On April 9, 1940, in Copenhagen, Denmark, Baron Henrik Ahlefeldt is disillusioned and cynical on his 30th birthday. After all, he thought that by now he would have an Olympic gold medal in rowing, a seat in Parliament, and a brilliant wife like his beloved late mother. Instead, he can’t silence the damning voice of his father, who repeatedly lamented Henrik’s “wasted potential.” When the Germans invade Denmark that day, Henrik is confronted with a choice that will permanently change his life: he saves his endangered journalist friend from the enemy by rowing him across the waters to neutral Sweden. When Henrik returns to the harbor, he sees a statue of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid on a rock resting on her bronze fins and thinks, “To gain what she wanted, she gave up her voice so she could have legs.” Henrik asks himself what he wants to do with his life and realizes he already knows: “He wanted to help someone other than himself for a change. Aid his country. But his voice would call attention to himself. His nobility stood in his way. To have legs, he needed to sacrifice his voice. To have mobility, he needed to sacrifice his nobility.” Henrik realizes he will have to disappear, and he embraces a new identity as “The Havmand”—the merman.
Else Jensen, a physicist with dual American and Danish citizenship, works at the world-renowned Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen and refuses to return stateside when Germany invades Denmark. Daily, Else is confronted not only by the fears and trials of living in an occupied nation—though initially Germany treated Denmark like a “model protectorate,” and the Danish government protected its citizens from the harsh realities faced by other German-occupied nations—she also regularly encounters discrimination and obstacles in her research work because she is a woman.
When a reticent, seemingly illiterate, shipyard worker moves into the boardinghouse where Else and her Jewish friend Laila live, Else becomes intrigued by the man and tries to befriend him, but he avoids her. Soon the Germans begin to crack down on the Jewish citizens of Denmark. Else is given the opportunity to print an illegal newspaper for the resistance and is faced with the question, “Is it right to do wrong to do right?”
Henrik and Else’s lives, seemingly lightyears apart, are inexorably drawn together in their resistance work. Their friendship, soon a romantic relationship, is repeatedly threatened by the war that looms over them and especially the risks they take to protect the Jews endangered by Germany’s edict to round up all the country’s Jews on a single night, Oct. 1-2, 1943.
Author Sarah Sundin offers adult readers a satisfying, fast-paced plot, a tender romance, a surprising narrative of familial reconciliation, and a window into the stirring national effort of the Danes to save their Jewish neighbors. Discussion questions are included for the use of book clubs and other small groups. (Revell)