Sunday, March 31, 2019

In Another Time by Caroline Leech

Seventeen-year-old Margaret (Maisie) McCall wanted to take control of her life.She was too young to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force or the Auxiliary Territorial Service but she was able to volunteer for the Women's Timber Corps. The WTC was formed to obtain wood from Scotland's forests. The German blockade in the Atlantic and the enlisting of the foresters has meant both a shortage of wood and lumberjacks.

Maisie is now two weeks into her six weeks of WTC training as a lumberjill at Sandford Lodge under the direction of Miss Cradditch. The training isn't easy; Maisie has blistered and bloody palms from wielding four-and-a-half-pound axes, six pound axes, crosscut saws, hauling chains and cant hooks. Her feet are blistered and her shoulders ache. Maisie's friend Dorothy (Dot) Thompson, shorter and slighter, is struggling to master the forestry skills Mr. McRobbie is teaching them.

That evening, Maisie, Dot and the other WTC recruits attend a dance at the Brechin Town Hall. The evening becomes more interesting with the arrival of a group of men, whom the women believe are American service men. Maisie receives an awkward invitation to dance from a handsome, dark-haired man named John Lindsay. John notices Maisie's wounded hands and tells her to use pig fat to heal the blisters, showing her his own scars.  John is reluctant to dance but relents. Their attempt to dance is disastrous, with John stumbling and stepping on Maisie and eventually rushing out the door, leaving Maisie embarrassed and the center of jokes by the lumberjills.

During their final chopping lesson with Mr. McRobbie, Maisie finally finds her rhythim, but her friend Dot struggles on. Even learning to drive seems beyond Dot, who scares their instruction, Mr. Taylor. To finish out their training, Maisie and Dot and the other recruits visit Mitchell's Sawmill in Tannadice to learn how to feed large tree trunks in the table and routing saws. Their day is marred however when one of the women, Lillian is badly cut by a saw. Dot discovers her calling when she calmly administers first aid to Lillian who is taken to hospital.

When their training is complete, the new lumberjills receive their assignments. Helen and Phyllis are posted in Perthshire, Mary, Mairi and Cynthia are sent to Ad camp near Grantown-on-Spey, while Dot and Maisie are sent to the WTC camp at Auchterblair, Carrbridge, Inverness-Shire. Before she leaves for the camp, Maisie decides to send a postcard to her family, letting them know about her posting. Maisie's parents had not been happy that she'd signed up for the WTC. Her mother was upset that she'd chosen not to finish her schooling and her father was very angry, viewing Maisie as abandoning them. Only Maisie's younger sister Beth, almost sixteen, had been supportive, wanting to walk her to the bus stop.

 At Auchterblair while out on a walk to calm herself after a mean-spirited letter from her father, Maisie has a surprise encounter with John Lindsay. Maisie discovers John sitting by an abandoned croft, smoking a cigarette. He reveals to her that he is not American but a Canadian with the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit at Cambridge. It turns out that John McCrae, author of the poem In Flanders Field is John's uncle and who he was named after. Like his famous uncle, John writes poetry, some of which he shares with Maisie, lending her his uncle's book of poems.

Maisie and the other lumberjills along with the NOFU's travel to Inverness for a dance, stopping at the La Scala Cinema to view a newsreel of the Women's Timber Corps that was filmed by Pathe News. The dance at the Caledonian Hotel Ballroom turns into a disaster when Violet gets drunk. She confronts John Lindsay mocking him for not dancing. Horrified at what has happened, Maisie confronts John outside the dance hall. He reveals to her that he is missing part of his right leg and that he was reluctant to tell her earlier because he felt she would view him differently and treat him as though he care for himself.

Maisie tells John that this does not change how she feels about him, but when she intervenes in a fight between John and a drunken sailor, he becomes enraged, telling her he doesn't need a woman to protect him. As the days pass, Maisie struggles to work through her own conflicted feelings over John. Does she really think differently about John, does she treat him as though he can't do anything for himself?

When John and his friend Elliott are injured in a terrible forestry accident, Maisie and John are forced to confront these issues and either resolve them or forever lose each other.


