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Book Review: Track 61

Coffetown Press

Eighty years ago, on June 13, shortly after midnight, a bizarre incident occurred on the beach in Amagansett, though only World War II historians or long-time residents on the East End of Long Island seem to know about it: the new moon landing of four Nazi saboteurs by way of a U-boat. Their mission? — to dynamite the rail system under Grand Central Station in order to cripple troop transports and supplies. Maybe more.

Grand Central then housed a secret sub-basement, the deepest in the city, 10 stories down off Track 61, with private access to The Waldorf Astoria. Track 61 was used for distinguished guests, such as President Roosevelt. Were it not for the lone flashlight patrol of Amagansett beach that night by a young Coast Guardsman, who reported the saboteurs, they might have succeeded in getting away before the FBI closed in on them in the city. Their job, which was dubbed Operation Pastorius (in honor of the leader of a German Mennonite settlement in PA in Colonial times), was soon described as a bumbling affair by ill-matched buffoons, four in New York, four unaffiliated others in Florida, six of whom were sent to the electric chair.

With her fascinating debut historical fiction City of Liars and Thieves, East Hampton author and bookseller Eve Karlin proved her skill as a meticulous researcher and engaging story teller. Here, in Track 61, she sensed in the Pastorius fiasco a nuanced picture of two of the four Amagansett saboteurs, who were American citizens. It was as though the story were calling to her, the episode having taken place almost in her backyard — the Amagansett beach where she spent so many summers living with family members who included her maternal grandparents, German Jews who escaped in time but who bore witness to the horrors of the coming Holocaust. Her grandmother, Grete, lends her name to Karlin’s lively heroine, a pretty young woman who has been sent to New York to live with her uncle as the Nazi nightmare deepens abroad.

As with her previous novel, Karlin was intrigued by a trial transcript and legal commentary that suggested “a travesty of justice” here by “J. Edgar Hoover for his own glory.” She sensed also a basic humanity at the core of one of the saboteurs, Ernest Peter Berger, an “enigma” she calls him, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1927, then returned to Germany where he had family, though he hated Hitler. A German patriot but apparently no Nazi, he ran afoul of the Gestapo, was imprisoned, then released and forced into military espionage work. That Peter would attract a naïve young woman such as Grete, as both watch a patriotic parade in Manhattan, already says a lot about the characters at the center of this suspenseful romance adventure.

They fall for each other, keeping their love secret. She from her uncle, he from his comrades. But it’s clear their feelings are real and deep in his desire to withdraw from the plan and her decision to support him as the novel moves towards its nail-biting finish.

Karlin successfully exploits the oxymoron-sounding genre — “historical fiction” which, to judge not only from best-selling novels but cinematic interpretations of past events and personalities, has reportedly become the most popular form of literature, after “memoir.” Track 61 admirably shows why: History ensures that for a story to be authentic and trustworthy, facts must be followed and research acknowledged. In turn, fiction makes history accessible and memorable when chronology serves a narrative that introduces motivation by way of convincing characters and a thought-provoking theme that resonates with contemporary effect.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.