Reviewed by Emma Crowley
Johanna, Birgit and Lotte Eder have always lived quiet lives, working in their father’s clockmaking shop and helping their mother in the house. But like many other Austrians, they find it impossible to ignore the changes in the world around them.
At first Johanna finds it hard to believe the Nazis pose a real threat. But then her father hires Franz to help in his shop. He’s kind and soulful, with dark eyes that twinkle with intelligence. But he’s Jewish, and as Johanna falls for him, she realizes that loving him puts them all in danger.
Then comes the Anschluss—the reunification of Austria and Germany under Nazi rule. The three sisters’ lives have become ever more separate with Lotte joining the convent at Nonnberg Abbey and Birgit’s secret involvement with the Resistance. But as Johanna realizes how mistaken she was about the level of danger, she begins to see that it may be down to her to protect the man she loves.
She knows that she can’t do it alone though. She will have to turn to the people she trusts the most: her sisters.
The three of them work together to try to get Franz to the safety of Switzerland, and they soon prove invaluable to the Resistance. But they’re risking everything. Can three women who would die for each other, also be prepared to die for what is right?
Many thanks to Bookouture via NetGalley for my copy of The Edelweiss Sisters to review and to Sharon for having my review on the blog.
The Edelweiss Sisters by Kate Hewitt is set in Austria and how refreshing to read of a different location compared to a lot of World War Two historical fiction often set in France or Germany. It was very interesting to see how Austrians dealt with the occupation of their country by a madman intent on eradicating a whole section of society and expanding his power and cruelty throughout Europe. The book has a tense opening prologue focusing on a woman in Salzburg in 1945. Instantly you want to know who is she? What has led her to this point of exhaustion whilst gripped with fear and terror? You sense she has reached the final stages of an important task but there are so many questions that will remain unanswered until the very end.
The story then takes us back to Salzburg in 1934 where three sisters, Birgit, Johanna and Lotte, live with their parents Hedwig and Manfred above their father’s shop where he works as a clockmaker. They have been given the nickname of the Edelweiss sisters as they compete in a singing competition which they do not win but they do meet the Von Trapp family and Maria does feature ever so slightly. Brief though it was, this was expertly woven into the story as you do forget that the infamous film was based on a real life family and she offers advice to a character when needed at a point of indecision. The three sisters are so different and varied and chapters are dedicated to each sister’s viewpoint of the war. How their experiences are varied but the amount of hurt, devastation and brutality they each go through and their dedication to fighting against so many wrongs is never underestimated.
Johanna helps her mother in the house but feels stifled and would much rather learn more useful life skills. An opportunity arises to enrol on a secretarial course but Hedwig is resistant as she believes a women’s place is in the home. Johanna is slightly hard around the edges and wishes she could find that special someone who could soften her. Love is what she seeks. When Franz arrives to work as an apprentice with her father there is an instant connection between the pair. But their fledging relationship is a challenging one as the background of Franz becomes apparent. Johanna would do anything to protect him but what price must they pay? She keeps her love for Franz secret from her parents as she believes they would not approve given that he is of a different faith. But times are changing and when people need protection and shelter simply because of their faith maybe Johanna should open her eyes more and not judge people.
Birgit works with her father in the shop and feels very put out when Franz arrives. Does her father not think she is good enough to become a clockmaker? Birgit is a much brighter character compared to Johanna. She wants to be strong and purposeful and this really comes through when she is forced to endure the harshest of circumstances later on in the story. Her willingness to keep going and her devotion were so admirable in the face of illness, starvation and brutality. But as changes begin to occur in Austrian society and the ideals of Hitler start to become known believing Jews were destroying the peoples way of life and polluting pure Germanic blood, Birgit can not stand by and let this happen. She becomes engaged in resistance activities which made me think how brave and courageous she was as both Johanna and Lotte at times seemed to shirk away from what was going on around them. Birgit is daring and not afraid to fall into the path of danger if she knows it will help others in any way, shape or form. Meeting a soldier named Werner, purely by chance when he rescues her from a potentially very tricky situation, would not have Birgit believing that she could fall in love. Werner goes against everything she believes in and it's almost like she is going over to the dark side even whilst continuing her resistance work. Can she risk everything and still find love?
Lotte was a very simple soul. She attends classes at the local music institute but really she is struggling with a calling. All she wants a simple life filled with happiness, peace and contentment. Satisfaction, belonging and tranquillity are evading her. Her life with her family, although she loves her sisters and parents and has a strong bond with them, just makes her feel restless and discontented. Lotte makes a life changing decision, she wants to join the nuns in Nonnberg Abbey in the city where the family live. She knows she may never see her family again and will live a life of solitude and prayer but deep down she knows this is her destiny. This is what she needs to fill the gaping hold inside of her that will lead her to the place of contentment she has been so long searching for. But by doing this it only serves to highlight the very different paths the three sisters are on. They are out of sync with each other rather than working in harmony but when push comes to shove maybe they will unite again in the darkest and most desperate of times.
The first half of the book set up the entire story very well and gave us a deep insight into the political situation at the time and how the lives of people changed in the run up to the beginning of the war. Also the reader was able to become very familiar with each of the three sisters and to understand how different they were and to see that what they wanted in life was so varied. Hope and faith are two strong characteristics they had and they will need these as the world descends into madness in 1939. The first half was quite slow and I was longing for something thrilling and stirring to happen. I certainly got that in the later half of the book and when starting this book I didn’t think the story would take this direction. A selfless act of bravery leads some of the characters you have come to deeply care for onto a dark path with no definitive ending in place. The descriptions of the camps, particularly Mauthausen, and the mines and factories prisoners were forced to work in were hard to read about despite having lots of books in this genre before. It gave me a new and deeper appreciation of just what people went through not so long ago and they did all this without question in order to save others. If Hitler had succeeded the consequences would not have borne thinking about.
The Edelweiss Sisters is a powerful read packed full of tension, danger and unease but the bonds of sisterhood remain firm despite all the obstacles thrown in their direction. I wasn’t prepared for the conclusion to one strand of the story and wished it could have turned out differently but I loved how Kate Hewitt connected it back to the prologue. It seemed so bittersweet after everything that had happened. This story is definitely one of the better World War Two historical fiction books that are out there at the moment and well worth a read.