In Another Time is a historical fiction novel set in the Inverness area of northern Scotland during World War II. The main character in the novel is Maisie McCall, a young Scottish woman who joins the Women's Timber Corps against her family's wishes. Maisie falls in love with John Lindsay,  a young Canadian man who is a member of the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit working in Scotland.Although the two are definitely attracted to one another and there are tender moments, their relationship often fraught with misunderstanding and difficulties. Maisie comes to learn this is because John is recovering from devastating physical and psychological wounds acquired during the evacuation of Dunkirk and because he blames himself for the death of his two best friends, Walter Clarkson and Lofty McGinnis who saved his life. The tension between the two of them and how they manage to come to an understanding, forms the main story line.

A subplot involves Maisie's strained relationship with her mother and father, leading her to leave home prematurely to join the lumberjills.  The climax of the story, which sees John and another lumberjack seriously injured in a forestry accident, sets Maisie on the path to resolving this conflict when her mother travels to the hospital, demonstrating that she really does care for Maisie. At this point her mother explains how events in the past led to the current problems in their family and the two women come to an understanding.

With John however, the process takes longer. He gradually opens up to Maisie after the accident, explaining how he lost his leg, but also revealing the guilt he has over what he believes is the certain fate of his two friends.  It is only when he seeks help in dealing with his war trauma that he is able to move forward, forgive himself and be able to open his heart to Maisie.

The setting of the novel, within the Women's Timber Corps offers readers a chance to learn about a little known and only recently recognized contribution to the British/Canadian war effort. The Women's Timber Corps was formed to replace the foresters who had enlisted in the British army. Almost five thousand women joined the WTC doing tasks such as felling trees, snedding, driving tractors and trucks, working sawmills and living in very basic accommodations. Their war contribution was not fully recognized until recently; they never marched in Armistice parades nor were there separate wreaths acknowledging their effort. But in 2007 that changed with the installation of the Women's Timber Corps Memorial at the Lodge Forest Visitor Centre near Aberfoyle in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park.

Leech's Author's Note at the back of the novel is detailed, offering some supplementary information on several historical aspects of her story including the Women's Timber Corps, the NOFU, Pathe News, some information about the Halifax 100 - a group of Canadian soldiers who were at Dunkirk, and the evacuation of Dunkirk. Leech notes that "As a historical novelist, I place my fictional characters in a world of historical fact. My stories are not so much what did happen but what could have happened in a particular time and place." This does seem to be the author's intent in including a lesbian relationship in the novel. While it's obvious that same sex relationships have existed throughout history, they were not openly tolerated and for centuries were outlawed. In 1940's Scotland, such relationships were illegal and attitudes like Maisie's were likely not the norm. In this regard, In Another Time presents a perspective that is revisionist and influenced by our post-modern world.

Maisie is a solid lead character, showing determination, grit, and courage. She stands up to her parents who want her to remain at home, to Violet Dunlavy who bullies the other lumberjills and to John Lindsay whose self-pity and inner struggles to overcome his guilt threaten to overwhelm Maisie. John Lindsay is a character filled with conflict; he has guilt over surviving Dunkirk, struggles to live up to his uncle, John McCrae - the legendary poet and physician-surgeon's reputation. He must deal with both being an amputee and suffering from post-traumatic stress, all the while working as a lumberjack - a feat that would seem very difficult indeed given the state of prosthetics in the 1940's. In true romantic novel fashion, John, who finds he can't live without Maisie,  ends up getting himself well enough to propose to Maisie and they return to Canada to live happily ever after. Given all of John's deep-rooted problems, it's not very realistic, but the Harlequin romance - like formula works.

In Another Time is a story about friendship, loss, redemption and first love.  Author Caroline Leech is the author of another historical fiction novel, Wait For Me.

Book Details:

In Another Time by Caroline Leech
New York: HarperTeen    2018
361 pp.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker

It is 1983 and seventeen-year-old Lena Altmann lives in the Better Germany, in the borough of Lichtenberg,  East Berlin, with her Aunt Adelheid. Lena's parents died in a factory accident at the freight car factory in Magdegurg where they had lived, when she was fourteen. Before the accident Lena was a good student, earning recognition for Enthusiasm in Handicrafts. However, her life changed drastically after the accident: Lena had a mental breakdown and was sent to a hospital to recover. She never returned to school despite her dream of continuing her education and her desire to become a nurse or work with children. Instead, she now works as a night janitor at Stasi headquarters, a place Berliners refer to as the House of One Thousand Eyes.

