Book Review: What the Night Sings by Vesper Stamper

What the Night Sings coverWhat the Night Sings

Vesper Stamper (written and illustrated)

9781524700386, Knopf Books for Young Readers, hardcover, $18.99, Pub. Date: February 20, 2018

Ages 10+

Publisher Description: For fans of The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas comes a lushly illustrated novel about a teen Holocaust survivor, who must come to terms with who she is and how to rebuild her life.

After losing her family and everything she knew in the Nazi concentration camps, Gerta is finally liberated, only to find herself completely alone. Without her Papa, her music, or even her true identity, she must move past the task of surviving and onto living her life. In the displaced persons camp where she is staying, Gerta meets Lev, a fellow teen survivor who she just might be falling for, despite her feelings for someone else. With a newfound Jewish identity she never knew she had, and a return to the life of music she thought she lost forever, Gerta must choose how to build a new future.

WildlyRead Review: Equally a love letter to the power of music as well as a Holocaust remembrance. Lyrical, evocative language is the real strength of this book, though the story itself is engaging, too, though horrific, because of what happened to the Jews, which it does not shy away from discussing. It’s almost more poignant because the heartbreaking details are reported so matter-of-factory, while the hopes and dreams (if there are any left to have) are presented so magically, that that juxtaposition makes the harsh reality all the clearer. For fans of Number the Stars, Letters from Rifka, and other WWII tween/YA reads, this provides a new perspective, telling two Holocaust stories we don’t often hear – a secular Jew’s confusion over both her treatment and, afterward, her religion, and the significance of music. Exceedingly powerful, with the illustrations acting like a garnish for the writing.

Personal Notes: Full disclosure – I’m a Jew. It scares me, even now, to write that sometimes. To let that be known so publicly. There is a low level of constant fear that something like the Holocaust or the pogroms or the any other type of historical persecution that has plagued my people will happen again, if not to me, then to the next group, and that I will not be able to stop it. Genocide in Rwanda. A Muslim ban.

The parts that shock me the most sometimes, break my heart the most always, is first, how the Jews (or anyone in this situation – Japanese internment camps have similarities) – didn’t understand, couldn’t comprehend what was happening and so on an individual level offered no resistance. “Just get in these cattle cars, everything will be fine, we’ll let you write home later.” So okay, they went. “Form two lines: you go to the barracks, you get in this line to go to the gas chambers and ovens.” And so they marched to their own deaths. Resistance was small, often futile, but always meaningful. The little dignities Jews tried to afford each other – cremating your mentor’s body alone in the oven – kept our humanity, our souls, alive, even in the midst of all that horror. Vesper manages to capture both the large mechanisms at work and the small acts of both inhumanity and dignity that were performed during this time.

I read books like this not only because of my own heritage, but to remind myself of two things – 1) that people as individuals and as a group are capable of systematic inhuman degradation, though I cannot to this day understand how or why, and 2) that no matter how broken one is, time and space provide healing and hope. Never forgetting, but one can start to look forward instead of back or staying stuck in one place. The book ends not with answers, but with hope, and that is enough.

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