Monday, June 5, 2017

Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin

"Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard."

Almost Autumn is a story about the plight of a Jewish family in German occupied Norway during the Second World War.

Fifteen-year-old Ilse Stern is completely infatuated with Hermann Rod. Hermann and Ilse have lived next door to each other all their lives, in apartments with their respective families, on the third floor of a tenement building, number ten Biermanns gate, in Grunerlokka, Norway. In the summer, Ilse would sit on the bench beneath the lilac tree in the back yard in the summer waiting for Hermann to emerge from the their tenement building. They would often sit together, laughing and talking. One day Hermann reveals to Ilse that he is beginning an apprenticeship with an artist because he wants to.

It is now autumn, October 1942. Ilse manages to sneak out of her home without her parents knowing after their noon meal. Her sisters, eighteen-year-old Sonja and five-year-old Miriam are at Torshovdalen Park. Ilse plans to meet Herman to go to the movies. A few days earlier in the stairwell of their tenement building, Hermann showed her two tickets and asked her to meet him "at the pictures on Saturday, five o'clock... Row seven, seats eight and nine."

Wanting to impress Hermann, Ilse wears her light summer dress, "the white one with red polka dots that Sonja sewed for her" to the theatre. She waits with great anticipation for Hermann but he doesn't show. Her neighbour from the fourth floor, Ole Rustad sees her and questions her. Ilse waits through two shows and returns home, upset that Hermann did not come.

Hermann has told both Ilse and his father that he is apprenticing as a painter in Frogner. Ilse seemed excited but his father was angry. On the day Hermann planned to go to the movies with Ilse, he walked all the way to Frogner to the apartment of Einar Vindju. However, Einar is not just an artist. He is working with the resistance, forging papers and helping people on their journey to Sweden. Together they listen to the English broadcast on the wireless and take notes. After each visit to Einar's apartment, Hermann takes home a painting that Einar has prepared so that his story about learning to paint appears to be valid.

Over the summer Ilse has been working for her father Isak, helping him in his tailor shop on Osterhaus' gate. Isak's father was a tailor like his father, grand-father and ancestors had been. Her older sister Sonja also works in the shop. Business is bad and they have very little stock to use. Every day Isak arrives at his shop early to scrub the shop windows of the racist graffiti written on them each night so his daughters will know how bad things have become. Although he tries to be friendly, fewer and fewer customers come to the shop. He is losing money and eventually will have to close. Other Jews in Oslo are also experiencing the same things; customers who have left and articles in the newspapers blaming the Jews for everything. This situation led Isak to go to the bank in the summer and withdraw all his money and empty the safety deposit box.

Sonja has been staying late at the shop to work on a project. She intends to get hired as a seamstress at the National Theater. Her friend Helene who works there, has suggested that Sonja apply and bring a sample costume. This is what Sonja is working on. If she gets hired, she will be able to afford her own apartment and earn he own money. Her meeting with Mr. Ostli goes well and she is hired for December 1st. However, Sonja decides to keep this a secret from her parents for now.

While Sonja is planning for her future, and her father is simply trying to keep his business going, Ilse is trying to figure out her relationship with Hermann who has apologized for standing her up and who invites her to go skiing. But when their father is taken away by the police, their shop closed and their mother required to report each day to the police station, Ilse's life is forever changed.


Almost Autumn tells the story of a Jewish family living in Grunerlokka, a district in Oslo during the autumn of 1942. At this time Norway is under German occupation and life for Jews is becoming increasingly restrictive.  Kaurin tells her story from several points of view; that of Ilse Stern, her father Isak, her older sister Sonja, her boyfriend Hermann and the taxi-driver, Ole.

Although the novel is about two specific events, the rounding up of Jewish males over the age of fifteen on October 26, 1942  and the rounding up of Jewish women and children exactly a month later and the deportation of Norwegian Jews to Auschwitz, it is also a story that explores the role of chance in life.

Isak Stern has been thinking about escaping to Sweden with his family, yet he delays, a decision that will cost him and most of his family their lives. He withdraws all their money and valuables from the bank in the summer and he begins to consider leaving for Sweden. Yet he hesitates. "How would Hannah react to such a suggestions? Would she consider it, putting the girls through it; would he, for that matter? He doesn't know how to go about it, where to begin, who to contact...He needs to think it through, properly evaluate the situation before he involves Hanna in his plans."  When the police come for Isak, he thinks, "He was too late. It is the only thought that runs through his head. Too late. If only he had made a decision, if only he had known just how little time he had at his disposal, he would have done what was needed. The could have crossed the border to neutral Sweden by now, if only he had followed through on his plans. He even had a name; for days he had contemplated contacting a man by the name of E. Vindju in Frogner. But he hadn't, and now it was too late, they had gotten to him first."
Isak's decision results in their family being arrested, placed on a boat and then taken by train to Auschwitz where his wife and daughters are gassed and he works in the camp. He never returns. A decision, delayed becomes fatal.

