Saturday, June 11, 2022

Lines of Courage by Jennifer A. Nielsen

It should have been an exciting visit to Sarajevo with his father, but
instead Felix Baum, a 12-year old Jewish boy, witnesses the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, and feels he is a coward for not warning anyone when he saw the assassin with a hand grenade. Returning home, the Baums are visited by Major Dressler and his daughter Elsa from Germany, who gives Felix the gift of a carrier pigeon . War is soon declared, and Felix's father is called up. Learning that the Russians are coming, Felix and his mother try to leave Lemberg, but instead run into the cruel Russian Captain Garinov. Felix manages to irritate Garinov and pays dearly for it. Luckily, Elsa and her mother rescue Felix and his mother, enabling them to escape to Vienna.

Kara Webb, 13 almost 14, wants to be a Red Cross nurse more than anything, just like her mother. Allowed to accompany her mother on the Red Cross Ambulance train traveling throughout France picking up the wounded at Casualty Clearing Stations, Kara may only act as an orderly, never leaving the train. When the Germans begin using poison gas, the number of wounded increase, then the rail line are destroyed, so everyone has help carry soldiers from the battlefield to the train. When an orderly is injured, Kara is finally allowed to help. But when she rescues and hides an injured enemy soldier named Baum, she is no longer allowed to do anymore work on the train, even after Sergeant Baum leaves. Reaching Verdun around Christmas, Kara meets Juliette Caron, selling items to get money for her family to bribe a German guard to get her father out of their prison. Kara buys a bright red hat, but gives it right back to Juliette.  

Juliette and her family try to leave Verdun, but are soon caught by the Germans. Juliette manages to hide in the woods, but the Germans set up camp so close she can't run away without being seen. After falling asleep, she wakes up on Kara's Red Cross train, but now she doesn't know where her mother and two younger brothers are. After two months, Juliette leaves the train, searching for her family and hoping to free her father. In Lille, she runs into an old friend, Monique, who brings her home, but double crosses Juliette, taking her money. Then, the girls are captured by Germans and taken to a farm to work. Monique does help Juliette escape the farm, but then she runs into Major Dressler, who knows and admires her father. Dressler lets her go instead of sending her back to the farm, and she finds herself back on the ambulance train with Kara. Two months later, Juliette is on the road again, looking for her family when she sees an injured young boy and rescues him, bringing him to the cave she has found shelter in. 

The boy's name is Dimitri Petrenko, 14, and he's been serving in the war under Captain Garinov, now a Bolshevik who intensely dislikes him for supporting the Tsar. Garinov sends him into no man's land to get a rifle, where he is knocked unconscious and left for dead. After Juliette nurses him back to health, he returns to his unit, knowing what he now wants is freedom. But as soon as Garinov sees him, he orders Dimitri to lead a charge, one that costs him dearly. When news of the Russian Revolution reaches the trenches. Garinov refuses to fight anymore, wanting to return to Russia. After Garinov's mutiny, Dimitri finds himself fighting with the French in Belgium, where he is taken prisoner by the Germans. Taken to Major Dressler's home to work in Freiburg, Dimitri runs into Captain Garinov, also a prisoner. When Garinov finds an old medal in Dimitri's pocket, he tries to get him in trouble, but Elsa Dressler recognizes the medal as belonging to Felix's family. Convinced he didn't steal it, Major Dressler arranges for Dimitri to be driven to the French border and released. Meanwhile, Garinov has stolen a horse from Dressler and run away. 

The medal that is found on Dimitri is a red thread running through this story and connecting each of the main characters to each other. Felix refused the medal when his father offered it to him. Sergeant Baum had taken it with him to war as a reminder of his own father's courage. He had given it to  Kara, who gave it to Juliette. Later, Juliette gave it to Dimitri and Elsa had recognized it. 

The novel begins in 1914, with the assassination of the Archduke and goes through to November 11, 1918, the end of the war. It is a well-researched work and includes information I did not know, for example, the Red Cross Ambulance Train.

I've always enjoyed Jennifer Nielsen's historical fiction for young readers, but I'm sorry to say, for me, this is not one of her best books. Writing a story about five very different characters from different countries who are connected to one another and including Dressler and Garinov in the mix is hard to do because so much much depends on coincidences not found in reality. And the novel is so filled with coincidences plus the improbability of its five characters running into each other the way they do was just too hard for me to believe. Nielsen does include some interesting WWI history in the story and in her Author's Note, but the multiple story lines overwhelmed me. I felt like she had five short stories and decided to turn it into a novel by knitting them together using a medal from an earlier Austrian conflict, but it just didn't work for me.

I think that given what is going on in Ukraine right now, this would be an interesting novel for anyone interested in history and especially WWI as long as the coincidences doesn't bother them. It is of note that so many young teens were asked to do the job of adults in this war. I can't imagine sending 14-year-olds to war, but I know it could happen again. 

Thank you to Edelweiss+ and Scholastic Press for providing me with a digital review copy of this novel.


  1. I just checked it out from the library, hope to get to it soon. Your comments about the challenge with five characters shows in your review, too, a tough one to discuss. Thanks, Alex!

    1. I'm looking forward to hearing what you think about this book. I seem to be one of the very few who didn't care for it that much.