As soon as anyone learns of Lena's job, the conversation always changes, as if "...she was a giant microphone, recording everything and then running back to headquarters with secret information about who was reading the wrong books or receiving packages from Western relatives."

On Sundays Lena visits her mother's brother, her Uncle Erich who lives in the neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg. On her latest visit to Uncle Erich, who is a writer and who has been in trouble before, he asks Lena if she still has the keys to his apartment and makes the strange remark that his freezer may need defrosting. Lena has a copy of every single book her Uncle Erich has written including his well known, Castles Underground. While visiting him, his neighbour, Steffi arrives to warn Erich that he's not safe, and that the State Security Service (Stasi) are coming. Although Uncle Erich brushes off Steffi's concerns he  gives her his notebooks for safekeeping, warning that she too will have to be careful.

After her visit, Lena wonders if her uncle is in trouble. Later that night, she sneaks out of the house and travels to his apartment. Hiding in the shadows she witnesses a flower van outside his apartment and a man who is not Erich leaning out of the window. Another van arrives and all of Erich's possessions, his typewriter, books, suitcases and notebooks are removed from the apartment. A man in a Lada is stationed outside, watching the apartment. Lena believes he's waiting for Erich to return home so she heads to the pub he frequents to warn him, but he isn't there and no one has seen him.

Lena returns home, sleeping in and forgetting to get meat at the shop the next morning. After helping her neighbours, Peter and Danika, on the project to beautify their apartment courtyard, Lena heads to work. Lena's partner at the Stasi compound on Normannenstrasse is Jutta, an older woman who asks every Monday about Lena's visit to her Uncle Erich. Lena and Jutta each have their own floors to clean. Lena dreads cleaning her floor because of Bruno Drechsler, who forces her to commit sex acts every night she works and whom she calls Herr Dreck which means filth.  In the morning after work, Lena and Jutta go to House 1 where they are able to get Western foods that are brought in just for the Stasi staff.

Lena decides to visit Uncle Erich's apartment only to discover it is now occupied by a strange man named Friedrich who insists he has lived there for the past five years. At first Lena believes her uncle has run away.However, Lena's thinking begins to change as she makes several discoveries. The first is the discovery that someone has searched through her bedroom, removing her hidden pictures of Uncle Erich. Then Lena unexpectedly encounters Steffi, who believes that Lena reported her uncle. She tells Lena, "There is no Erich anymore." and advises her that she shouldn't go looking for him or asking about him. At home Lena discovers Erich's books, hidden under her mattress are also gone.  When she tells her aunt, Lena is told she doesn't have an uncle and that there were no books under her mattress. Her aunt tells her she must accept that he has gone.

Lena's efforts to prove to herself that her Uncle Erich did exist prove fruitless. At the library there are no copies of his books. However when she finds a picture of Marilyn Monroe that Uncle Erich let her cut from his magazine,  in her sweater pocket, Lena knows he did exist and she finds herself awakening from her struggle to believe.

From this point on Lena is determined to learn what has happened to her beloved Uncle Erich. It is a journey that will lead her to take risks that are so dangerous she is re-committed to the asylum. But along the way, Lena discovers an inner strength that allows her to face her abuser, and help another person escape to West Germany.


The House of One Thousand Eyes, its title a reference to the nickname given to the headquarters of the Stasi, paints a picture of life under the repressive communist government in East Berlin. The city of Berlin, capital of Germany was divided into two (initially four zones immediately after the war) after the fall of Germany during World War II. West Berlin which was controlled by the Allies eventually became part of the Federal Republic of Germany while East Berlin which had been under Soviet control became part of the German Democratic Republic or East Germany. This was in spite of the fact that the city of Berlin itself lay within East Germany. In 1961 the Berlin Wall, called the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart by the communist East Germany was constructed within hours, to stop the drain of young, educated Germans especially professionals and skilled workers to West Berlin and to the FRG.

