Summary and book reviews of The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman

The World That We Knew

by Alice Hoffman

The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman X
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2019, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2020, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis
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About this Book

Book Summary

In 1941, during humanity's darkest hour, three unforgettable young women must act with courage and love to survive, from the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Marriage of Opposites Alice Hoffman.

In Berlin, at the time when the world changed, Hanni Kohn knows she must send her twelve-year-old daughter away to save her from the Nazi regime. She finds her way to a renowned rabbi, but it's his daughter, Ettie, who offers hope of salvation when she creates a mystical Jewish creature, a rare and unusual golem, who is sworn to protect Lea. Once Ava is brought to life, she and Lea and Ettie become eternally entwined, their paths fated to cross, their fortunes linked.

Lea and Ava travel from Paris, where Lea meets her soulmate, to a convent in western France known for its silver roses; from a school in a mountaintop village where three thousand Jews were saved. Meanwhile, Ettie is in hiding, waiting to become the fighter she's destined to be.

What does it mean to lose your mother? How much can one person sacrifice for love? In a world where evil can be found at every turn, we meet remarkable characters that take us on a stunning journey of loss and resistance, the fantastical and the mortal, in a place where all roads lead past the Angel of Death and love is never ending.

Chapter One
EAST OF THE SUN
Berlin, Spring 1941

If you do not believe in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand. But if you do believe, you may see it everywhere, in every cellar, in every tree, along streets you know and streets you've never been on before. In the world that we knew, Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden. Her husband, Simon, was murdered on a winter afternoon during a riot outside the Jewish Hospital on Iranische Strasse, which was miraculously still functioning despite the laws against the Jews. He had spent the afternoon saving two patients' lives by correcting the flow of blood to their hearts, then at a little past four, as a light snow was falling, he was killed by a gang of thugs. They stole the wedding ring from his finger and the boots from his feet. His wife was not allowed to go to the cemetery and bury him, instead his ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. This novel is both historical fiction and magical realism. How does Alice Hoffman achieve her unique writing style? What details does she use from each genre? What do each add to the emotional content of the story?
  2. After reading the novel, re-examine the title. Consider who "we" refers to in relation to the story and to your own life.
  3. How do you feel about Ava's relationship with the heron? Has an animal ever affected your spiritual life? Are emotions bound to human experience?
  4. In one of the darkest periods of human history, why do the characters still yearn to live even as the world is falling apart? What makes life precious? Is it love, family, memory, hope?
  5. In fairy tales, beasts are often humane, and humans are often cruel. In The...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Hoffman chronicles many forms of resistance and develops a vivid cast of characters, most of them teens; they are often separated, but reconnect in unexpected, memorable ways...The beauty of Hoffman's prose and themes deliver a sense of hope...continued

Full Review (865 words).

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(Reviewed by Karen Lewis).

Media Reviews

The New York Times
Her storytelling isn’t seamless. She sends her fictional characters into known history, wedging in pieces of background information that can feel exactly like that. But even as Hoffman the researcher shows her work, Hoffman the storyteller continues to dazzle.

BookPage (starred review)
Page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, The World That We Knew presents a breathtaking, deeply emotional odyssey through the shadows of a dimming world while never failing to convince us that there is light somewhere at the end of it all. This book feels destined to become a high point in an already stellar career.

Publishers Weekly
The attention to the harsh historical facts makes the reader care all the more strongly about the fates of all of the characters. Hoffman offers a sober appraisal of the Holocaust and the tragedies and triumphs of those who endured its atrocities.

Booklist (starred review)
An exceptionally voiced tale of deepest love and loss…one of [Hoffman's] finest. WWII fiction has glutted the market, but Hoffman's unique brand of magical realism and the beautiful, tender yet devastating way she explores her subject make this a standout.

Library Journal
One of America's most brilliant novelists since her debut, Property Of, Hoffman uses her signature element of magical realism to tackle an intolerably painful chapter in history. Readers know going in that their hearts will be broken, but they will be unable to let go until the last page.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Hoffman employs her signature lyricism to express the agony of the Holocaust with a depth seldom equaled in more seemingly realistic accounts...A spellbinding portrait of what it means to be human in an inhuman world.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Strout, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge
Oh, what a book this is! Hoffman's exploration of the world of good and evil, and the constant contest between them, is unflinching; and the humanity she brings to us—it is a glorious experience. The book builds and builds, as she weaves together, seamlessly, the stories of people in the most desperate of circumstances—and then it delivers with a tremendous punch. It opens up the world, the universe, in a way that it absolutely unique. By the end you may be weeping.

Author Blurb Jodi Picoult, New York Times bestselling author of Small Great Things and A Spark of Light
Alice Hoffman's new novel will break your heart, and then stitch it back together piece by piece. It's about love and loss, about history and the world today, about what happens when man goes against the laws of nature for good and for evil. It's my new favorite Hoffman book—and if you know how much I adore her writing, that's truly saying something.

Reader Reviews

Viola E. Walton

The World That We Knew
There are a few cases when I would like to give a book 6 stars, but this is one of them. Having lived in Germany ten years after WWII, the book brought back memories of things I was told by people who lived there during the war. I think the author ...   Read More
Sandi W

going against the flow on this book...
I am not sure if it was bad timing for me, the fact that I listened to an audio instead of reading the book, or I am just not an Alice Hoffman fan. But I struggled to give this a 3 star rating. I did not hear the wonderful prose that has been ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Children's Art of the Holocaust

In Alice Hoffman's novel The World That We Knew, Julien, 14, escapes occupied Paris and finds temporary refuge at a rural chateau-turned-orphanage. He tutors math and participates in art workshops there. The displaced children survive day-to-day, and are encouraged to express themselves with drawing and painting.

An important collection of children's art of the Holocaust survives today thanks to the efforts of Frederika "Friedl" Dicker-Brandeis, an Austrian-born, Bauhaus-trained artist who was interred at Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp near Prague from December 1942 to September 1944.

Terezín was implemented as a "model ghetto" for Jews, run by Jews under Nazi command, detaining many scholars, doctors, artists, ...

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