“The Last Train to London” by Meg Waite Clayton. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2019. 464 pages. $27.99.
“The Last Train to London” tells a beautiful and important story, and is clearly written with great care and research. But its countless third person narrators and short scenes make it hard to get particularly invested in any one character, and it takes too long for the multiple storylines to converge.
This historical fiction by Meg Waite Clayton tells the largely unknown story of Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, or Tante Truus, who saved more than 10,000 Jewish children in the years before the Holocaust began. The book also shows the rapid change in Austria leading up to Kristallnacht through the eyes of Stephan Neuman, the son of a rich Jewish chocolatier, and his friend, Žofie-Helene — whose mother is the publisher and writer of an anti-Nazi newspaper.
The characters are impressive and three dimensional, one of the book’s strongest qualities aside from its historical draw. Truus is strong-willed, kind, and quick-thinking, which gets her out of many tough situations as she attempts (and succeeds) to bring children out of Germany and Austria.
Her personal troubles, which Clayton imagines for the book, motivate her to keep pushing the envelope with the refugee children.
In the book’s other narrative, Stephan is a teen playwright with big dreams and love in his heart. And Žofie is a mathematical prodigy who is just as brave as she is smart. Their quick friendship is heartwarming and unique, as they spend hours rehearsing Stephan’s plays or discussing complicated mathematical theories.
But the problem with this book is that somehow, even though you’re rooting for these three characters and their loved ones throughout the story, is that you never quite feel their pain or suffering.
Characters with relatively small parts in Clayton’s narrative get to be narrators in some chapters, like Helen Bentwich, who helps Truus arrange the final transport to England. Sure, her actions were important in moving the plans forward, but it’s jarring to suddenly be reading about Truus’ story from a different — and less important — point of view.
The same is true for a half page narrated by Žofie’s mother— it only serves to show Käthe getting arrested. (More effective, and what Clayton should have stuck to, are the snippets of Käthe’s articles that report on events in Austria.)
Even Adolf Eichmann, the real-life Nazi leader, narrates a few short scenes. This attempt to see into his mind as he comes up with the “final solution” to Germany’s “Jew problem” isn’t revelatory or humanizing, and so it feels feeble.
There are scenes that give the reader crucial information that perhaps could not be done from other characters’ points of view. But having an omniscient narrator, rather than many separate third-person narrators, could have taken care of that obstacle.
(There is one instance that is too cute and clever to complain about, in which Stephan’s 5-year-old brother Walter, who carries a stuffed Peter Rabbit around with him, narrates. Because it’s from Walter’s point of view, Peter is his own talking character.)
It’s hard to empathize with Truus, Stephan and Žofie because their stories are being hijacked by minor characters’ points of view. You can pity them, but their sadness or troubles never overwhelm you.
Along with that issue is the sometimes too quick jumping back and forth between storylines. In several instances, a section in Truus’ storyline is interrupted by a half page of Stephan’s, and then is resumed, or vice versa. The book just feels disconnected, and the characters’ storylines don’t start to merge until perhaps the last third of the story. Until the climax, which I’d pinpoint as Kristallnacht, the plot feels slow and even repetitive at times.
The ending of the story, which I won’t give away (though the events of the Kindertransport are historical fact) does leave some pieces up to the reader’s imagination. The characters are grounded enough by the end that you’re ready to leave them, but you still wonder what will happen to them.
I’d give this book a three out of five stars, because I am grateful to Clayton for shining light on Truus’ amazing story and selfless work. Her main characters are interesting enough to have kept me reading through the confusing and jarring narration, but it took me a while to get through this book because of how slowly the story moved.