Pages have power in Kristin Harmel’s ‘The Book of Lost Names’

The Florida author’s fifth historical novel set during World War II is a thrilling tale of forgers in the French Resistance.
Kristin Harmel's latest novel is "The Book of Lost Names."
Kristin Harmel's latest novel is "The Book of Lost Names." [ Phil Art Studios ]
Published Nov. 7, 2020

Librarians are not often shocked by books.

But when Eva Traube Abrams, a semiretired librarian in Winter Park, sees a photograph of a rare book in the New York Times, her world stands still.

She knows the book, an 18th century volume titled Epitres et Evangiles — knows it more intimately than anyone else alive, knows its astonishing secret. Eva is 86, and she hasn’t seen the book in 60 years, but she knows that a mission she undertook in 1942 is not yet finished.

That moment of revelation begins the gripping, moving story of Kristin Harmel’s new novel, The Book of Lost Names.

This is Harmel’s 14th novel and her fifth set during World War II. Her 2019 book, The Winemaker’s Wife, told the fascinating story of the many winemakers of the Champagne region who became part of the Resistance after the Nazis invaded France. The Book of Lost Names explores another little-known slice of history: the role of forgers in protecting Jews from genocide.

Harmel, who lives in Orlando, grew up partly in St. Petersburg and began working as a journalist in high school, including covering sports for the then-St. Petersburg Times. She worked for a number of newspapers and magazines, including more than a decade as a reporter for People.

In The Book of Lost Names, she bases her fiction on extensive historical research, including real-life forgers who had heroic roles during the war. Eva is fictional, but her story draws from fact.

The book Eva sees in that newspaper photo is one of the countless volumes the Nazis looted from their owners during the war. Many of them ended up in German libraries, and the article the photo illustrates is about a German librarian who is trying to trace some of the books, many of them rare, back to their rightful owners.

The book in the photo is rare, but, the German librarian notes, “It is unique because within it, we find an intriguing puzzle: some sort of code. To whom did it belong? What does the code mean? How did the Germans come to possess it during the war?”

To answer those questions, Harmel takes the reader to Paris in 1942. Eva Traube is a doctoral student in English literature at the Sorbonne. “Not that it made a difference; the only thing anyone would notice was the six-pointed yellow star stitched onto the left side of her cardigan. It erased all the other parts of her that mattered.”

Rumors are whispered that a massive roundup of Jews is coming, and Eva fears for herself and her parents, who are Polish immigrants. Her father is a typewriter repairman who has somehow managed to keep his job, although as a Jew he is not allowed to work in government offices. His old supervisor, Monsieur Goujon, has helped him stay employed. Now, Eva’s father tells her, Goujon has already been paid to give her another sort of help.

If the roundup happens, he tells Eva, she must flee alone. As a family they would be too conspicuous; Eva is French born, which might help. And Goujon will supply her with forged identity papers so she can get across the border to Switzerland.

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The knock at the door comes all too soon. Eva watches through a window as her father is taken away, then goes to Goujon for help. He tells her he can provide papers for her, but not her mother, whose accent will give away her identity. Eva begs him to give her blank identity papers — and so her career as a forger begins.

She will do far more than get herself and her mother out of Paris. In the countryside, she will sharpen her skills, with the help of a dashing, mysterious forger named Remy. She’ll use those skills to help Jewish children escape the threat of death in the concentration camps, but she’s haunted by the knowledge that many of them are so young they will not remember their real identities, that they will lose their names forever.

It’s a thrilling story, with Eva dodging danger at every turn. Harmel weaves her extensive research into the story gracefully, and she keeps her engaging characters at the center.

Eva’s relationship with that long-lost book illuminates some of the unsung heroes of WWII, and she will reclaim the book, and her history, and more.

The Book of Lost Names

By Kristin Harmel

Gallery Books, 388 pages, $28