Seven decades of secrets unravel with the arrival of a box of letters from the distant past, taking readers on a harrowing journey from Nazi-occupied Berlin, to the South of France, to modern-day New York City.
Berlin, 1939. The dreams that Amanda Sternberg and her husband, Julius, had for their daughters are shattered when the Nazis descend on Berlin, burning down their beloved family bookshop and sending Julius to a concentration camp. Desperate to save her children, Amanda flees toward the South of France. Along the way, a refugee ship headed for Cuba offers another chance at escape and there, at the dock, Amanda is forced to make an impossible choice that will haunt her for the rest of her life. Once in Haute-Vienne, her brief respite is interrupted by the arrival of Nazi forces, and Amanda finds herself in a labor camp where she must once again make a heroic sacrifice.
New York, 2015. Eighty-year-old Elise Duval receives a call from a woman bearing messages from a time and country that she forced herself to forget. A French Catholic who arrived in New York after World War II, Elise is shocked to discover that the letters were from her mother, written in German during the war. Her mother’s words unlock a floodgate of memories, a lifetime of loss un-grieved, and a chance—at last—for closure.
Based on true events and “breathtakingly threaded together from start to finish with the sound of a beating heart” (The New York Times Book Review), The Daughter’s Tale is an unforgettable family saga of love, survival, and redemption.
|Publisher:||Washington Square Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.31(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.80(d)|
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The Daughter’s Tale
“Is this Ms. Duval? Elise Duval?” The voice on the phone repeated her name while she remained silent. “We were in Cuba recently. My daughter and I have some letters in German that belong to you.”
Elise had always been able to foresee the future. But not today. Today, she could never have predicted.
For an instant, she thought the call must be a mistake. After all, she was French, and had been living in New York for the last seventy years, ever since an uncle on her mother’s side had adopted her at the end of the war. Now, her only living relatives were her daughter, Adele, and her grandson, Etienne. They were her entire world, and everything that came before was shrouded in darkness.
“Ms. Duval?” the woman’s voice said again, gentle but insistent. Fraught with terror, Elise groped for some support, afraid she might faint.
“You can come see me this afternoon,” was all she managed to say before hanging up, neglecting to check first whether she had any appointments, or if she should consult her daughter. She heard the woman’s name, Ida Rosen, and her daughter’s, Anna, but her memory was a blank, closed to the past. She was certain only that she had no wish to verify the credentials of the stranger and her daughter. There was no need to give them her address, because they already had it. The call had not been a mistake. That much she knew.
Elise spent the next few hours trying to imagine what might lie behind their brief conversation. Rosen, she repeated to herself as she searched among the dim shadows of those who had crossed the Atlantic with her after the war.
Only a few hours had passed, and already the call was beginning to fade in her limited, selective memory. “There’s no time to remember,” she used to tell her husband, then her daughter, and now her grandson.
She felt vaguely guilty at having agreed so readily to receive this stranger. She should have asked who had written the letters, why they had ended up in Cuba, what Mrs. Rosen and her daughter were doing there. Instead, she had said nothing.
When the doorbell finally rang, her heart leapt out of her chest. She tried to shut her eyes and prepare herself, taking a deep breath and counting the heartbeats: one, two, three, four, five, six—a trick learned from childhood, one of her only clear memories. She had no idea how long she had spent in her bedroom, dressed in her navy-blue suit, waiting.
It was as if her senses had suddenly been heightened at the sound of the bell. Her hearing became sharper. Now, she could just make out the breathing of the two strangers outside the door waiting to see a weary old widow. But why? She paused with her hand on the lock, hoping against hope this visit was no more than an illusion, something she had dreamed, one of the many crazy notions brought on by the years. She closed her eyes and tried to visualize what would happen, but nothing came.
It was becoming clear to Elise that this meeting wasn’t about the future. Instead, it signified the return of a past she could no longer keep out, a constant shadow ever since the day she had disembarked in the port of New York, when the hand of an uncle who was to become a father rescued her from her oblivion. But he could never bring back her memories, removed by necessity, for the sake of her survival.
