Donald Himelstein,
Above Honor: Rachel's Story
(Fireside, 2010)

Rachel is a 22-year-old woman in 1939 who desires to escape Europe with her husband, Jake, and their baby. The start of the novel finds them on an old Greek freighter waiting to get clearance to leave from the Germans. Unfortunately, the price of freedom for this group of Jews is for several of the woman, including Rachel, to attend a Nazi SS officer's party. Over the course of the evening, Nazi SS officer Rudy Reinhardt rapes her -- all these women were taken advantage of. But in the end, Rachel and her family make it to the Dominican Republic, where they are able to start their lives over. And about 9 months later, Rachel gives birth to little Bernardo, the consequence of that rape.

In 1939, Rudy Reinhardt and his brother Karl were both making progress within the Nazi ranks, although Rudy always seems to be in his brother's shadow. At the war's conclusion, Rudy and his family escape Germany -- also to the Dominican Republic, where he remakes himself. He increases his land and cattle wealth, but he hasn't totally left his Nazi past behind. Still, by all appearances, Rudy's new life looks like the results of an honest European expatriate making a new life for himself after the war.

Neither Rachel nor Rudy realize their destinies have led them to the same small Caribbean island. Over the decades, they both raise their families, and they both become prosperous. Eventually, as you can guess, their paths cross again. When Rudy's daughter, Greta, and Rachel's youngest son, Diego, fall in love, Rachel must eventually face a past that she would much rather leave there. Has time healed her wounds? Will she let her old hatred get in the way of young love?

Above Honor: Rachel's Story shows, on the one hand, how people can overcome terrible experiences. Good things can follow after bad. But while Rachel feels herself the victim of Rudy and is reminded of it every time she sees her son Bernardo, Rachel also has her own victim -- her husband Jake. Over the years, she has had several lovers.

The reader might feel for Jake, who is perhaps too meek for his own good. He is a good man, who raises Bernardo, even though it's obvious the child isn't his. His love for Rachel keeps him in the relationship despite her infidelities (not counting the encounter with Rudy, of course). Yet, in the end, it is his choice to remain in this relationship.

This novel is author Donald Himelstein's first. He decided to write the story after hearing about the Sosua Jews on a trip he took to the Dominican Republic. (If it matters to you, he was on his honeymoon). Sosua is the name of a real town where 645 Jews emigrated to escape WW2 Europe. But let us turn back to Donald. He spent two years in the U.S. Army as a medical corpsman. After the military, he earned a B.A. in political science. His primary career was at the New York State Office of Disability, where he retired after 33 years as an analyst.

I enjoy a good WW2 story. Above Honor: Rachel's Story is not so much a war story as it is a post-war story. In a way, it did not disappoint, although I have read better. I do not want to pan the author's first novel, but the writing style was not the best. Also, while the ending was intended to leave the reader feeling good, I could see how some would view it as a little sappy. This story mostly focused on Rachel, as you would expect based on the title. I wanted to admire how she survived and rose above all the trials and tribulations life threw at her. We want our heroines to be squeaky clean and without fault. Rachel is not. But perhaps that makes her more human than heroine. If you note that this is not truly a WW2 story and more a story of a (fictional) person's life whose life was influenced by the war, you will probably enjoy what Above Honor: Rachel's Story has to offer.

book review by
Wil Owen

16 November 2013

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