The familiar theme of the Holocaust is placed into an unfamiliar venue, that of a traveling circus. The novel is loosely based on a true story about a German circus that sheltered a family of Jews during the war. Because the attributes of the characters were reassigned to alternate characters, in order to create the story, it really serves only to illustrate the little known part that the circus played during a tragic time in our world history. The novel takes its name from the mode of transportation used by the circus and from a child, one of many, who was left to die in a German transport rail car. Learning of another unspeakable, diabolical act of the Nazis surprised me. No matter how much I think I know, it seems that there is always something new to discover about the heinous evil of the Nazi regime and the awful capacity of human beings to harm one another.
When the novel begins, the reader meets an elderly woman. This woman seems to have given the slip to her caretakers and has escaped from her fairly independent nursing facility in order to travel to a Neuhoff Circus exhibit. The book then moves to a time period decades earlier, during World War II, and focuses on two main characters, both of whom are in trouble. One of the women is an adult, and one is a mere teenager. Both of these women are performing and traveling with the Neuhoff Circus. Both of these women have secrets. Although the Neuhoff circus is a fictitious traveling circus, it is similar to those that once existed in Germany.
Astrid Soller is a Jew whose real name was Ingrid Klemt. Her name was changed in an effort to hide her Jewish identity. Although she was Jewish, she had been married to Erich, a German officer. However, he had summarily divorced her and thrown her out when the Reich gave him orders to do so. When she returned to her family home, she found it occupied by Germans. She sought help from her neighbor, Mr. Neuhoff, who ran a circus. Astrid had come from a circus family like the Neuhoffs, and she was an aerialist. He engaged her to work for his circus, although their families had been rivals.
Noa, was a mere teenager who was thrown out of her home because she had become pregnant after a brief encounter with a German soldier. Her child was taken from her by the Germans, but was refused entrance into the German Lebensborn Progam because of his dark hair and complexion. She worried about his fate and mourned his loss. While on her own, working at a train station, she heard a strange sound. It was the sound of moaning and crying infants. Although she could not rescue her own child, she managed to rescue one child from a railcar that was filled with many infants, all of whom were being systematically murdered, left naked and uncared for, left to die. However, as she tried to escape with the baby, hungry and exhausted, she soon passed out. Both she and the child were discovered by a circus performer, Peter, a clown, who brought them both back to Mr. Neuhoff. Now two more were being hidden and sheltered by the circus owner. Noa was to be trained as an aerialist. From this point on, the story seemed to evolve into a story of a troubled friendship between the two women that was also coupled with their romantic relationships with their respective beaus. This seemed to trivialize the background story of the Holocaust.
Noa was always complaining that she did what she did because she had no choice; she was always sorry for essentially making the same mistake, over and over, and she was always placing them all in danger. She also seemed promiscuous for that time period, although some might interpret her behavior as precocious, as well. Astrid always seemed hurt and angry, never really getting over the pain of her lost family and her lost Nazi husband, even though it was a love that was obviously forbidden and his behavior was reprehensible. She carried a chip on her shoulder and often made cruel remarks to Noa. I expected her, as a Jew being sheltered by a righteous gentile, to be more forgiving of the behavior of anyone she encountered. Astrid developed a close relationship with the clown, Peter. He did not seem fully aware of the dangerous times in which they were living either, or else he simply insisted on tempting fate. With the random inspections and arrests, and the public circus performances, his behavior placed them all in danger as well, when he goose-stepped and mocked the German soldiers in his clown routine.
I did find parts of the story interesting as it presented new information, but the characters never seemed to grow; their dialogue was often pedestrian and their behavior seemed repetitive. I found that I could not get really close to the characters and identify with them. I did not find them or their dialogue very credible or engaging. I thought that the novel’s themes seemed to waffle between idealistic and realistic and seemed far too melodramatic and contrived at times.