BookBrowse Reviews Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse

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Girl in the Blue Coat

by Monica Hesse

Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse X
Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2016, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2017, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Mollie Smith Waters
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Against the backdrop of Nazi-occupied Holland, an unforgettable story of bravery, grief, and love in impossible times.

Set in Amsterdam in January 1943, Monica Hesse's young adult novel, Girl in the Blue Coat, features a spunky protagonist, Hanneke, whose job as a scavenger of rationed goods exposes her to constant danger. Yet perilous risks become the new norm for Hanneke when a customer enlists her help in finding a missing Jewish girl.

Hanneke's boyfriend, Bas, was killed on the Dutch front lines during the German invasion of The Netherlands, and now her own life has become endangered after her employer asks her to obtain restricted items, such as chocolates and coffee, for customers still able and willing to pay a high price for them. Hanneke proves quite inventive in this role, and over time, she glorifies her ability to fool checkpoint soldiers through stealth and misdirection.

During a routine delivery one morning, a customer named Mrs. Janssen shows Hanneke a secret space where she had been hiding a Jewish girl named Mirjam, who has mysteriously gone missing. Why would Mirjam leave a safe place? Mrs. Janssen does not know, so she begs Hanneke to help find the missing girl, who is easily identifiable by the distinctive blue coat she wears. But how do you locate someone who is no longer supposed to exist, and how can you ask for help when it means putting your own life at risk? Thus begins Hanneke's dangerous journey into Amsterdam's complicated system of hiding Jews.

Girl in the Blue Coat has a lot going for it, especially its resourceful and determined main character. Although Hanneke has already had several coming-of-age moments, she is forced to grow up even more as she learns that most things are not as they seem, a theme deftly woven throughout the book. Hanneke does not know whom to trust, but she quickly realizes that those spouting pro-Hitler propaganda in public are often the very ones secretly hiding Jews in private.

To increase dramatic tension, Hesse adds a budding romance to the equation. When Hanneke unwittingly becomes part of a student resistance group after enlisting Ollie, Bas's older brother, to help her find Mirjam, Hanneke is surprised that she welcomes Ollie's attentions. When they are forced to kiss in order to deflect the suspicion of two German guards, she thinks: "There, in the street, for the benefit of the German Green Police and the people who are cowering in their houses but peeking out from their curtains, Ollie cups my face in his hands and kisses me. His mouth is soft and full, his eyelashes brush against my cheek, and only he and I know that our lips are shivering in fear." Yet, her guilt over Bas may overshadow her new interest in Ollie, whose own affections may be directed elsewhere.

The book has a few shortcomings, including how the author handles the dissolution of Hanneke's friendship with Elsbeth, a character mentioned many times, but who is only seen once. Hanneke laments the loss of their friendship, but these lamentations are more about Hanneke's loss of innocence and trust. For a character to be talked about so much, but whose only real relevance seems to be to facilitate a plot point (Hanneke steals a German soldier's uniform from her), is confusing.

Because this is a work of historical fiction, Hesse incorporates layered factual details to give the plot plausibility. That the author has carefully researched her setting is evident in her use of the student resistance group, her mention of the Schouwburg Theatre as a deportation center, and her acknowledgement of the nursery next to the Schouwburg, where babies have a curious habit of disappearing in an unexpected way (see Beyond the Book). Hesse acknowledges any liberties she takes with the facts in "A Note on Historical Accuracy."

Girl in the Blue Coat has many twists and turns, and just when readers get comfortable in the knowledge that they know what will happen next, Hesse pulls the rug out from under them. A surprise ending and several other awe-inducing reveals along the way keep readers in suspense to the very end.

This review was originally published in May 2016, and has been updated for the April 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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