. However, she wants to help Sara as she starts her new life and gives her an envelope containing money to help her get started.

This new information and her conversation with Mrs. Hazelton make Sara realize that in order to face her future she needs to discover her past. And to do that she needs to travel to Germany. It is a journey that will uncover her past and help her plot her course for the future.


Stones on a Grave is a well written, high interest, easy read for those who enjoy historical fiction and mystery. The novel is set in the mid-1960's and explores the aftermath of the Holocaust on Germans and those who survived the war. When Sara arrives in Germany she finds Dr. Pearlman initially helpful until she reveals her identity and tells him about her mother. The doctor becomes angry and refuses any further help. Kacer portrays a country struggling to come to terms with what happened and determined to try to forget. The older characters, for example Dr. Pearlman and Frau Klein, who lived through the war, do not want to talk about what happened and do not wish to remember. However, Peter, who represents a new generation of Jewish Germans becomes determined to help Sara uncover her family history. Frustrated at the lack of help she is receiving from Germans, Sara wonders Peter also attempts to explain to Sara the question many people asked themselves after the war, "How could the German people not know what was going on?"

At times some of the plot twists seem contrived, such as when Hedda Kaufmann decides against the rules to help Sara and also when by amazing coincidence she knew Sara's mother. Readers will probably quickly realize the real identity of Gunther Pearlman and also how Sara's mother became pregnant. One aspect of this novel that is particularly well done is Kacer's treatment of the war crime of rape and how it can affect the family of the victim.  Sara learns from Frau Kauffman at the International Tracing Center that her father was not her mother's husband, Simon Frankel but a Nazi soldier who raped her mother in the concentration camp. When Sara first learns this fact about herself, she is very distraught. She flees the center, her mind racing with questions. "How was it that she had traveled all this way to find out about her family only to discover that her father -- her father -- was a Nazi guard? What did that even mean? Was she part Nazi? And what part had come from him? The anger? The irritation? The blue eyes? It was almost too much to imagine."  Sara believes that this is why her mother gave her up, that looking at her meant remembering the rape. Sara decides to leave Germany immediately, regretting seeking out her past.The next day while waiting for Peter, Sara tells Dr. Pearlman that she discovered the truth about her past and that her mother "...must have thought I was a monster."

When Dr. Pearlman, who is Sara's grandfather, realizes how this tragedy is affecting his granddaughter, he decides to reveal the truth to her. He tells her that in fact, while "We were all afraid to look at you, knowing where and how you were conceived" her mother gazed at her with "pure love." "Those first few days after she was hospitalized, she wouldn't let you go. She held on to you as if together you could give each other strength to heal. Even as she grew weaker and we tried to pry you from her arms she still refused to let you go..."  The realization that her mother truly loved her helps Sara come to terms with the fact that she was born from an act of violence and to begin to accept that she is NOT her father. A moving letter from Frau Kauffman about her mother, makes Sara understand that there is much of her mother in her. Like her mother she is spirited and like her mother she dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Frau Kauffman's entreaty that she take what little she knows about her mother and be inspired pushes Sara past her anger and grief towards acceptance.

"Everything was becoming clearer to her. Yes, she would carry the man who had raped her mother somewhere inside her. Every time she looked into a mirror, stared at her blue eyes, she would be reminded of her roots. But she knew now that she was not him, and never would be. She would live her life trying to prove that."

Kacer does incorporate some interesting historical facts into her story. One example is Bad Arolsen, a town in northern Germany where documents from the war have been stored in a special center. Bad Arolsen is the location of the International Tracing Service which was begun in 1946 after the war to locate missing people and reunite them with their families and to let others know the fate of their loved ones. The Nazis kept detailed records of who was sent where. The names of Jews, what concentration camp they were sent to, how and when they died, or if they survived what displaced persons camp they were sent to was recorded in an effort to reunite survivors. Its vast archives were only made available to the public in 2007.   The English website may be found at International Tracing Service.

The book takes its title Stones on a Grave from the Jewish custom of placing stones on a grave.This ancient tradition is explained by Peter as follows: "Well, flowers disappear quickly. The belief is that stones last forever, just like the memory you hold of the one who has died."

Overall Stones on a Grave is a touching story about a young woman who learns the truth about her past and her struggle to come to terms with it. Part of the Secrets series conceived by Eric Walters, this novel is a good read for younger teens. It's unfortunate the cover design, like many good Canadian novels, is unimaginative at best.

Book Details:

Stones on a Grave by Kathy Kacer
Victoria: Orca Book Publishers      2015
213 pp.

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