Arts & Entertainment, Last Word

The Flowers of Yesteryear

The Flowers of Yesteryear

By Miriam R. Kramer

In her debut novel, Lilac Girls, and its recently released prequel, Lost Roses, author Martha Hall Kelly tells the story of resilient women torn apart by the conflicts and revolutions in twentieth-century Europe, and how they unite to flower together in an unexpected fashion. When the winds of war screech across the land, tossing dead leaves and tearing the twigs that skitter across flowerbeds, these dormant blooms wait for a sun yet to come.

In Lilac Girls, released in 2016, Kelly introduces us to three women who must choose roles within the terrible play of the Second World War. Caroline Ferriday, a New York society woman, philanthropist, and former Broadway actress, has chosen to volunteer at the French Consulate in New York. When Hitler invades Poland in September of 1939, she scrambles to continue sending care packages to orphanages in France while helping dazed refugees arriving in a United States that is granting fewer and fewer visas.

In Lublin, Poland, Kasia Kuzmerick, a Catholic teenager, decides after the German invasion to work for the Polish underground and resist the Nazis. Doctor Herta Oberheuser, a cold, driven German doctor who wants to be a surgeon, battles sexism in a world where women are supposed to remain domestic and procreate to populate Nazi Germany. When offered a government position as a camp physician at a Nazi re-education camp, she takes the challenge to prove herself as a medical professional.

When Caroline meets a famous Parisian actor, Paul Rodierre, she falls in love. Despite returning her affections, he decides to return home to aid his estranged part-Jewish wife, who is in danger from Nazi collaborators.  In the meantime, Kasia and Herta’s actions put them on a collision course that will leave them both collateral damage from the war in markedly different ways, survivors who will inadvertently cross paths with Caroline after the war.

In Kelly’s prequel, Lost Roses, released last month, the author brings us into the Ferriday family’s struggles during the First World War. Here Caroline’s mother, Eliza Woolsey Mitchell Ferriday, takes center stage, while Caroline is only a child. Eliza has become close with Sofya Streshnayva, a Russian noblewoman and cousin to the Romanovs. On a trip to visit Sofya in St. Petersburg, Eliza sees the bubbling unrest in the streets that foreshadows the Russian Revolution, and returns home with a growing sense of concern for her Russian friend and her family.

As Austria declares war on Serbia, the two are torn apart by the onset of war. Aristocrat Sofya and her family escape St. Petersburg with her newborn, Max. They leave for their country estate to find safety outside the city. There she hires a local peasant, a fortuneteller’s daughter named Varinka, who becomes dangerously obsessed with her son. As the Streshnayva family takes Varinka into their home, Varinka’s half-brother, Taras, a newly minted Bolshevik, becomes equally obsessed with overthrowing the nobility he envies and despises.

While Eliza Ferriday organizes work and lodging for refugee White Russians in New York, Sofya embarks on a harrowing quest across Europe to find her son, whom Varinka has snatched away. While appearing a hothouse rose, she vows to prove tougher than she looks.

Martha Hall Kelly has joined a trendy crowd of writers penning popular historical novels about World War II in particular. In basing her stories on a real family of strong women and their descendants, however, she sets herself apart and makes a unique contribution to the genre. Her stories will suit those who love historical fiction, New Yorkers, and cosmopolitan European travelers, along with characters who manage to survive against all expectations.

Eliza and Caroline Ferriday were cultured and active humanitarians descended from Caroline Carson Woolsey Mitchell, a famous abolitionist and philanthropist in her own right. Eliza’s husband, Henry, from Louisiana, owned a successful dry goods store. He imparted his love of France to his family. With apartments in Paris and New York, the women stayed in the fray of high society politics and held fundraisers for their causes. Their Connecticut country home, The Hay, and their Southampton estate sometimes housed refugees from across Europe, to the dismay of many elitist neighbors.

As Kelly writes in her author’s note, the Ferriday family cherished and cultivated flowers wherever they were. Henry Ferriday particularly loved the lilacs that were hardy enough to survive and bloom after a hard winter, even though he died too early to see them appear at The Hay, which he had bought shortly before his death.

In using the true history of this family of New Yorkers as the springboard for her novels, Kelly celebrates real bonds that developed and persisted between such individuals across the Atlantic and among the horrors of war, deprivation, and revolution. She finds great beauty in these war-time friendships and romances, many of which survived and even flourished despite numerous obstacles thrown in their way.

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