She opened the door resolutely. A shaft of light blinded her. The noise of the elevator, a neighbor going downstairs, a dog barking, and the wail of an ambulance siren distracted her for a second. The woman’s smile brought her back to reality.
Elise motioned for them to come in. Without yet saying a word, she avoided making the slightest gesture that might betray her terror. The girl, Anna, who looked to be twelve years old, came over and hugged her round the waist. She had no idea how to respond. Maybe she should have let her hands drop onto the little girl’s shoulders, or stroked her hair the way she used to do when her own daughter was the same age.
“You’ve got blue eyes,” she said timidly.
What a ridiculous thing to say! I should have said she had beautiful eyes, thought Elise, trying not to notice that they were the same blue, almond-shaped, and hooded eyes as hers, that her profile . . . No, she told herself fearfully, because it was her own reflection she saw in the face of this strange little girl.
Making an effort, Elise led the pair of them into the living room. Just as she was asking them to sit down, Anna handed her a small, lusterless, ebony box.
Elise carefully opened the box. By the time she finished unfolding the first letter, written in faded ink on a page from a botanical album, her eyes were brimming with tears.
“Does this belong to me?” she whispered, clasping the crucifix around her neck, a charm that had accompanied her ever since she could remember.
“Your eyes,” she repeated, staring at Anna with anguish.
Elise tried to stand up, but could feel her heart failing her. She was losing control over herself, over the life she had so carefully constructed. She could see her own face at a distance, staring at the scene from afar like another witness in the room.
Her palms grew sweaty, the box fell from her grasp, the letters spilling out onto the carpet. A photograph of a family with two little girls with a frightened gaze lay buried among yellowing sheets of paper. Elise saw herself closing her eyes and a stabbing pain in her chest took away her balance. Collapsing onto the faded carpet, she knew it was happening, at last: the final act of forgetting.
Silence, walls of silence all around her. She tried to recall how many times a heart could stop and then start beating again. One . . . silence. Two . . . another, even longer pause. Three . . . the void. The silence between one heartbeat and the next cut her off from the world. She wanted to hear one more. Four. And another. She breathed in as deeply as she could. Five . . . just one more and she would be safe. Silence. Six!
“Elise!” The shout made her stir. “Elise!”
That name, that name. Elise. It wasn’t her, for she was no one. She did not exist, she had never existed. She had lived a life that didn’t belong to her, had created a family she had deceived, spoke a language that wasn’t hers. All these years spent fleeing from who she truly was. To what end? She was a survivor, and that was not a mistake, nor a misunderstanding.
By the time the paramedics lifted her onto the gurney, she had already forgotten the other woman and her blue-eyed daughter, forgotten the letters written in a strange language, the photograph.
But in the space of forgetting, a memory emerged. Herself, as a little girl, trying to find her way through a thick forest, surrounded by enormous trees that prevented her from seeing the sky. How could she know where she was going, if she couldn’t see the stars? Blood on her cheek, hands, her dress, but not hers. A body lying lifeless on the ground in a gory mess. No helping hand to support her. She could feel the thick, damp air, hear her childish voice stammer: “Mama! Mama!” She was lost, abandoned in the darkness.
In the fog of jumbled memories, she saw it all: the letters, the ebony box, the purple jewel case, a threadbare soccer ball, a wounded soldier. Withered flowers and blurred lines.
It had taken this little girl, Anna, for Elise to discover who she really was, stripping off the mask she had been wearing for seven decades. The past was now rewarding her with this final, unexpected visit, with the image of handwriting on the pages of a familiar book, a book not important because of what it said, but for the hours she had spent tracing the letters and flowers that had been with her every day of her childhood.
“Hydrocharis morsus-ranae,” she whispered.
She felt herself floating freely like one of those aquatic plants, its flowers tinged with yellow. She was delirious, but if she could remember, that meant she was still alive. It was time to allow herself to die, but first she had to do something with the pages torn from the mutilated book.
