Marie-Laure LeBlanc often visits the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris where her father works as the principal locksmith. Although she lost her eyesight at age six, she knows the museum and its staff well. Perhaps the most intriguing object in the institution is a priceless diamond, said to be cursed, that is locked behind a series of small doors. No one at the museum is permitted even to open the doors to look at it until the Nazis occupy France. Then, in order to prevent the stone falling into enemy hands, the museum director sends four trusted employees out of the city, each carrying a stone that may be the famed diamond or simply a copy. In this way, Marie-Laure and her father find themselves trying desperately to leave the capital, with thousands of other Parisians, and make their way to St. Malo where Mr. LeBlanc’s Uncle Etienne resides. Etienne, a troubled veteran of the Great War, lives in his ancestral home with Madam Manec, an elderly and deeply devout housekeeper whose magnanimous heart embraces anyone in need and inspires courage in those around her.
Werner and his little sister Jutta have always lived in the shadow of German coal-mines. After their father dies in the mines, Frau Elena and the other orphans of Children’s House become their only family. Werner knows he is destined to work and probably die in those mines, like all the men of Zollverein, but he dreams of a greater destiny. His curious mind never stops turning. When he finds a discarded radio and manages to repair it, he and Jutta hide it and stay up late listening to a series of science lessons broadcast from France. As his intellect is fed, Werner learns everything he can about electronics, earning a reputation as a miraculous radio repairman. In a desperate attempt to escape death in the coal mines, Werner joins the Hitler Youth where his exceptional skills are coveted. In this way, he flees the fate of his father, but he also leaves behind Jutta, the voice of his conscience, who pointedly asks, “Is it right to do something only because everyone else is doing it?”
This poignant World War II novel explores the minds and souls of two young people whose lives are mysteriously connected. Both are self-educated and refuse to allow physical or financial limitations to stand in their way. Faced with the complex challenges of wartime, they must make decisions that test their courage. Marie-Laure’s sincerity and trust in the people she loves enables her to take risks for the cause of freedom. Werner, however, struggles interiorly with a sense of helplessness, an instinct to survive and the memory of his sister’s reproach. Doerr’s metaphorical and suspenseful writing travels back and forth between their childhood and teen years weaving past and present together masterfully. Readers will hang on every detail, for, despite the length of the book, there is not one wasted word in this page-turner.
*Note to parents of sensitive young readers: There is one brief, non-graphic scene in which a few young girls are raped by soldiers and several instances of course language.
A former teacher, Jennifer Minicus is currently a full-time wife and mother.