Closed off from the West, life in East Berlin became increasingly intolerable: the people in the city were expected to follow all the communist party rules and they were often spied on by their fellow citizens. Cameras and hidden microphones were also used spy on people. Anyone copying Western trends in fashion, music or culture was deemed subversive.  The Stasi kept file cards on millions of East Germans. Despite the barbed wire, guards, concrete walls and soldiers guarding the Berlin Wall, many still tried to escape to the West.

The communist world of East Berlin provides the setting for the story told in  The House of One Thousand Eyes. Lena Altmann is recovering from a mental breakdown after the death of her parents in an industrial accident.  Now living with her aunt who has connections in the communist party, Lena is employed as a cleaner at the Stasi headquarters. Lena doesn't much like her aunt but she does love her aunt's brother, her Uncle Erich who is a writer and who has worked in the mines and who shares her love of Western culture and "yeah, yeah, yeah music". When Uncle Erich disappears, Lena believes he has been taken away and she becomes determined to learn his fate.

His disappearance seems to awaken Lena from the stupor she has experienced since the death of her parents. To protect herself and to help her cope with her loss, Lena had built a wall in her mind, but this wall was making it difficult for her to recognize reality. When she had been in the hospital she had to build this wall, by co-operating with the doctors as Uncle Erich had secretly advised her, so she would be discharged. Lena had put a part of herself to sleep, "And that part had slept so well it had forgotten to wake up -- until last week." 

Although Lena has been told by her aunt that she is "simple", her actions show that she is anything but. Just as her Uncle Erich incorporated "another story underneath, humming like a machine" into his surface story when he wrote, Lena, in her bedroom, hides the pictures she really wants beneath pictures deemed acceptable by the communist government. So Uncle Erich's picture hides beneath that of Erich Honecker, the General Secretary and Comrade General Erich Mielke, head of the Stasi.

Lena's awakening leads her to quickly realize that she has been tricked into being an informer on her Uncle Erich -  a thought that sickens her. The discovery of the bug in the table in the ashtray room, the fact that Lena had been hired to work at the Stasi headquarters despite having a subversive relative, the questions by Jutta about Erich and the fact that she had been allowed to continue visiting her uncle, are all proof of this. This emboldens her to use this knowledge to her advantage. She remembers her uncle's strange remark about his freezer needing defrosting and boldly enters his apartment at great risk to retrieve whatever is hidden there.

One risk leads to another, a phone call from the Stasi office to a West leads to more horrific abuse by Herr Dreck. Lena meets with Herr Gunter Schulmann and agrees to try to uncover what her Uncle had discovered and why the factory her parents were working in was making ammunition in secret.  Lena courage transforms her into a person of action, willingly to take big risks to uncover the truth about her life in East Berlin and to help a friend escape. However, in the end, the Stasi machine with its death grip on life in the city proves too much and Lena finds herself entangled.

Barker manages to portray many of the evils of socialism in her novel in particular the lack of freedom of speech and of association. These freedoms are so restricted that Lena is even afraid of her own thoughts, building a wall to keep out those inner "subversive" thoughts. Readers can see how living in such a totalitarian environment might  make someone afraid of their thoughts, given how the state punishes those who are "subversive". As Lena becomes more aware of her surroundings, she begins to re-evaluate people who appear to be normal, like the blind man in the train station, who she now doubts is truly blind. The author captures the extensive propaganda that East German citizens were subjected to by the state as well. This is especially captured in the conversation between Gunter Schulmann and Lena when they meet for the first time. For example, Lena believes her country is a peaceful one, only to learn from Herr Schulmann that they are building weapons.

Although there have been several historical fiction novels about the Berlin Wall and life in East Berlin for young adults, The House of One Thousand Eyes manages to accurately portray life in East Berlin. However, this novel does contain several brief descriptions of sexual abuse and oral sex that will be disturbing to young teens. For this reason, this book is not recommended for young teens. It is questionable as to why the author included the issue of sexual abuse in a novel that has many, many other themes to explore.

Book Details:

The House of One Thousand Eyes by Michelle Barker
Toronto: Annick Press   2018
340 pp.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Ada's Violin by Susan Hood

Their story has been told in the documentary, Fillharmonic, and in countless newspapers, magazine articles and even on television. It is a story about resiliency, determination, creativity. Ada's Violin, tells the story of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay in a picture book for younger readers.