Yet the damage was done; she had no right to ask for forgiveness. She shut her eyes and counted her heartbeats. The silences between them helped drive away the fear. Who had taught her to do that?
“Ready!” she heard.
She felt a weight on her crushed chest. The first electric shock produced palpitations of a kind she had never experienced. She told herself she wasn’t going to let them revive her. She didn’t want to live. As a child, she had been put on an enormous ocean liner, and had never dared to look back. She wasn’t going to look back now.
The second shock brought new warmth, forced her to open her eyes. Tears began to flow, beyond her control. She couldn’t tell if she was alive or not, and that made her weep. Someone took her by the hand and gently stroked her brow.
“Mama!” She heard her daughter’s tearful voice. She was so close that Elise could not distinguish her features.
Would she be able to find the words to explain to Adele, her only daughter, that she had brought her up with a lie?
“Elise, how do you feel? I’m so sorry . . .” Ida was there as well, clearly distressed by the effect of her visit.
Adele stood silent. She couldn’t understand what this stranger and her daughter were doing here in the hospital with her mother, a dying old woman.
In a language she no longer recognized, Elise heard herself muttering a phrase that came from somewhere beyond: “Mama, verlass mich nicht.” Don’t leave me.
One . . . silence, two . . . silence, three . . . silence, four, five . . . She took a deep breath, waiting for the next heartbeat.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Daughter’s Tale includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Armando Lucas Correa. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From the bestselling author of The German Girl, an unforgettable family saga exploring a hidden piece of World War II history and the lengths a mother will go to protect her children.
BERLIN, 1939. Amanda Sternberg’s world is upended when the Nazis descend on Berlin, burning down her beloved family bookshop and sending her husband, Julius, to a concentration camp. Desperate to save her two daughters, she flees toward the south of France. Along the way a ship headed for Cuba offers a chance at escape, but at the dock Amanda is forced to make an impossible choice—she can only put one of her children onboard.
Once in Haute-Vienne, Amanda and her remaining daughter’s brief freedom is interrupted by the arrival of Nazi forces, and Amanda finds herself in a labor camp where she must once again make a heroic sacrifice—save her daughter or save herself.
NEW YORK, 2015. Eighty-year-old Elise Duval receives a call from a woman bearing letters from a time and country that she forced herself to forget. A French Catholic who arrived in New York after World War II, Elise is shocked to discover that the messages are from her mother, written in German during the war. Despite Elise’s best efforts to stave off her past, once the letters appear seven decades of secrets begin to unravel . . .
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. In the first scene, when Ida and Anna Rosen give Elise the box full of letters written by her mother so long ago, she calls this moment a “final act of forgetting” (p. 6). What do you think she means by that?
2. Near the end of Chapter 2, Amanda, Julius, and Hilde watch in horror as the books from the shop are burned in public in the Nazis’ campaign to squash any ideology that is “offensive, unpatriotic, or not sufficiently German” (p, 13). Hilde and Julius both watch sadly, but Amanda’s face is “frozen in a strange smile” (p. 24). Are you surprised by her response? What does this reaction say about her character?
3. In Julius’s farewell letter to his wife, he implores her to “never forget that we were happy once” (p. 45). But in The Daughter’s Tale, moments of happiness are few and far between. Consider the ways in which the novel asks us to reconsider our notion of happiness. Do you think that the memory of happiness and the promise of a future happiness are enough for Amanda? Why or why not?
4. When Amanda is packing up her few belongings, she chooses to take along her ebony box, botanical album, Star of David necklaces, and the jewelry that she uses as a bargaining chip in Lina’s escape from the camp. Discuss each of these items. What significance do they hold? Trace how each item plays a part in the salvation of her daughters.
5. Revisit the scene when Amanda decides to send Viera alone onto the ship, entrusting her in the care of the then-stranger Frau Meyer. How do you feel about her last-minute decision?
6. “For Claire, the war was just beginning. For Amanda, it was coming to an end” (p. 105). Compare Claire Duval to Amanda Sternberg. Did your opinion of either of them change over the course of the novel? In your response, consider Claire’s relationship with Lina and her decision to sacrifice herself in the town square.
