‘The Book of Lost Names’ Book Club Guide
“And isn’t that the moral of the story anyhow? You can’t judge a person by their language or their place of origin—though it seems that each new generation insists upon learning that lesson for itself.”
― The Book of Lost Names
The Book of Lost Names, best-selling author Kristin Harmel’s fifth book set during World War II, is an evocative work of historical fiction based on true accounts of document forgers who saved thousands from the Nazis. The novel’s rich portrait of Eva, a Jewish woman who becomes an unlikely keystone of an underground operation that smuggles children out of France, highlights the heroism of ordinary people during times of duress.
Join Hadassah Magazine Executive Editor Lisa Hostein on Wednesday, April 8 at 6 p.m. ET for a live online discussion with the author in an event scheduled to coincide with Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Register here for the event.
Local book groups are a vital part of Hadassah for many members. If your chapter doesn’t already have a book group, now’s the time to start one! We encourage groups to have their own discussions about The Book of Lost Names after the interview. To facilitate those discussions, we are happy to present the following discussion guide to distribute to your book groups.
- Readers first meet Eva as an older, widowed woman with a secret past. Why do you think the author introduces us to her protagonist at that stage in life? Discuss the way Eva reflects on how those around her see her as well as how she sees herself at this age.
- How do you think Eva’s past affected the way she raised her son, Ben? What are the different ways children of Jewish parents who survived World War II are affected by their parents’ pasts? Do you think it’s possible for parents’ (or grandparents’) trauma and/or resilience to be passed down through the generations?
- Why did Eva hide her wartime activities from her late husband and her son? Why do you think some Holocaust survivors are open to discussing their past and others aren’t? At the end of the book, she discloses the truth to Ben, though the author does not detail their conversation. Why is she finally able to open up to Ben? How do you think Ben reacted to finding out his mother’s secret?
- Eva watches silently from a neighbor’s apartment the night her father is taken away. Do you think she did the right thing by keeping quiet, or should she have done more to save him? What do you imagine you would have done in this situation? What did Eva’s decision reveal about her character and what she might accomplish later in the novel?
- Describe the relationship between Eva and her mother. How did each change in reaction to tragedy, fear and grief? Why do you think Eva was the focus of her mother’s frustration and sadness? Do you feel any sympathy toward the mother? Was she ever right in her criticism of Eva?
- Why do you believe Eva decided to become a document forger? How did she overcome her own fears and insecurities? How does her growing relationship with Rémy impact her choices and activity in the resistance?
- Identity and heritage, their erasure and preservation, are central themes in The Book of Lost Names. How does the author introduce us to these themes, both in the current day and back in the 1940s. Describe how the central characters identify themselves. How does nationality, ethnicity or religion impact their views of themselves? How do they struggle to preserve their identities?
- Why was it so important to Eva to create a secret book to record the birth names of the young Jewish refugees? She and others in the book change names several times over the course of the novel. How essential is one’s name to identity?
- Love of books is another thread woven throughout the novel (and author Kristin Harmel dedicates the novel “to booksellers and librarians everywhere”). Describe how books are used to define characters and create connections. How does Eva’s love of books help her at different points in the novel? How does it help her connect to and trust other people? What do you think of her trusting nature? Was any of that trust misplaced?
- Did Joseph’s true identity and betrayal come as a surprise, or were there early clues about his nature? Do you believe Joseph when he tells Eva that her mother said she was proud of the work Eva did to help keep children from being erased?
- Was moving on and forgetting Rémy the right decision for Eva? Discuss the pros and cons of her choice. Did Eva’s father give her sound advice in telling her to start living her own life? What do you think about the conclusion of the book? Were you surprised by its resolution?