In The Room on Rue Amélie, talented novelist Kristin Harmel transports the reader to Paris during the Nazis’ occupation of the city. A sobering account of those who lived in fear and defiance during the Holocaust, this book of historical fiction is also a surprising story of love, courage, and the resiliency of the human spirit.
Drawing on extensive research, Harmel creates characters that allow the reader to experience the perils that were faced by those dedicated to the French Resistance — a group that was comprised mostly of the women and girls left behind to defend their beloved city. These women come alive in the representative figure of Ruby Henderson Benoit — an exuberant new bride who leaves California, the only world she has ever known, to follow her husband to Paris, in spite of her father’s warnings. Her gaiety is quickly cut short several months after her arrival when France finds itself at war with Germany. It isn’t long before her new husband, Marcel, becomes secretive, disappearing for days at a time. What’s worse, he seems to believe Ruby is naïve and unsophisticated in her understanding of their current reality and the gravity of the threat Hitler poses.
But Ruby’s determination to contribute will not be broken. She risks imprisonment and even death as she works in the underground effort to help English pilots who have been shot down over France. She also takes on a tremendous risk in hiding Charlotte, the spirited 10-year-old Jewish girl one flat over, after her parents are sent to a concentration camp in Poland. The two become friends and co-conspirators in the resistance.
The Room on Rue Amélie is, ultimately, a love story. We see multiple kinds of love: romantic, maternal, and even love for the stranger. The romance between Ruby and a pilot she later meets is especially gripping. In retrospect, her earlier relationship with Marcel was a naïve one, based on a young girl’s expectations of marriage. Her later love with Thomas is different — mature, powerful, and deep — he is her bashert.
Harmel manages to tell an engaging tale within the confines of her genre. A lot of the storyline may feel familiar to readers versed in Holocaust fiction — and yet this author manages to draw her audience in, even to the point of unexpected tears at the story’s end.