In Ada's Violin,  Ada Rios lives in Cateuna, a town on a landfill near Asuncion, Paraguay. Every day fifteen hundred tons of trash are dumped at the landfill. The gancheros (recyclers) use long-handled hooks to rip open the bags of trash in the hopes of finding something to sell.

Ada and her younger sister Noelia were cared for by their abuela, Grandmother Mirian while their parents worked. Her abuela loved to sing and Ada's father often told them stories about famous musicians. As Ada and her sister grew up and began attending school, their abuela returned to work as a recycler. Ada began to notice that many of the teenagers with nothing to do, joined gangs or got into trouble.

When Ada was eleven-years-old, her abuela saw a sign offering music lessons on Saturdays by music teacher, Favio Chavez. She saw the opportunity for her granddaughters that she never had and signed up Ada and Noelia. The first class was both exciting and disappointing. Ada wanted to learn violin but Senor Chavez had only three guitars and two violins - not enough for all the children who wanted to learn music. They would also not be able to take these expensive instruments home to practice as they might be stolen. Senor Chavez remembered another orchestra that had made its own instruments. He sought the help of a carpenter and ganchero named Nicolas "Cola" Gomez. Along with the help of Tito Romero, the two men were able to transform discarded materials such as oil drums, pipes and packing crates into musical instruments for the children. And an orchestra was born!


The Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
Ada's Violin is a testament to human ingenuity and determination amidst poverty and social isolation. This well researched picture book provides the backstory of the renowned Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay. Veteran author Susan Hood, interviewed Ada Rios and Favio Chavez and used numerous sources to weave together their remarkable story. Hood's expressive writing appeals to the senses as she describes Ada's life near the landfill, the music in her family's home, the orchestra's initial struggles to learn to play, and the large concerts in packed venues. From the garbage trucks that "rumble and roll", to life in the "noisy, stinking, sweltering slum" to Ada's first struggles to make music "Sharps and flats clanged and clashed." Eventually, "...the screeches, twangs, and tweets hit all the right notes." and the "...symphony of sound helped to lift them beyond the heat, the stench, and their aching backs."

Hood portrays the positive effect music and the orchestra had and continue to have on the young musicians, their families and their community. "...there was something new in the air in Cateura. Gancheros trudging home from the landfill might lift their heads to hear the sounds of Ada's violin...or the strains of Bebi's cello... or the strum of Noelia's guitar." The music brought hope into the lives of those in Cateura, giving them dignity, and allowing young people like Ada to actually live a better life instead of simply dreaming about doing so. Music helped Ada grow in self-confidence, allowing her to be a mentor to younger musicians. The money from the orchestra's concerts has helped improve the lives of some members of the orchestra including Ada.

The accompanying illustrations by Sally Wern Comport were created using "a hybrid technique of collage, acrylic glazes and paints, drawing, and digital mediums, then executed on stipple paper.", adding to Hood's descriptive text. Hood includes a detailed Author's Note about the orchestra, and information on relevant websites and videos as well as a list of the Sources she used for the picture book. More information on the documentary, The Landfillharmonic can be found at

Ada's Violin is a great resource to use along with the documentary touching on geography, diversity, music, language and culture, poverty, environmental stewardship and community. It also touches on the themes of resiliency, courage, identity, and ingenuity.

Book Details:

Ada's Violin by Susan Hood
New York: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers  2016

image credit:

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History by Robert Edsel

Robert Edsel's The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History is a book for young adults and older children focusing on a group of eleven men and one woman who were part of the Monuments Men, a group of  soldiers from American and Great Britain whose goal was to preserve the art treasures of Western Europe during World War II.

Adolf Hitler saw himself as a gifted artist, one whose genius was denied when he was refused admission to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Austria, back in 1907. He believed this unjust decision was made by Jewish jurors. He considered the only real art to be of German origin while art created by masters like Picasso was "degenerate." When Hitler came to power in Germany in the 1930's he had the works of many modern masters including Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas and Henri Matisse to be removed from German galleries. The art was either traded, sold or destroyed.

During a visit to Italy in 1938,  a tour of the art-filled rooms of the Pitti Palace and Uffizi Gallery inspired Hitler to build a museum filled with Europe's art treasures. The museum, would be located in his hometown of Linz, Austria and the art would come from the countries he planned to conquer.

