Sometimes a book gets into your heart and rests there, at least for a little while. Another time, a book might work its way into your head and wriggle restlessly around, making you think, making you wonder, keeping you wide awake when you should be fast asleep. Then, once in a while, a special sort of book comes along, and it takes up residence in both. The Daughter’s Tale did that for me.
I was fortunate to hear internationally bestselling Cuban author Armando Lucas Correa speak recently, and I now know that The Daughter’s Tale is his second novel set during the same horrifying time in history. Correa spent years of his life researching the SS St. Louis, the German ocean liner that carried over 900 Jewish refugees out of Nazi Germany and was tragically denied permission to land in Cuba, the United States, or Canada. The ship appears, almost like a character itself, in both his books. It was central in his first novel, The German Girl. In The Daughter’s Tale, time and time again the characters face impossible choices that could offer remote chances of survival, and the SS St. Louis is one of those choices.
In The Daughter’s Tale, Correa brings us into the life of Amanda Sternberg, whose husband and family bookstore were taken by the Nazis. Before every book in her family’s bookstore is burned to ash, Amanda rescues a favorite: one filled with botanical images. As they flee the Nazi invasion, Amanda is given the opportunity to save her children, but it comes with terrible uncertainty. Viera, her older daughter, boards the SS St. Louis, then stares in disbelief as her mother turns and leaves with her younger daughter, Lina. Amanda’s choice to separate her daughters, possibly with the hope of giving them better chances at survival, does not go well, since she and Lina are eventually sent to a concentration camp. Bits and pieces of the botanical book travel with Amanda, and those pages fill with heartbreaking letters she sends to Viera. Later in the book, Correa brings us to the small French village of Haute-Vienne, where we become stunned witnesses to the horrific slaughter at Oradour-sur-Glane and hold our breath asa sole survivor creeps silently from the devastation.
In a book like this, there can be no shortcuts, and when a story takes place during one of the darkest periods in human history, there can be no happy ending. Still, Correa’s gift for poetic flow, passing among characters in a seamless omniscient narrative, carries us inexorably along the journey. And what a journey it is. The story is, of course, one of survival, but it is not limited to one central character. That struggle is complicated further when characters make unacceptable sacrifices in attempts to save someone they love, but the survivors suffer lifelong, smothering guilt as a result. Was it worth the price paid? Would we have made the same choices? Could we?