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Exile Music    by Jennifer Steil order for
Exile Music
by Jennifer Steil
Order:  USA  Can
Viking, 2020 (2020)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Jennifer Steil's Exile Music tells the story of a sophisticated Jewish family of musicians, who flee the Nazis from their home in Vienna to make a new life in the mountains of Bolivia, the only place where they can find refuge. It's a stark contrast of both geography and culture, and their gradual and uneven adjustment is told from the point of view of young Orly.

She grew up in 1930s Vienna, with extended family nearby and her best friend, Anneliese, as upstairs neighbor. Orly and Ana created a rich imaginary world together. Orly's father Jakob played viola in the Philharmonic. Her mother Julia was a renowned opera singer. She was proud of them both. Her older brother Willi was an idealist and fierce socialist, who worried about Hitler's rise in Germany.

Gradually, everything changes for Jews in Vienna. Ana's mother bans Orly's visits. German troops enter Austria. Her father loses his job. Jewish men are arrested. They are forced out of their home. Willi flees, but hopes to rejoin them later. The others seek passage out of the country, and Bolivia ends up as their only option. Orly had never heard of Bolivia.

They take ship to Arica, Chile, then a train over the Andes to La Paz, 'a city of redbrick buildings and tin-roofed mud houses trickling down the sides of a bowl in the middle of the mountains.' There, Orly's 'feet touched the top of the world.' There are so many adjustments to make - the altitude, the language, the people, the food. Orly makes them slowly and surely, while her parents remain adrift.

Orly befriends young Miguel and learns from him. Her father still plays but her mother never sings. They hear of the awful fates of family members and when Nazis arrive as refugees, Julia takes action that horrifies Orly. Yet she makes a good life for herself in Bolivia. This extraordinary story has a highly satisfying conclusion with two significant reunions for Orly and an important choice to make.

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