The theft of art began almost immediately with the beginning of hostilities. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Nazis raided the private collections of Austrian Jews, facilitated by new laws that prohibited Jews from owning private property. With the invasion of Poland in September, 1939, the Nazi's continued their theft of art treasures. They stole the Veit Stoss Altarpiece a Gothic altarpiece from Saint Mary's Basilica, and a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci from the Czartoryski Museum. As the Nazis overran the Netherlands, France and Belgium, the looting intensified, again aided byIt was facilitated by the Nazis enacting laws that stripped the Jewish population of their rights to own property, meaning any art treasures could be confiscated.

The Monuments Men was a new unit that was tasked with saving the art treasures of Europe as the Allies drove the Nazis out of cities and towns. It was the inspiration of art conservator, George Stout who had spent years working on how to protect works of art and other cultural treasures during war. Stout's idea was to have teams of "cultural preservation officers" who would follow troops as areas were liberated. The Monuments Men made up the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section (MFAA) of the Civil Affairs division of the Western Allied armies and were chosen by the Roberts Commission. George Stout was eventually recruited to lead the Monuments Men in northern Europe but in fact, the first Monuments Man was Captain Mason Hammond who was sent to Italy when the Allied invasion began. 

Serving in Italy for the MFAA were Captain Deane Keller a portrait painter and professor at Yale and Second Lieutenant Fred Hartt, an art historian. In Northern Europe, George L. Stout an art conservator at Harvard, Captain Robert Posey an architect and military man, Captain Walker Hancock a sculptor, Private First Class Lincoln Kirstein, Major Ronald Edmund Balfour a lecturer at Cambridge University, Private Harry Ettlinger a German Jew who emigrated to the U.S., Captain Walter Hauchthausen an architect, Second Lieutenant James J. Rorimer curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,and Rose Valland Custodian of the Jeu d Paume Museum in Paris.

By late September 1943, Benito Mussolini, leader of Fascist Italy had been removed and the war now shifted to driving the Germans out of Italy. "The war was now going to be fought in a country that contained millions of works of art, monuments and churches, placing some of the greatest masterpieces of Western civilization at risk of being destroyed." The Monuments Men would have an unbelievably difficult job of tracking and recovering any missing treasures.

When Deane Keller arrived in Italy, a country he had visited years before he was shocked at the devastation and what the Italian people had suffered. The Allies were working their way north through Italy and a first objective was Naples. The way north to Naples was through the Liri Valley which the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino overlooked. Heavy bombing by the Allies had pulverized the abbey but it was possible to rebuild it.

In June, 1944, Monuments Men Lieutenant Perry Cott, British Captain Humphrey Brooke and Lieutenant Fred Hartt arrived in Rome. Their inspections determined that the art in the Vatican was safe, as "were the treasures of Brera Picture Gallery in Milan, the Accademia in Venice, the Borghese Gallery in Rome, and those from many of the nation's most important churches, which Pope Pius XII had allowed to be stored for safekeeping within the Vatican's walls."

Joined by Lieutenant Colonel Ernest DeWald, director of the MFAA in Italy, they began investigating the status of art belonging to museums in Naples which were supposedly delivered to Rome by the Hermann Goring Tank Division. However, two trucks worth of art disappeared and Cott and DeWald soon determined that "seventeen works of art from Naples and the ancient site of Pompeii were missing", including "The Blind Leading the Blind" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. There was no doubt that this was a planned theft and Dewald and Cott were certain the art had been moved to Germany.

On July 4, 1944, Deane Keller arrived in Siena Italy a day after its liberation by the Fifth Army.German commander Generalfeldmarschal Albert Kesselting had declared Siena an open city, meaning that during the German retreat from the city, the Allies would not attack. On July 8, Keller visited the Bishop's Palace in Mensanello, eighteen miles outside Siena. There in the Bishop's Palace, which was being used as a makeshift first aid station, Keller was directed to two large wooden crates. Inside one he found Duccio di Buoninsegna's Madonna and Child, a panel of the Maesta that formed the high altarpiece of the Siena Cathedral. Forty other paintings had also been hidden in the palace chapel.

