It's October 1942, in Oslo, Norway. Fifteen-year-old Ilse Stern is waiting to meet boy-next-door Hermann Rod for their first date. She was beginning to think he'd never ask her; she's had a crush on him for as long as she can remember. But Hermann won't be able to make it tonight. What Ilse doesn't know is that Hermann is secretly working in the Resistance, helping Norwegian Jews flee the country to escape the Nazis. The work is exhausting and unpredictable, full of late nights and code words and lies to Hermann's parents, to his boss... to Ilse. And as life under German occupation becomes even more difficult, particularly for Jewish families like the Sterns, the choices made become more important by the hour: To speak up or to look away? To stay or to flee? To act now or wait one more day? In this internationally acclaimed debut, Marianne Kaurin recreates the atmosphere of secrecy and uncertainty in World War II Norway in a moving story of sorrow, chance, and first love.
Underlying the overarching theme of the Holocaust and how it overshadowed almost everything else at that time is the love story of a young girl, Ilse, and her next-door neighbor, Hermann. Their relationship is one of young love as they find themselves unable to stop thinking of each other, but their time together is cut short even before it truly begins when Hermann finds himself secretly working in the Resistance, trying to help Norwegian Jews leave for Sweden so they can avoid what would otherwise be an untimely fate. Though his time is being taken in this way, he and Ilse, who is Jewish herself, still share a common bond of wanting to be together and seeking out ways in which they might do so.
This part of the story - that of Ilse and Hermann - seemed as though it would be one of the main plots of the entire novel, yet it felt as though more of the story revolved around learning of Ilse's family and their daily life and routines. The story started getting more interesting when Ilse's father was taken by the police, not knowing when or if he would return or see his family again. One month later, when the police return for the rest of the family, the repercussions from that incident linger throughout the remainder of the story and the future of the characters who remain once the war ends.
The story often read in a very unemotional way, sometimes seeming as though it was merely telling what was happening rather than showing it. Even though this is a story of truth and courage in the face of adversity, and the fact that I know people who lived through the Holocaust themselves and have literal war stories all their own, I found myself thinking more action would have helped the story along, and more explanation of what happened to some of the characters near the end. However, it is completely possible that the author meant to leave this open-ended. Too many families were torn apart during World War II, some never knowing what came to be or if their loved ones survived. In this way, the story was most certainly true to life, and this is to be respected, as it did end up bringing about emotion even without the action.
'Almost Autumn' is a story that will allow you to ponder how life can change in an instant - and how, despite the atrocities that life presents, good still has a place in the world.