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In wartime Denmark, dark days and great deeds

Leeway Cottage
By Beth Gutcheon
Morrow, 416 pp., $24.95

Often, when a novel is labeled ''ambitious," we understand that its reviewer is giving the writer a polite A for effort, while silently deducting points on literary merit and readability. What words, then -- ''important"? ''unforgettable"? -- to describe ambition realized, as is the case with Beth Gutcheon's enthralling seventh novel, ''Leeway Cottage," which tells the little-known story of the rescue of Danish Jews during World War II.

It may be prejudicial to lionize an entire population, to speak of a collective Danish character as if it were one shining monument to righteousness. But allow me to generalize. We read in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's ''Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" that when Hitler conceived of the ''final solution" he was able to enlist vast numbers of willing Germans -- merchants, civil servants, academics, farmers, students, managers, skilled and unskilled workers -- to carry it out. Yet next door, in Denmark, an arm of land jutting into the sea in the shadow of the Reich, Danes risked their lives to protect and hide their Jewish countrymen, saving 97 percent of that endangered population.

Gutcheon tells two stories in ''Leeway Cottage," which takes its name from the Victorian summer house in the fictional coastal town of Dundee, Maine, the setting of Gutcheon's previous novel, ''More Than You Know." The bridge between a Maine summer colony and Danish resistance is Laurus Moss, a professional musician, living in the States. He meets Miss Sydney Brant, his voice pupil in bohemian New York, after she has escaped from an ice-cold debutante-minded mother in Cleveland, the family's winter home, following the death of her beloved father. It is 1938. Though it appears that the apple has fallen far from the socially rigid maternal tree, Sydney worries about her beau, Laurus, fitting in and, endearingly if not realistically, about her own charms. ''She had been secretly frantic to guess what exactly he saw in her. She had adopted the way of the other music students, seeing what they wore, . . . buying standing-room tickets at the symphony and opera, dreading the moment Laurus would learn she was rich and either be horrified or entirely too pleased."

In April 1940, as the Nazis march into Denmark, the rich American girl marries the unlikely suitor, a Danish Jew who plays the piano for a living. When he joins the resistance, operating from London, the enthralling historical drama begins -- and it is the stuff of unsung heroes told soberly and with great authority.

Gutcheon lays to rest Denmark's best-known war-related shibboleth: that the Danish king wore a yellow armband in solidarity with his marked Jewish countrymen. He did not. When Hitler occupied Denmark that spring, the Führer announced it would be his ''model protectorate," hoping for good PR for Germany along with the small country's dairy and pork products. The Danes set conditions, first among them: no setting apart or harassing of its Jews. Regardless, within three years, the Nazis try to round up the Danish Jews -- except by the time the pounding on the doors began, almost all had disappeared. ''Leeway Cottage" tells that story: How a country, nearly spontaneously, pro-Semitic to a person, hid and saved virtually all its 7,000 Jews.

Lest intimations of history lessons discourage readers seeking voice and style, let this reader reassure you that there is wit here, and an eye for the telling detail. Because the winds of war are only just stirring, it is entirely fitting -- and more chilling -- when Gutcheon reports conversationally, ''The king celebrates his birthday on September 26. The Leader of the Aryan Peoples sends him fulsome greetings, and looks forward to some royal bowing and scraping in reply. The king of Denmark sends this telegram: 'My utmost thanks. Christian Rex.'

''People have said that the king expressed himself perfectly properly. People have said that Hitler sometimes actually foamed at the mouth when he was angry, or fell down and chewed on the carpet. In this case, whether or not offense was meant, offense is taken."

Laurus's sister Nina, ''a luscious girl, the darling of her family," is a pivotal character in a shadowy, mysterious way befitting her work in the resistance. What dark and terrible things happened to her after her arrest and her deportation to the camps remain a mystery until the end, and are then revealed in such a masterful and chilling way that the reader asks, ''How did the author know this? Whose testimony and what intestinal fortitude allowed her to detail these years?"

Nina's withdrawal annoys her sister-in-law Sydney, safe and well heeled in America. The American marriage spanned 60 years, but it is not an overromanticized tale of a couple torn asunder by war. Sydney, though not fatally mismatched with her husband, is unequipped to feel enough for her Danish in-laws' traumas and her quietly heroic and misunderstood husband. ''His body was in America," Gutcheon writes, ''and he was too polite to impose his own preoccupations on others, but . . . he never ceased to be a man whose homeland had been invaded."

While the biography of a summer enclave and the fate of German-occupied Denmark don't mesh as organically as they might, ''Leeway Cottage" is a triumphant and true love story -- that of an entire population of righteous Gentiles for its seemingly doomed neighbors.

Elinor Lipman is the author of seven novels, including ''The Inn at Lake Devine" and ''The Pursuit of Alice Thrift." See ''Bookings," Page D8, for information on a local appearance by Beth Gutcheon.

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