In brief: Esther Simpson is devoted to her job helping academics leave countries where they are persecuted. In the late 1930s, her job is more important that ever and it’s where she meets scientist Harry Singer. Can their relationship survive World War II and the treatment of refugees?
The good: I learned a lot about Esther Simpson (a real-life champion for rescuing academics and scientists).
The not-so-good: The treatment of the refugees by Britain during the war (also real).
Why I chose it: Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the copy, I do like to read historical fiction involving real people.
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Setting: London, England; Vienna, Austria and others
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Esther’s Children weaves a historical novel around a lesser known, real life historical figure in Esther Simpson. Simpson was integral as part for the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, doing a lot of the groundwork for scholars and scientists in countries at war or at risk of persecution to move of safer environments. Much of her work was done in the 1930s and 1940s as the Nazis increased their strength and it’s this period that the novel focuses on.
Simpson is no stranger to persecution, being Jewish and her parents fleeing Europe for England some years earlier. Esther has a passion, almost a calling, for ensuring that the academics at risk have the references and work they need to emigrate to countries where they can continue their work without fear. It’s on a trip to Austria where she meets the fictional Harry Singer. Both he and his parents are fantastic candidates to be taken under the wing of the Society, but his father holds out. Meanwhile, Austria is becoming more dangerous and Esther and Harry are caught in the crossfire. It’s enough for Harry to relent and begin the process to continue his work in England, but not his parents. Harry and Esther fall in love, but as World War II begins, some in England are getting cold feet about the European refugees in their midst. Harry is sent to an internment camp, and Esther must continue her work under increasingly trying circumstances.
Once again, Caroline Beecham has excelled in her research, bringing Esther, the Society and the treatment of refugees in English internment camps to life. She clearly demonstrates on the page Esther’s dedication to her ‘children’, often at the sake of all else going on. Adding Harry as a character experiencing the interment camps highlights the way the refugees were treated with suspicion and sometimes worse. There is also a lot of detail about classical music, which is Esther and Harry’s release. (I must admit this is not my thing, so I skimmed these sections). While the character of Esther was admirable in her pursuit to offer safety to academic refugees, I must admit that I got a little bored with her focus, important as it was. Harry, perhaps because he was fictional and more liberties could be taken with his character, was much more interesting and daring in his observations and ideas. However, the history was fascinating and I’m glad that I could gain insight into history I may have stayed ignorant of otherwise.