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Leaving Hell Like a Dream Behind Them

Nazi war crimes and Cold War espionage fuel a YA historical thriller

Nazi war crimes and Cold War espionage fuel Bluebird, the new young adult novel by Nashville author Sharon Cameron. The historical thriller opens in 1946 as 18-year-old immigrant Eva Gerst and her friend Brigit Heidelmann get their first glimpse of New York City from the deck of their ship. Eva is fascinated by the carefree way children are playing on shore: “These children don’t know about unexploded grenades. Or teetering walls that collapse when climbed. And no one here is going to shoot them for their shoes. She’d forgotten there could be children like that.”

Photo: Rusty Russell

Eva and Brigit are traumatized refugees from Germany. Although they are not Jewish, they experienced terrifying abuse and deprivation during the war and barely escaped with their lives. Brigit, in particular, has “had a bad war,” as the doctors euphemistically put it. Even though she is older than Eva, her understanding and behavior have regressed to that of a small child, and Eva is determined to protect and care for her. To bring Brigit safely out of Europe, Eva has made a “rotten deal,” trading their freedom for a dangerous mission in America that only she can complete.

But it’s a mission that she has no intention of completing — at least, not the way her mysterious American contact in Berlin expects. Both the Americans and the Soviets would turn the results of Project Bluebird against their enemies, whomever they might be. It’s a project born of concentration camp experimentation and torture, and Eva’s only goal is justice for all those sacrificed along the way, especially the 27 names she repeats to herself like a mantra.

Fresh off the ship, the two girls are released into the custody of a Quaker organization, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which offers kindness and compassion while meeting their most immediate physical needs. In her author’s note, Cameron goes into greater detail about AFSC, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947. Eva and Brigit are welcomed into Powell House, the group’s residential home in Manhattan, which in its day, Cameron says, “acted as a liaison between Jewish organizations, Christian organizations — both Protestant and Catholic — and the African American churches of Harlem,” promoting peace and social justice regardless of creed or color.

The AFSC’s mission is a far cry from the world Eva and Brigit have just fled in terror, and Eva is surprised to see the ease with which residents and volunteers from different backgrounds interact. It’s at Powell House that Eva meets the confident and friendly Jake Katz, a young Jewish man assigned to serve as a guide to the girls in their new home. Even though Eva was taught to view Jews as “a virus infecting the people of Germany,” she feels drawn to the kind young man and begins to rethink her old assumptions. But Eva is determined to trust no one; she knows she is being followed and observed at all times. She must focus on catching the Nazi doctor who is the key to her past and her future.

In Bluebird, Cameron — whose 2020 novel, The Light in Hidden Places, was a Reese’s YA Book Club pick —  gives her young readers a glimpse of the shocking treatment of innocent men, women, and children during World War II, contrasted with peaceful post-war New York City and the gentle care provided by Eva’s new Quaker friends. But unfortunately for Eva, the dangers of the present are as urgent and life-threatening as the dangers of the past; they are just a little more difficult to see coming.

Cameron keeps the suspense level high as Eva pursues justice while protecting those she loves and dodging others who would turn her efforts to their own desperate Cold War ends. Wryly, Eva observes that it’s the lucky ones who get to come to America: “Leaving hell like a dream behind them. Or bringing it with them.”

Leaving Hell Like a Dream Behind Them

Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.

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