7. What compels Amanda to write letters to Viera that might never reach her? She describes the act as a “pointless farce” but still “the words spilled out furiously, unrelenting” (p. 107).
8. Consider the role of grief in the novel. Does the lack of freedom, both inside and outside the camp, prevent the characters from being able to properly grieve? What about after the war, for those who survive? Is there any room for grief? Consider Amanda, Danielle, Lina, Berenice, and Marie-Louise in your response.
9. Revisit the scene on page 153 when Amanda slices her hand cutting potatoes. She sees the blood rushing out of her hand and “she smiled: she was still alive” (p. 153). What does this reaction say about the current state of her psyche? And how does it relate to the smile discussed in question 2?
10. The moment Amanda stabs Bertrand is shocking, in part because up until that moment she had seemed incapable of such violence. What drove Amanda to murder him? What does she lose, or gain, in this fatal act?
11. “They had lost all sense of time,” (p. 192) the narrator proclaims, after Danielle and Elise survive the bombing in the town square. In a literal sense, the trauma of the moment affects their sense of the hour of the day, but in a broader sense, the trauma of war renders time meaningless. Discuss what Marie-Louise means when she says “time is against us” (p. 219).
12. When the children discover the dying German soldier held captive inside the abbey, they are shocked. Danielle later thinks, “She had witnessed a crime, and that made her as guilty as the criminal or more, because she had said nothing” (p. 233). Do you agree or disagree with Danielle? How does this scene speak to the question of culpability explored in the novel?
13. Discuss the significance of the title. To which daughter does the title refer? Why wasn’t it called Lina’s Tale or Viera’s Tale or Amanda’s Tale, or even Elise’s Tale?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. One of the first devastating losses we witness in The Daughter’s Tale is the burning of books. Books were a threat to the Nazis because they encouraged critical thinking and independence. Yet, Amanda finds it difficult to cast off the books she has spent her entire life loving, classic novels such as Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina. Select one of these banned books with your book club. Read the book and discuss why Amanda was drawn to it, and why the Nazis might have found it threatening to their mission.
2. When Lina is rescued by Claire and Father Marcel in the forest, she is forced to hide in an attic room to avoid the suspicion of the neighbors. Her life in the attic is lonely and difficult. When a beetle she named Jepri dies, Lina thinks to herself that “Jepri’s death meant the end of her childhood” (p. 183). This moment feels so poignant, and is reminiscent of Anne’s experience in The Diary of Anne Frank. Reread selections from Anne’s diary aloud with your book club. Do you hear an echo of Anne in Lina’s words? How does each girl view and cope with her circumstances?
3. Although The Daughter’s Tale is heartbreaking, there are small moments of joy throughout the novel. One such lighthearted moment occurs in Marie-Louise’s home after the war ends (p. 271). Host a gathering with your book club and listen to the song “Je voudrais un joli bateau” (1934) that Danielle and Elise dance to with Marie-Louise. How does the song make you feel? Do you find that music, like books or flowers, contains healing powers?
A Conversation with Armando Lucas Correa
This is your second novel set in Nazi-occupied Europe. How did the experience of writing this book compare to that of The German Girl? Did you find one more challenging than the other to write?
I spent over a decade doing research about the MS Saint Louis and writing The German Girl. The process was emotionally draining, because of its history and because it was my first novel. With The Daughter’s Tale I enjoyed the process much more because I was able to play with the language; I avoided using first-person narrative, and I wrote with a lot less anxiety, if that’s even possible.
Both The German Girl and The Daughter’s Tale explore themes of memory and trauma. What draws you to these themes?
I grew up with the story of the Saint Louis from the time I was a young boy, though it was a forbidden topic in Cuba. My grandmother, the daughter of Spanish immigrants, was shocked when Cuba refused entry to the Jewish refugees onboard the Saint Louis. I too am a product of exile; I’m an immigrant as well. I came to the U.S., leaving my family behind, leaving my books. When you’re exiled, you try to set down roots, but you always live—consciously or not—with the fear of loss. I’ve always been interested in historical events, mainly from WWII, which show human vileness and are forgotten in time. They cannot be forgotten. I’m afraid of forgetting.
