Whoever Saves a Life, Saves the Whole World
The Forest of Vanishing Stars Book Cover The Forest of Vanishing Stars
Kristin Harmel
Historical Fiction
Gallery Books
July 6, 2021
Kindle, Hardcover, Paperback

After being stolen from her wealthy German parents and raised in the unforgiving wilderness of eastern Europe, a young woman finds herself alone in 1941 after her kidnapper dies. Her solitary existence is interrupted, however, when she happens upon a group of Jews fleeing the Nazi terror. Stunned to learn what’s happening in the outside world, she vows to teach the group all she can about surviving in the forest—and in turn, they teach her some surprising lessons about opening her heart after years of isolation. But when she is betrayed and escapes into a German-occupied village, her past and present come together in a shocking collision that could change everything.

A Light Shining in the Darkness

Each time I read a book by Kristin Harmel, it is like being reunited with a long-lost friend. Her characters are instantly relatable, even though their lives are vastly different from anything I have ever experienced. She builds her historical backdrops with precision and care, showing deep respect for the real people who lived through horrific periods in history, such as World War II and the Holocaust. The Forest of Vanishing Stars is no exception to this, with its depiction of life on the run from the Nazi ghettos, that drove some Jews into the wild, unforgiving forests of Belarus and Poland. The name of the book itself seems to point towards the fact that the Jews, with their yellow Stars of David stitched onto their clothing, had to do their best to vanish into the wilderness in order to survive, where they might go months without seeing the stars or sun due to the heavy foliage. The heroine of the story, Yona, was raised to survive in the harsh conditions of the forest by an old Jewish woman who was guided by mystical voices to kidnap her from her privileged life, in order to prepare her for her extraordinary destiny. Whether the old woman was guided by God, or by the forest is an open question, that is finally resolved towards the end of the book when Yona observes that the forest was created by God, so perhaps He was always present after all.

Yona begins the book as a somewhat naive, and thoroughly inexperienced young woman, who knows nothing of matters of the heart, or how to forge connections in a community. Despite that, she has an unshakable desire to help others; and she quickly begins to feel responsible for the Jews fleeing unspeakable violence, into her forest, where she realizes that she is uniquely equipped to keep them alive. As she learns to love, and labor alongside others, she also learns first-hand about heartbreak and betrayal, which is what ultimately sets her on a collision course with her past, and the destiny foreseen by her kidnapper. Yona’s character arc is well-done, and as previously mentioned, entirely relatable, even though I have never had to fight for survival in the depths of winter in a forest, or run for my life into a swamp, as Yona does with those under her protection. And when she experiences the power of redemptive love, it is a balm to the soul, reminding readers of the innocent value of a true, soul-deep connection.

The Forest of Vanishing Stars delves deep into questions of God’s will, life plans, and how Christian and Jewish doctrine can exist side-by-side. I personally enjoyed these spiritual aspects of the book a great deal and saw many of my own answers to life’s questions reflected back at me. At its core, this is a book that serves as a reminder that we have an obligation to our fellow man, and that truth and love are important values to fight for, and to preserve. This is not a light reading book, but it is a thought-provoking and enjoyable one.