Isabel’s War

Lila Perl
  • Review
By – March 30, 2015

It’s the sum­mer of 1942 and twelve-year-old Isabel Brandt hates all this talk about war. She’d rather spend her time hav­ing her hair bobbed and her nose short­ened before she enters junior high in the fall. She arrives with her par­ents at Moskin’s hotel for their usu­al Catskills vaca­tion and observes that the war has already infil­trat­ed her life through staff changes and food rationing. Worse, she has to share a cab­in with the elu­sive, allur­ing four­teen-year-old Hel­ga, a Ger­man-Jew­ish refugee and niece of her mother’s friend, Mrs. Frank­furter. When Mrs. Frank­furter falls ill, Hel­ga is invit­ed to stay with the Brandts in their Bronx apart­ment, shar­ing Isabel’s room. 

In Isabel, Perl has cre­at­ed a lik­able, quirky char­ac­ter who likes to insert French phras­es into her con­ver­sa­tions and who is com­ing of age dur­ing a time of change. Isabel dogged­ly pur­sues learn­ing Helga’s secrets, how and why she came to Amer­i­ca. Only when Hel­ga admits the truth and runs away does Isabel dem- onstrate her trans­for­ma­tion from a care­free sev­enth-grad­er to a young woman com­mit­ted to doing what’s right. 

Perl, who grew up in Brook­lyn, gives read­ers the ben­e­fit of her expe­ri­ences in this posthu­mous­ly pub­lished his­tor­i­cal nov­el. She trans­ports them con­vinc­ing­ly to the For­ties and wartime. One draw­back, how­ev­er, is that char­ac­ters phi­los­o­phize on soap­box­es about Nazi atroc­i­ties and the effect of war on Amer­i­ca. Also, Isabel’s French phras­es can only be under­stood through con­text; they are not translated. 

Rec­om­mend­ed for ages 10 – 14

Bar­bara Kras­ner is an award-win­ning poet and his­to­ri­an who focus­es her writ­ing on the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence in Amer­i­ca and dur­ing the Holo­caust. She teach­es in the his­to­ry depart­ment of The Col­lege of New Jer­sey and serves as Direc­tor, Mer­cer Holo­caust, Geno­cide & Human Rights Edu­ca­tion Center.

Discussion Questions