Publication Date: May 16, 2016
The Seven Year Dress: A Novel by Paulette Mahurin, is the story of Helen Stein. Helen is a teenager ripped from her family and sent to Auschwitz and lives its horrors but also finds a kindness and selflessness in humanity that helped her survive against the odds.
The author, Paulette Mahurin, gave me a copy of this novel in exchange for my review.
I have read other novels by Paulette Mahurin and have adored her work. I interviewed her a few years ago for this blog and found her to be a delightful person. Her sense of humanity and her gentle hand in portraying the struggle has appealed to and impressed me. The Seven Year Dress was a deeply uncomfortable read. One doesn’t naturally think about sexuality when thinking of the Holocaust. It’s not that I thought sex was rationed like gas and flour during World War II, it’s just not something one naturally considers. Given the atrocities of the concentration camps, I’m equally sure that rape happened but, again, it’s not something one naturally thinks about. Paulette Mahurin goes to a place I’ve never thought about and she goes there with a ferocity of spirit that is, frankly, a bit shocking. Is a disturbing story brave or just cringe-worthy? Well, let’s examine that.
Helen is telling her story and comes off as somewhat detached. We’ve seen this realistic coping mechanism in memoirs written by people who survived the horrors of the camps. An example is Primo Levi whose Survival in Auschwitz was reviewed on this blog (click here to read that review). When the story begins, a college student looking for a room approaches Helen and she is a woman itching to talk. She needs the story to be told. She begins with the happy closeness of her family and knowing what’s to come makes those moments extra poignant. I’ve always admired Mahurin’s delicate writing style. Her prose is an exercise in precise impact, hitting the reader right in the feels.
Where the story goes sideways for this reader is in its sexual awakening. Don’t get me wrong, sexuality is natural and human and I don’t begrudge Helen her urges. I find the Flowers in the Attic dynamic when she and her brother are in hiding, a bit off-putting. Because of the weight of the subject matter, it’s natural for authors to shy away from base emotions that it might seem unimportant in the magnitude of the peril happening in the world around them. I was bothered, deeply troubled but its real, isn’t it? I watch a lot of true crime and one of the things that really bothers me is when people say that they believe in someone’s guilt because they didn’t act in a way expected. In actual fact, we don’t know how we would react in those situations and everyone is different. If you chose to read The Seven Year Dress, keep in mind that because it’s not talked about, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t likely a very real situation for people. Anne Frank, in her eponymous diary, may not talk as overtly as the adult survivor, Helen, but she also acknowledges a growing development of feelings. Helen is eventually found and sent to Auschwitz.It’ss no spoiler to say that she survives as we meet her in the modern day.
The Seven Year Dress is a work of fiction. If you’re going in expecting historical accuracy, you will be disappointed. It is a well-written survivor story that highlights the lasting pain of this horrible event. There are some great and poignant non-fiction works out there. May I suggest, if you ever find yourself in St. Petersburg, Florida, to visit the Florida Holocaust Museum. The museum honors those whose lives were lost and shows a horrifying witness account of Auschwitz. Their motto, “Erase the Hate,” is just good advice for a happier world.
Read an excerpt and buy The Seven Year Dress: A Novel by Paulette Mahurin on