Published in 2016, Lilac Girls is Martha Hall Kelly’s first novel. The novel tells the story of three female protagonists. These women live in New York, Poland and Germany during World War II. Kelly’s foray into the world of historical fiction offers readers a unique depiction of perseverance, strength and redemption.
Engaging and transformative, the story of the three women may come as a surprise to some. The novel is inspired in part by the life of a real World War II activist, Caroline Ferriday. Kelly’s inspiration came from visiting Ferriday’s house over a decade ago in Bethlehem, Connecticut. Kelly’s other characters include Nazi surgeon Herta Oberheuser. The real-life physician was a convicted war criminal. Oberheuser is known for performing experimental operations on Polish women sent to Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp.
The book’s third perspective is that of Kasia Kuzmerick. The fictional character is a Polish Catholic teenager. The Nazis deported Kuzmerick to Ravensbrück almost immediately after Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September of 1939. Kelly is noted as saying Kuzmerick’s character is based on two real-life “Rabbits.” The Nazi physicians experimented on these women while the latter were imprisoned during the war.
Unlike the overwhelmingly male-centered stories of the World War II era, Lilac Girls stands tall and separate from the others. The novel is in contrast to an otherwise frequently homogenized genre. Although Kelly’s storytelling is fast-paced and by some accounts uneven, her alternation between the characters is deliberate and balanced. Additionally, Kelly is acknowledged for her thorough research and the climactic build-up to the eventual meeting of two of her characters.
Lilac Girls became a New York Times bestseller the same week that it was published in April of 2016. The book was nominated in 2016 for Goodreads Choice Awards’ Best Debut Goodreads Author and Best Historical Fiction categories. The Dublin Literary Award also recognized Kelly’s novel on its 2018 longlist.
Kelly grew up in New England, and she now lives in Connecticut and New York City. For a number of years, she worked as an advertising copywriter. Her work after Lilac Girls includes two prequel novels. Kelly released Lost Roses in April of 2019. The novel is set during World War I and chronicles the life events of Caroline Ferriday’s mother, Eliza. Kelly published her third novel in March of 2021. The second prequel, Sunflower Sisters, explores the story of Caroline’s ancestors during The Civil War.