Meanwhile as the German's retreated to the Gothic Line, they withdrew to Florence, the capital of Tuscany and a city renowned for its rich artistic and cultural history. Second Lieutenant Fred Hartt arrived in Florence in late July, 1944 to assess the damage to the city's "magnificent churches, beautiful bridges and irreplaceable works of art." He wanted to know the location of the city's art treasures; had they been moved back into the city or were they still in the villas hidden. Several days later Hartt learned that the British had found an art repository containing masterpieces from two of the city's museums, the Uffizi Gallery and the Palatine Gallery, in a major battlezone just outside of Florence. Hartt travelled to the art repository, the Castle of Montegufoni. On August 1, Hartt accompanied by BBC Radio correspondent Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Major Eric Linklater of the British Royal Engineeers arrived at Montegufoni. There he found an astonishing collection of works from Raphael, Ruben, Giotto, Botticelli and many others. At Montegufoni, Cesare Fasola, the librarian of the Uffizi Gallery revealed that the Germans had stolen hundreds of masterpieces from the Uffizi and Pitti Palace museums.

Hartt arrived in Florence on August 13. There he met Giovanni Poggi, the Florentine superintendent and Dr. Ugo Procacci, an official of the Tuscan museums. They provided Hartt a list of thirty-eight villas acting as art repositories. Procacci recounted to Hartt how the German's destroyed all of Florence's famous bridges except the Ponte Vecchio. Although the bridge was spared, the Germans  demolished the medieval towers and buildings surrounding the bridge, many dating back to Dante's time. Hartt's investigations in Florence of the thirty-eight repositories in Tuscany revealed that on orders of Colonel Metzner the German military commander of Florence, and SS Colonel Alexander Langsdorff, head of the Kunstschutz operation in Italy, hundreds of art treasures had been stolen. He listed 529 paintings, 162 works of sculpture including those from the Bargello Museum which had housed  "the most important collection of Gothic and Renaissance sculpture in the world, including masterpieces by Michelangelo and Donatello" as missing.

In Paris Monuments Man Jim Rorimer arrived on August 25 to find the Louvre Museum empty. The Mona Lisa and the Louvre's signature piece, The Winged Victory of Samothrace, a 2 B.C. Greek sculpture were gone as was everything else. Jacques Jaujard, Director of the National Museums of France explained to Rorimer that all of the art treasures were taken to countryside chateaux in thirty-seven convoys. However, the private Jewish-owned collections such as those from Rothschild, Rosenberg, and David-Weill were systematically looted, with as many as  twenty-thousand pieces  moved to Germany. These collections included works by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, Van Gogh and Picasso.

The city of Pisa is located fifty miles west of Florence on the Arno River which divides it. Unlike Florence, Pisa had been heavily bombed. On September 2, Deane Keller entered the rubble-filled city.  The heart of the city is the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) which was comprised of "...the piazza and its duomo (cathedral), battistero (baptistery), campanile (bell tower - known as the Leaning Tower of Pisa), and camposanto (cemetery)". Although the duoma and battistero had sustained some damage, the Camposanto Monumentale, the city's famed cemetery was destroyed. Constructed in 1278, the Camposanto's walls were covered with vibrant frescoes painted by 14th and 15th century artists. Due to shelling, the Camposanto's wooden A-frame, lead-covered roof and burned and collapsed, breaking the frescoes into millions of pieces. A call to Brigadier General Edgar Hume's office resulted in the general and the archbishop of Pisa visiting the Camposanto. A temporary roof made of tarpaulin and tar paper protected the damaged building and the remaining frescoes and allowed for repair work to begin.

Michelangelo's Madonna
On September 16, 1944, British Major Ronald Balfour entered the town of Bruges in Belgium with the First Canadian Army. Missing from The Church of Our Lady was its centerpiece, Michelangelo's Madonna, a "...nearly life-sized masterpiece, carved out of white marble in 1504, when the Florentine master was twenty-nine years old." The sculpture was removed from the church where it had been for the past 440 years. Reverend Rene Deschepper told Balfour how the Germans removed the statue along with "eleven valuable paintings that had hung inside the church for centuries." The theft of the Michelangelo Bruges Madonna was planned but Deschepper had no idea where it was taken.

