Sarah’s Key

Sarah's Keyby Tatiana de Rosnay

My friends and I have begun a book club, so now I have a specific reason to read adult titles.  It’s kind of nice.  While I love teen lit, I feel like that is all I should be reading since there are so many good titles that I need to stay on top of.  The book club gives me a legitimate excuse to stray from the ever-growing teen “to read” pile and take on a promising adult title.  Sarah’s Key was our first selection and a good one at that (good job on your pick Susan).

Sarah is ten years old in the summer of 1942.  She lives in Paris with her mother, father, and younger brother.  While she now has to constantly wear a star attached to her clothes and is not allowed to play outside like she once could, she basically has a good life…that is until the night of July 16.  That night French policemen come knocking on their door and force them to leave their home.  Her younger brother doesn’t want to leave, so Sarah locks him in their secret closet and promises to come back for him soon.  Sarah and her mother and father are taken to the cycling arena called Vélodrome d’Hiver and locked in for days with very little food or water in unsanitary conditions.  When they are released from the arena, they are taken to a camp, separated, and slated for a deadly trip to Auschwitz.  Sarah not only has to endure the atrocities of the roundup but the horror of knowing her brother is locked in their secret closet with no one to let him out.

Sixty years later, Julia Jarmond, an American journalist living in Paris, is researching the 60th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, as it is now called, and becomes wrapped up in this tragic and sordid bit of France’s history, because it was not the Germans who took these people, including over 4,000 children, but French officials.  Soon, Julia links her own life to Sarah’s and becomes determined to learn everything she can about Sarah.  In the end, Sarah’s story changes Julia’s life forever.

Reaction: Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  It was gripping and I was fascinated by the history of Vel d’Hiv.  I had never heard of it before and did not realize that Jews had been treated like that in France.  I think the two things that shocked me the most were the large number of children taken and the fact that the Germans had only asked the French to provide non-French Jews over 18 but the French officials gather all Jews — men, women, children, citizens, and non-citizens alike.  Here is an interesting article from the Guardian written around the time of the actual 60th Anniversary.  As for the book itself, general consensus was that the first half was the best.  In the first half, the narration alternated between Sarah in 1942 and Julia in 2002.  Once we lost Sarah’s voice it felt like the story was missing something.  Also, I must say that Julia’s obsession with Vel d’Hiv and Sarah’s story was verging on insane, like maybe she needed to speak with her therapist about it.  It was affecting her life, her mood, her marriage (not that her marriage was all that great to begin with), and her relationship with her daughter.  Finally, the ending was a tad disappointing and a bit unrealistic.  In the end, though, I can’t say that these things ruined the book for me.  I was completely drawn into the story, into the sadness of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, and into Julia’s need to know.

Cover: I like the cover on the paperback edition (on Amazon) better than the hardback (pictured above), not that it really matters, I’m just saying.

Aside: So, it turns out that Sarah’s Key kicked off a month-long WWII read-a-thon for me, and it was a great way to start because it piqued my interest in the topic.  I have to do booktalks for 6th graders on WWII in Europe in January and my WWII repertoire is sadly lacking –so, bring on the depressing mg and teen books on WWII!

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About Casey

I am a librarian who loves all things reading, especially teen literature.
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