Sonja goes to visit a friend and learns from a neighbour that it is likely they have fled to Sweden. Sonja mulls this over but doesn't act on it. "What should she say when she gets back in, should she tell the others that Marie and her mother have fled to Sweden, what would they make of it all, would they start considering doing the same thing?...Sonja decides to tell the others that Marie and her mother weren't at home when she called. It is the truth, after all. She will mull over the Sweden thing itself, maybe mention it to Ilse. They can take some time to consider it, look into it again in a little while." Delaying just as her father did turns out to be fatal for Sonja and her sister and mother.

Even Hermann is affected by a sort of paralysis. Einar wants him to speak to Ilse about leaving Norway. But somehow Hermann can't seem to. "...he would have loved to have said yes, that he had spoken to her, that they were ready, that all there was left to do was to set things in motion. He wished he were more efficient, that he spoke with clarity and conviction, but the walls here, the walls at home, the air outside, he couldn't breathe, there was something there, pressing in on him all the time..." Later on when he and Ilse go for a walk through Birkelunden Park, he still can't bring himself to suggest to her that she and her family need to leave, that they might have to leave everything behind.

Hermann's determination to take Ilse skiing and their impulsive decision to stay overnight in a cabin in the woods ends up saving her life. When the Nazis arrive to take her family, Ilse is not there. This one event, totally by chance, gives Ilse the opportunity to escape and as it also turns out Hermann happens to work for the resistance which means she is able to flee immediately to a safe house.

Kaurin makes her readers consider the possibilities if some of the characters had acted sooner. What if Isak had reached out earlier in the summer and found Einar's name then? What if Sonja had come home that night and told her mother that her friend had escaped to Sweden and pushed her to consider this option. What if Ilse had been home when the Nazi's came for her family? What if Hermann had spoken to Ilse earlier in the fall?

The overarching theme of the novel is autumn and its characteristic as a season of change or transition from the beauty of summer to the bleakness of winter. Each character feels this in their own way. For Hermann he feels he can't possibly become involved with Ilse because of his dangerous work with the resistance: "But now, now it is autumn and everything has changed. It won't work, not now, he has enough to keep on top of..."
Ilse thinks too about autumn. She feels autumn spells a change but when what she expects - her relationship with Hermann blossoming- doesn't happen she wonders if winter will bring the change, a foreshadowing of the terrible events to come. "Everything starts this autumn, she suddenly thinks. So stupid. Does anything ever start with autumn, really? Autumn brings darkness, quiet, rest, death, trees lose their leaves and the earth grows hard. In a week it will be November...Maybe the snow will come soon...And maybe, just maybe, things are different from what she had thought. Maybe everything starts with the first snow."

Kaurin uses foreshadowing in her novel. In autumn, Ilse is convinced that something is about to change. While waiting for Hermann at the beginning of the novel Ilse thinks, "Everything starts this autumn. Something is waiting for her; someone is waiting for her. " Later on she has a dream in which she is standing knee-deep in snow, cold. "She can see the others; soft and blurred, vague figures in the white landscape, wrapped up well against the weather. Mum, Dad, Sonja, and Miriam. She calls out to them, tells them to stop, to wait for her. They can't hear her, they don't turn around. They continue to walk away from her, toward a faint, yellowish light that looks like a fire in the process of dying. She watches them walk away, until she can no longer see them and they vanish into a thick, steamy smog."  Ilse's dream is a foreshadowing of her family's deportation to Auschwitz and their deaths.

Kaurin truly captures the terror and confusion Ilse and her family feel in occupied Norway and she also very realistically portrays the horror of the deportation of Ilse's family along with hundreds of other Norwegian Jews. Sonja's narratives are especially heartbreaking as she does not know that she and her family are being taken to their deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. From Isak's perspective he too doesn't know that his family has been murdered and that he will die.

Almost Autumn is a heartbreaking story of one girl's coming of age during the holocaust and the loss she endures. Beautifully written, capturing the paralyzing fear under Nazi occupation, the novel ends with the hopeful message that love endures. 

Book Details:

Almost Autumn by Marianne Kaurin (translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger)
New York: Arthur A. Levine Books     2017
278 pp.

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