Even as the Germans were driven back they continued to loot. In November, 1944, Monuments Man Captain Walker Hancock, in Aachen Germany learned that "the Gothic silver-gilt bust of Charlemagne and the eleventh-century jewel-encrusted processional Cross of Lothair" had been taken further into Germany.

As the Allies drove the Germans north, across Western Europe and back towards Berlin, the Germans continued to loot, hiding their art treasures in salt mines and caves. However, the  Monuments Men had little to go on, only rumours and hearsay.  Would they ever recover the thousands of pieces of art stolen from private Jewish-owned collections? Would they ever locate Michelangelo's Madonna or the missing treasures from the Uffizi and Pitti museums? Their tips would come from the most unlikely of sources in the most unexpected ways.


The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History tells the story of a select few members of the Monuments Men who worked to find and return some of the Western world's greatest art treasures after they had been stolen and hidden by the Nazis during their occupation of Europe. In fact, as Edsel points out in his Epilogue, there were over 350 Monuments Men from fourteen nations including America, France, Holland, Belgium and the British Commonwealth who served from 1943 to 1951, to recover the thousands of pieces of art stolen during the war.

Edsel begins his account by providing readers with some of the backstory of Adolf Hitler and how his obsession with art led to the theft of hundreds of thousands of art treasures not only from the national art collections of various European countries they conquered but also from private art collections, especially those of Jewish collectors in Europe.

Readers are introduced over a few chapters to the Monuments Men, artists, conservators and lecturers from America and Britain, who took time out of their lives to undertake the risky task of tracking down the stolen art treasures of Western Europe. Although they believed that men's lives were more important than the artwork, they felt strongly in their mission. The Monuments Men believed they were fighting to save their cultural heritage. As Edsel writes, "They could not imagine living in a dark and ugly world without these things of importance and beauty that have for centuries defined who we are as a civilization."

The story of the Monuments Men is told through the alternating narratives of the various Monuments Men in chronological order beginning with the Italian campaign in 1943. Edsel sets the stage initially by focusing on the Monuments Men  and their arrival in Europe and Italy. Unsure of what to expect, they find some art repositories and collections safe and others raided or missing. The Monuments Men begin with the obvious, checking on collections in the Vatican (they are safe) and in the Louvre Museum (hidden due to the amazing foresight of  Jacques Jaujard). As the Monuments Men race to discover where the Germans have hidden the stolen art, readers come to comprehend not only the incredible devastation brought about by the war (for example in the destruction of the City of Lo or the bridges of Florence) but the potential for the destruction of European culture as well. Edsel focuses on several significant pieces of art, Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna, the Ghent Altarpiece, and the Florentine art treasures, to name a few. At first the story is difficult to follow as the narrative jumps from location to location, but the chronology begins to fit together, providing readers with some understanding of the incredible task facing the Monuments Men.

Edsel includes many black and white photographs of the important artwork stolen by the Germans, such as the Bruges Madonna, the Ghent Altarpiece and the Maesta. As well there are numerous historical photographs of  the Monuments Men, the Nazi art repositories, the Nazis admiring stolen art, the caves where the art treasures were hidden, and many many more scenes. Edsel provides his readers with a few photographs showing the devastation of some of the cities such as Florence, the gutted streets of Aachen, and the destroyed town of Saint Lo. There are several detailed maps showing the paths of the Monuments Men and the location of the Nazi Art Repositories.

Although these photographs add much to the book, the format simply doesn't do justice to the subject matter. It's unfortunate this work couldn't have been published with larger pages, on better quality paper with colour photographs of some of the works of art. Younger readers should be encouraged to research pictures of the various art works from their local library and through the internet.

Nevertheless, Edsel's The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History is a must read for those interested in World War II history. Edsel presents what is a complex story in a way that is relatively easy to understand and imparts to his readers both the immensity of the task facing the Monuments Men and the reasons why their mission was so important. The book drives home the message that these priceless art treasures belong to everyone and are part of both our cultural past but also our future.

The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History contains a Glossary, and Bibliography, extensive Source Notes, Photograph and Map credits and an Index.

Book Details:

The Greatest Treasure Hunt In History by Robert Edsel
New York: Scholastic Focus     2019
333 pp.

Image credits:


Michelangelo's Madonna and child: