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The Things We Cannot Say Summary, Characters and Themes

In 2019, Australian author Kelly Rimmer released “The Things We Cannot Say,” a family saga that quickly captivated readers worldwide and becoming a New York Times bestseller. 

The novel, celebrated for its exploration of unconditional love, human resilience, and hope, unfolds through the intertwined stories of Alina Dziak, a Polish farm girl, and her American granddaughter, Alice Michaels.

Summary

Alina’s tale begins in 1939 in the small town of Trzebinia, southern Poland, where she dreams of marrying Tomasz Slaski, a young medical student with aspirations of becoming a doctor. 

Their plans derail when the Nazis invade Poland, seizing farms and conscripting young men, including Tomasz, into the German army. Despite facing dire circumstances, Tomasz escapes with the help of a Jewish doctor, Saul Weiss, and his family, whom he then aids in hiding from the Nazis. 

Tomasz and Alina’s love rekindles, leading them to plot their escape to the Russian-occupied zone with a canister of film detailing the atrocities at Auschwitz, hoping to alert the Allies.

Their plan takes a tragic turn when the Nazis, tipped off by an informant, execute the Weiss family. In a desperate bid to save Alina, Tomasz switches identities with Saul Weiss, enabling Alina to flee with Saul, now using Tomasz’s identity. 

Carrying the precious film in a plaster cast, they reach safety and eventually make their way to America, where they live as Tomasz and Hanna Slaski, raising a daughter, Julita, without revealing their true identities.

Fast forward to the present, Alice Michaels, Julita’s daughter, juggles the challenges of raising a son with autism and a gifted daughter, feeling unsupported by her husband, Wade. 

When Alice’s grandmother, now in her 90s and nearing death, requests Alice to uncover a long-kept family secret in Poland, Alice embarks on a journey that reveals the truth about her grandparents’ past and the real identity of her grandfather.

Alice’s discovery in Poland, aided by Tomasz’s sister Emilia, uncovers the identity switch and the ultimate sacrifice of her true grandfather, Tomasz, who turned himself in to save Alina. This revelation brings a bittersweet closure to Alice, who shares the news with her grandmother before her passing.

The novel concludes with Alice and her family returning to Poland to honor the legacy of Saul, Alina, and Tomasz by interring their ashes together, symbolizing the enduring bonds of love and family through generations.

Characters

Alina Dziak

Alina is a resilient and devoted Polish farm girl whose love for Tomasz Slaski defines her young life. Her journey from a hopeful lover to a courageous survivor of the Nazi occupation showcases her adaptability and strength. 

Despite the horrors of war and loss, Alina’s unwavering love and determination to protect those she cares about underscore her character’s depth and resilience.

Tomasz Slaski

Tomasz, a young medical student with dreams of becoming a doctor, embodies the themes of sacrifice and heroism. 

His moral integrity leads him to resist the Nazis at great personal risk. Tomasz’s love for Alina and his actions to save her and the Weiss family highlight his courage and selflessness, even to the point of sacrificing his own life for their safety.

Saul Weiss

A Jewish doctor who aids Tomasz’s escape from Warsaw, Saul becomes an integral part of the narrative when he assumes Tomasz’s identity to escape with Alina. 

Saul’s character represents survival, adaptability, and the complexity of identity under persecution. His deep friendship with Alina and role as Julita’s father, while never revealing the truth of their past, adds layers to the novel’s exploration of what defines family and love.

Alice Michaels

Alice, Alina’s granddaughter, is a modern American woman facing the challenges of motherhood, marriage, and a son with special needs. 

Her initial reluctance to delve into her family’s past evolves into a transformative journey, uncovering her family’s secrets. Alice’s growth reflects the novel’s themes of connection, the importance of understanding one’s heritage, and the strength found in facing the truths of the past.

Wade Michaels

Wade is depicted as a distracted husband and father, more focused on his career than his family. His character serves as a contrast to the novel’s other figures who exhibit sacrifice and deep emotional connections. 

Wade’s evolution is subtle, reflecting a broader commentary on modern family dynamics and the challenges of balancing professional and personal life.

Themes

1. Unconditional Love and Sacrifice

Through the characters of Alina and Tomasz, Rimmer showcases love that transcends the harshest circumstances. Their willingness to endure separation, danger, and even the risk of death underscores the power of love as a driving force for survival and resistance against tyranny. 

Similarly, the modern-day storyline of Alice and her family reflects the theme of love’s sacrifices in the context of caregiving and parenting, particularly for children with special needs. 

The parallel narratives emphasize that love often demands selflessness and sacrifice, whether in the face of wartime atrocities or within the challenges of everyday life.

2. The Resilience of the Human Spirit

Alina’s journey from a young girl in war-torn Poland to a matriarch in America exemplifies the incredible resilience required to survive and rebuild life after unimaginable loss. 

Her story, coupled with Tomasz’s moral courage and Saul’s adaptation to a new identity, highlights the capacity of individuals to overcome adversity through inner strength and determination. 

This theme resonates in the contemporary setting as well, where Alice confronts her own struggles with resilience, navigating the complexities of motherhood, marriage, and uncovering her family’s past.

3. Impact of Family Secrets

The revelation of the true identity of Alice’s grandfather and the circumstances surrounding her grandmother’s escape from Poland reveal how secrets can shape family narratives across generations. 

The quest to uncover and understand these secrets drives Alice’s journey, leading to a reevaluation of her family’s history and her own place within it. 

This theme underscores the importance of truth and transparency in forging authentic connections and understanding one’s heritage, illustrating how secrets, when revealed, can transform our sense of self and our relationships with others.

Final Thoughts

“The Things We Cannot Say” is a beautifully crafted novel that delicately weaves the complexities of love, sacrifice, and the enduring strength of family ties across generations. 

The novel not only highlights the devastating impact of war but also celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the transformative power of uncovering truths. It’s a testament to the unbreakable bonds of love and the importance of understanding our past to forge a better future. 

This story leaves a lasting impression, reminding readers of the profound ways in which history, memory, and love intertwine to shape our identities and legacies.

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