Discuss the structure of the narrative. Why did you decide to bookend the story with the point of view of Elise as an older woman? Why not just set the entire novel in the past?
One always lives with a secret. Sometimes it’s huge, sometimes it’s very small. But as insignificant as it may seem, it’s still a secret. We safeguard them and tend to forget them. I wanted that to be the premise. In my case, I tend to forget the negative, the sad, the illnesses. First because resentment cannot survive in me; I can’t deal with the energy around resentment. Second because it’s healthier, and a defense mechanism. In the book, I wanted to sum it all up in one secret: forgetting, pain, guilt, betrayal. The only problem is that secrets and lies are always exposed, brought to light, in the end.
Why did you choose to write about the horrific crimes committed in Oradour-sur-Glane? What was the research process like? Did you uncover any facts that were particularly surprising?
There are many events from WWII that tend to be glossed over, forgotten. For example, the Saint Louis tragedy is just now being revived. Why did we avoid talking about the Saint Louis? It’s one thing to say Hitler killed more than six million Jews but to face the fact that the rest of the world turned its face away from that monstrosity, let those crimes unfold in front of them—and that it was Cuba, the U.S., and Canada who sent more than nine hundred Jewish refugees aboard the Saint Louis to their death—is equally painful. Some say it’s better to forget.
The same happened with Oradour-sur-Glane. The SS ordered and directed the massacre of more than six hundred people who were burnt alive inside a church. But we choose to ignore that many French soldiers, under Nazi command, perpetrated that crime.
I looked for documents, read many books about the massacre in Oradour. I saw the before and after images of the town, but when I visited and spent the day among the ruins I was crushed by their dimension. It was a city, not a couple of buildings and a church. When you go there, you see the impact of the crime is so much greater. Then, there’s the cemetery where you find the graves of all the people who perished. Entire families.
The Daughter’s Tale takes on the paradoxes of love and war. For example, Amanda muses “she had always loved her [daughter], and that it was precisely that love which had led her to abandon her” (p. 158). Do you view paradox as a central theme in the novel? Is the paradox of these moments due to the circumstances of war, or do you think paradoxes like these are simply part of the human condition?
Paradoxes are an essential part of human existence. Abandonment can be proof of love. As parents, we spend our lives sacrificing for our children. There are sacrifices that lead to loss. I don’t think I could survive it. I admire Amanda so much. She lost her parents, then her beloved library, then her husband. To save her daughters, she had to abandon them. Truly, I could not.
After Amanda sacrifices her life to save Lina’s, Lina takes over as the narrator of the novel. Discuss this transition. How do you get in the right headspace to switch character perspectives?
Lina is the hope. Lina is in essence the result of all of Amanda’s sacrifices. They were worth it because even in death, Amanda had saved Viera, even though she wasn’t certain of it at the time. But she did the best she could. The good thing is that Lina can say goodbye knowing the truth.
What is your next project?
I spent four years writing a novel, The Silence in Her Eyes, a psychological thriller. When I finished The German Girl, to give myself a break, I would work on Silence. It was my therapy, my way of returning to normalcy. When I finished The Daughter’s Tale, I went back to Silence and spent a year finishing it. It takes place in New York, in the present, in my apartment building, in my neighborhood. It begins with a twenty-eight-year-old woman who suffers from akinetopsia, a strange yet irreversible neurological illness that makes her blind to movement. She sees the world only in still images; she registers movement as trails of light. The night her mother passes away, she returns to her apartment all alone, and her world takes a turn from which she will never recover.
Now I’m taking some time to finish the last part of what I call my WWII trilogy and hopefully The Silence in Her Eyes will give my readers a respite before it comes out. Well, sort of a respite, because I’m sure that some readers won’t be able to sleep for a few days after reading it.