The Dollmaker of Krakow, by R.M. Romero

The Dollmaker of Krakow, by R.M. Romero (Delacorte, middle grade, Sept. 2017) is a haunting historical fantasy set in WW II that has just been recognized as a 2018 Notable Book of the Sydney Taylor Book Awards.

In the Land of the Dolls, Karolina was a seamstress, living at peace with her friends.  But then the rats came, and peace was no more.  At the lowest point in her life, the rats having wrecked everything, a strange wind whisks her away, and she finds herself in the shop of a lonely toymaker in Krakow, Poland.  He is making a dollhouse that is truly a thing of beauty, and he made the body Karolina now inhabits to live there.  But Karolina isn't just any doll; she still is herself, able to talk and think, and the lonely man and the exiled doll become good companions.

The dollhouse is being made for a little girl named Rena, and when the Dollmaker delivers it, Karolina goes too, and reveals her secret.  The Trzmiel family takes this in stride, and become friends.   But then the Nazis invade Poland, and life becomes very difficult, especially for Jewish families like the Trzmiels.  The Dollmaker was originally a German, and registers as such with the Nazis (though he gets vilified by his neighbors for this)  to get extra food to share with the Trzmiels, but as things get worse and worse for the Jews of Krakow, it becomes clear that Rena and the other children now suffering in the ghetto, must somehow be saved.

The Dollmaker, inspired by the living doll Karolina, uses his skill to find a strange and wonderful solution that is truly magical.  Rena and a handful of other children are saved, but her father, and the Dollmaker, are lost.

Though the evil of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, from the mundane hatred to the buildup of the Holocaust, is not sugar coated, and the historical details are vivid, and the sadness heart-wrenching, the fairytale element of Karolina acts as a buffer between reader and horror, making this a good one for sensitive readers.  It's also a good one for readers who find historical fiction is more appealing when mixed with fantasy.  And so it succeeds in this regard, and the characters are memorable and the story moving.  That being said, the fairy tale part, especially the flashbacks of Katrina remembering the war with the rats in her own land, ended up diminishing the power of the book for me, with the real horror folded into a framework of the clearly fantastical that never happened.  Except that in the end I was crying just fine, despite the fantasy elements.

It's a tricky book, though, for the adult to try to see through the eyes of a child reader, because of course adults know so much of the history already.  And the Dollmaker, badly scarred in mind and body by the first world war, is a character who I think is more interesting to an adult reader than a child one.  I loved the Dollmaker--the lonely ordinary person, badly hurt in the past but holding strong to decency despite everything, is one of my favorite types of character.  But I did love the dollhouse, and Karolina, just as much as I would have as a child (the dollhouse especially).

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration.


  1. Oh, very interesting! I would normally shy away from Nazi-invasion-stories: too much evil and sadness. But the story of the doll really intrigues me. I guess maybe I would prefer my historical horrors to be buffered by fantasy!

  2. This sounds like a really good book. Thanks for telling me about it.


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