The magic and speculative aspects of Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew feel natural and necessary, posing questions about what it really means to be alive in a world in which we cannot escape love and cannot escape evil.
Danger surrounds Lea, a twelve-year-old Jewish girl living in Berlin at the height of Nazi Germany. Desperate, Lea’s mother solicits the services of Ettie, the young daughter of a local Rabbi, to create a golem—a mythical Jewish creature conceived from earth and clay. Once conceived, the golem’s only duty is to protect Lea and lead her safely out of Nazi Germany.
Named Ava, the golem succeeds in guiding Lea out of Germany but struggles with burgeoning emotions and a budding friendship with a wondrous heron. Meanwhile, Lea develops her own friendship with a young French boy named Julien and the family who takes her in.
As the story progresses, Lea and Julien are motivated by the promise they made to each other to simply “stay alive,” while Ava balances her responsibility to keep Lea safe with her own desire to understand human emotion. Intertwined in the story of Ava and Lea are the stories of Victor, Marianne, and Ettie—young members of the opposition who work to save as many people as possible from the tragedies of war while suffering loss and finding love.
Alice Hoffman’s The World That We Knew is a masterful blend of myth, history, fiction, and deep human connection. Seen through the eyes of its young characters, the challenges and heartaches of WWII resistance is brought to life in a way that is detailed and moving. For those interested in the history, Hoffman includes numerous real-life settings and facts that are surprising and tragic. She fully develops each one of her main characters, giving them reasons to live, to love, and to persevere in the midst of adversity. Hoffman provides intriguing backstory for several of the secondary characters in a way that does not interrupt, but enhances the main narrative.
The depth of loss in WWII is impossible to comprehend, but it is also impossible to overestimate the immense amount of resilience, fortitude, and sacrifice of those rising in opposition against Nazi Germany. Ultimately, Hoffman brings to life the strength and struggle of those operatives, young as they were. She has created a world, through history and magic, that enlightens readers about the realities of war and the human connections that are gained and lost because of it. More importantly, however, Hoffman reminds readers that no war or tragedy, not even death itself, can destroy our love for each other.
Colin Mustful is the author of four historical novels about Minnesota settlement and Native history in addition to numerous historical resources. He is also the founder and editor of a small independent press called History Through Fiction. You can learn more about Colin and his work by visiting his author website at colinmustful.com or his publishing website at historythroughfiction.com.