The study of history is one of my true loves in life. It doesn’t matter if the focus is social, political, economic, or military…I’ll take it all! Naturally then, I always jump at the chance to review historical fiction books, particularly those set in war-time. On this particular occasion, as I took on Midnight Train to Prague, I was even more intrigued than usual since the story is set mostly in Eastern Europe (Hungary, and Czechoslovakia specifically), which is a departure from the WWII based novels I usually choose, focusing on American, British, or French characters. The main character, Natalia, is a wealthy German girl who finds herself married to a Hungarian count, and through the lens of her experiences, Carol Windley does indeed offer up a story that documents a side of Nazi brutality, and the barbarity of the conquering Russian Army, that is not usually covered in WWII novels (more on that in a minute).
Before I get to the real substance of my review, I want to offer up my main critique: the writing style takes some getting used to! There are many long descriptions (not necessarily bad, but easy to get bogged down in), and because the dialogue is very matter-of-fact, sometimes characters’ musings seem to run together. This bothered me for about the first 30% of the book, but from there it was smooth sailing, as I became more invested in the characters, and as the story started to pick up the pace.
Now that I have that out of the way, let me tell you why I think this book is a worthy investment of time for lovers of historical fiction. Carole Windley doesn’t shy away from describing Nazi atrocities, and I think that is important, even in works of fiction. Any time you read about WWII, there should be a certain level of discomfort; it’s not all about grand Allied victories! In this case, not only does the book discuss the Nuremburg laws and how European Jews were affected by them, but it touches on the treatment of Hungary’s Sinti people, on the “Germanization” of Czech girls with “Aryan traits”, on the rape and savagery practiced in Berlin and other German-controlled areas by the conquering Russian Army, and even on how diabolical American and British bombings were in employing incendiary weapons. Finally, one of the most chilling moments of the books takes place when an SS officer describes mass killing tactics used by the Einsatzgruppen battalions to an adolescent girl, while she is on vacation with her family.
But its not all about the grim realities associated with living in war-time Europe. The book begins with a sweet, if understated love story, bringing together Natalia and the count. This love endures through uncertainty and separation caused by the war, that at times is nothing short of tragic. It shows the kindness and solidarity that people find in having a common enemy like the Nazis, and reminds us of the good work down by the Allied nations after the war was over, to help those who had been victims of the concentration camp system. And for my “Happily Ever After” crowd, there’s quite a bit of satisfaction to be had, if you hang on through the grim moments! All in all, this is a good, quick read.