Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: Once We Were Brothers

Summary: The gripping tale about two boys, once as close as brothers, who find themselves on opposite sides of the Holocaust. 

Elliot Rosenzweig, a respected civic leader and wealthy philanthropist, is attending a fundraiser when he is suddenly accosted and accused of being a former Nazi SS officer named Otto Piatek, the Butcher of Zamosc. Although the charges are denounced as preposterous, his accuser, Ben Solomon, is convinced he is right and engages attorney Catherine Lockhart to bring Rosenzweig to justice. Solomon persuades attorney Catherine Lockhart to take his case, revealing that the true Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon's own family only to betray them during the Nazi occupation. But has Solomon accused the right man? 

Once We Were Brothers is Ronald H. Balson's compelling tale of two boys and a family who struggle to survive in war-torn Poland, and a young love that struggles to endure the unspeakable cruelty of the Holocaust. Two lives, two worlds, and sixty years converge in an explosive race to redemption that makes for a moving and powerful tale of love, survival, and ultimately the triumph of the human spirit. -- St. Martin's Griffin

ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS by Ronald H. Balson was another book that I heard about at this year's BEA. Like THE WEDDING GIFT, this novel was originally self published and sold 120,000 copies. The film right were also purchased by Cool People Productions LLC, and that actually makes a lot of sense because I could totally see this novel as a movie.

ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS tells the story of two men who both survived the Holocaust. Ben Solomon is certain that the man living as Elliot Rosenzweig, a civic leader and philanthropist, is really a former Nazi SS officer named Otto Piatek. Solomon sets out to convince lawyer Catherine Lockhart that Rosenzweig isn't who he seems and wants her to make a case again him. As Solomon tells his story to Catherine, he reveals that Rosenzweig was actually adopted by his family before becoming a brutal Nazi officer and betraying them during the war.

Initially, Catherine isn't sure that she can make a case against Rosenzweig based on Solomon's personal memories (or even if she believes him for that matter); and she doesn't know if she can get involved against her firm's wishes. However, as she gets to know Solomon better, she realizes that she can't not help this man have a chance at redemption.

I admit when I picked up ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS, I was pretty sure that it wouldn't live up to its hype. But that wasn't the case. I was intrigued by this story and I quickly got caught up in Solomon's story -- much like Catherine. I ended up reading this almost 400 page novel fairly quickly (for me!) and truly enjoyed it. This novel had a little bit of everything -- elements of a love story, a courtroom thriller and a mystery; and I also thought the author was a pretty darn good storyteller.

I actually like how the author decided to tell ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS. The story takes place in the present (well almost the present) with flashbacks to the time of the Nazi occupation. Through Solomon's storytelling, the reader learns what happened in his past starting with his childhood in Germany and how his family took in Piatek. I, like the character of Catherine, wasn't quite sure what to make of Solomon at times; and quite honestly, I wasn't sure if his story added up. In addition, I had many of the same frustrations that Catherine did in that I wanted Solomon to just spit out his story rather than reflecting on each and every memory!

I decided to include ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS as part of Mystery Monday even though it isn't a traditional mystery or suspense novel. Because I was so unsure of Solomon's claims, for much of the novel, I wasn't sure who was responsible for the crime. As the book progressed, more and more came out about Solomon's past and the truth was eventually revealed. It was because of Catherine and her friend who was a private investigator that much of "the mystery" was revealed.

One of the things that made ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS so special is the feelings it evoked in me. There were many details about the atrocities that occurred during the Holocaust, and I felt much outrage as well as sadness. In addition, I loved how the author showed how many of the characters acted so selflessly and showed so much strength. However, it was the message of survival and redemption that really remained with me even weeks after finishing the novel.

I think ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS would make an excellent book club pick. (Actually, I first heard about this novel during a "speed dating" event for book clubs.) It touches upon so many universal issues like love, betrayal, and redemption; plus it delves into the effects of war. I was excited to find that there are discussion questions which will help keep book clubs on track. Personally, I think the questions are good but just a start because there are many other themes to discuss. Some of the topics you might want to explore include war, second chances, love, survival, lies, justice, courage, religion, patience, and redemption.

I think fans of historical fiction will appreciate ONCE WE WERE BROTHERS. But I also think readers who like literary fiction, mysteries, and courtroom dramas will enjoy it as well. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Wunderkind PR for providing a copy of this novel.

Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read. Mystery Mondays is a regular feature where I review all types of mystery books -- traditional mysteries, suspense/thrillers, and even cozies! Please feel free to share your thoughts on any recent mystery books that you've read.


Anna said...

Yours is the second glowing review I've seen of this book. I'm going to have to get my hands on a copy at some point.

bermudaonion said...

That sounds like a moving and emotional novel.

Beth Hoffman said...

This book has so many elements that I love. Thanks for the recommendation, Julie!

Beth F said...

This does sound like a good read -- I like the mix of genres.