THE PLUM TREE by Ellen Marie Wiseman
review by Barbara Claypole White
Tomorrow is the launch of Ellen Marie Wiseman’s stunning debut novel, The Plum Tree, which earned a 4.5* and a Top Pick rating from Romantic Times. “It's an original and important addition to the World War II canon,” says the RT review. It’s easy to see why.
The Plum Tree opens in an idyllic German village in 1938. Seventeen-year-old Christine, a maid in the house of a wealthy Jewish family, is guarding a secret: She and the son of her employer are in love. They assume class is the greatest hurdle they will have to face…
I’ll be honest, I had mixed feelings about reading The Plum Tree. As the wife of a Jew and the mother of a teenager who would have been considered impure by the Nazis, I struggle with anything that circles the Holocaust. However, as a Brit, I grew up on firsthand stories of hardship during the Second World War. It was always the stories of everyday actions—some heroic, some not—that resonated with me: a tale my mother’s gardener told from when he was a medic on a Red Cross ship and a German U boat gave them safe passage; my mother’s memory of eating her first banana after rationing.
And here’s what I loved most about The Plum Tree—the level of detail with which Ms Wiseman takes us inside the lives of ordinary Germans during the war. (As a history major, I'm a sucker for research.) For example:
“They were sitting around the table, eating the bland meal that had become the core of their winter diets: watered-down goat’s milk, boiled potatoes and turnip soup. They missed the days when Mutti used to leave cow’s milk in an earthen crock on the cellar steps for three days, until it soured and turned into the consistency of pudding…”
But The Plum Tree is more than just a glimpse into rural family life during the Second World War. It’s also a thumping good read. Christine’s love affair creates a story of survival, courage, and resilience in one of the darkest moments of history. The Plum Tree spans the length of the war and is far from over when the Allies liberate Germany. Christine is a fabulous heroine—noble and kind—and once I hit the half-way mark, you could not have wrestled her from me with a crowbar. Really.
Even though the novel goes deep into the human evil at Dachau, the story is layered with the shades of grey that exist during war. Christine’s grandmother, for example, is wary of the Americans, and the American soldiers are suspicious of Christine when she asks for their help. Without giving away spoilers, events toward the end of the novel filled me with indignation for the treatment of German prisoners. As Christine’s father says, “War makes victims all.”
Barbara Claypole White is the author of The Unfinished Garden, a love story about grief, OCD, and dirt. Originally from England, she lives in the North Carolina Forest with her family and a ridiculously large woodland garden.