Book Review: Eve Karlin’s ‘Track 61’ - 27 East

Arts & Living

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Book Review: Eve Karlin’s ‘Track 61’

authorJoan Baum on Apr 22, 2022

With her fascinating debut novel “City of Liars and Thieves” (2015), about New York’s first great murder trial, East Hampton writer, BookHampton bookseller and mother of triplets Eve Karlin, proved her skill as a meticulous researcher and engaging storyteller, with a firm hand on structure and period details.

She’s back with an equally absorbing narrative — “Track 61” — a novel of true-life espionage and invented romance that shows why historical fiction is such a popular literary genre. In the hands of a pro like Karlin, it successfully exploits what sounds like an oxymoron — “nonfiction fiction” — by integrating real-life recorded events and an imagined domestic tale, each deepening the significance of the other.

History demands that for a story to be authentic and trustworthy, facts must be documented and research acknowledged. In turn, fiction makes history accessible and memorable when chronology serves a story from the past that includes convincing characters and a thought-provoking theme, ideally one with contemporary resonance. At its most effective, historical fiction explores motivation and posits complications that are not necessarily resolved, leaving readers nonetheless with a new or enriched perspective. In “Track 61” Karlin teases out deeper truths about an event that took place 80 years ago — although only World War II historians or longtime residents on the East End of Long Island seem to know about or remember it: the new moon midnight landing on June 13, 1942 of four German saboteurs by way of a U-boat on a beach in Amagansett.

Their mission was 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 subbasement, 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 a lone flashlight patrol off the Amagansett beach that June 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 Pennsylvania in colonial times), was soon described as a bumbling affair undertaken by ill-matched buffoons, four in New York, four unaffiliated others in Florida.

The landing went awry from the start when the boat got stuck in a sandbar. Where the media fixed on the fiasco, however, Karlin sensed in the Pastorius affair a nuanced picture of two of the four saboteurs, who were naturalized American citizens, particularly as they were the only ones of the eight who escaped the electric chair. Karlin was also moved by prompts close to home.

It was as though the story were calling to her, she writes in an Afterward, 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 knew about the mounting atrocities at home. Karlin’s grandmother lends her name to Karlin’s lively heroine, Grete, a pretty young woman who has been sent to New York by her parents to live with an uncle, as the Nazi nightmare deepens. She’s grateful, respectful but lost and lonely. So is Ernest Peter Burger, one of the saboteurs, whom Grete meets by chance at a midtown parade.

As with her previous novel, Karlin was intrigued by a court transcript and legal commentary that suggested “a travesty of justice” here, when the saboteurs were brought to trial by a lying “J. Edgar Hoover for his own glory.” She also sensed a basic humanity at the core of Burger, an “enigma,” a bit younger and better looking than his original, who was hesitant about going ahead with the plan. He had 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 he would attract and inevitably involve in his scheme a naïve young woman such as Grete, says something about a basic sensitivity she intuits in him, and, indeed, in Karlin’s telling, Peter tries to protect her, despite the net that starts closing in around him.

The significance of “Track 61” doesn’t turn on what happens to Peter or Grete but on how relationships affect behavior, though not necessarily character. In clear, clean prose, free of histrionic or didactic mannerisms Karlin suggests with persuasive sympathy the complexity that attends questions about responsibility and the often conflicting considerations that go into moral and judicial decisions. Surely, a book for our time.

Eve Karlin’s “Track 61” will be published by Coffeetown Press on June 14, 2022, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nazi saboteur landing in Amagansett. Karlin will have a book launch at BookHampton, 41 Main Street, East Hampton, on Saturday, June 18. She will also participate in East Hampton Library’s Authors Night in August.

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