Posts Tagged WWII

book review: Learning to See and The Eulogist

When it’s done well, historical fiction transports you to a particular time, place and setting through the eyes of its characters. The best historical fiction makes me want to learn more about the period or the characters. I try to refrain from googling while reading a book but if I’m itching to look something up, I know the author succeeded in transporting me to another time. That’s one of my favorite genres. Two compelling novels came out recently which center around independent and unconventional women, one real and one fictional.


Learning to See focuses on Dorothea Lange and her photography in the 1930s. I’m familiar with Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl photographs but not much else. In this thoroughly researched novel, author Elise Hooper brings readers into Lange’s world. Told from Lange’s point-of-view, the novel follows her burgeoning career as a photographer at a time when women weren’t pursuing careers, they were focusing on raising children. After moving to San Francisco with a friend, Lange finds work at a photography shop. She soon opens her own portrait studio and amasses clients. She’s friends with a group of photographers and artists which includes Ansel Adams. She marries rather volatile artist Maynard Dixon. They travel to Arizona so that Dixon can work on some painting. Lange notes: “Our first few days were spent examining the terrain, so different from everything I’d ever known: wide sweeps of empty desert, soaring sky, endless clouds. It felt timeless, nothing like the city. The simple geometry of the landscape’s lines and bold shouts of color left me awed. During each sunrise and sunset, under a sky bruised with purples and rippling with flames, the desert was reborn. The air thrummed with possibility.” Lange is an independent, strong woman determined to use her skills to benefit others in a deeper manner than merely taking pretty portraits. Navigating her way as a working mother, wife and professional photographer, Lange faces many challenges including her husband’s alcoholism and affairs. When her marriage and the nation’s economy begin to decline, she decides to take a position with the government taking pictures of the country’s disenfranchised, the photographs she’s known for today. She photographs migrant workers and Japanese Americans in camps during World War II. Hooper effectively allows readers the opportunity to see the time period through Lange’s lens.

Learning to See by Elise Hooper. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 384 pages | $15.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-291035-6

RATING: ****/5*


This wasn’t on my radar but the title and cover intrigued me so I started reading it one day and became completely absorbed by it. After immigrating to the United States from Ireland, three siblings forge their path in antebellum Cincinnati in The Eulogist. James establishes a successful candle-making business, free spirit Erasmus becomes a traveling preacher and independent, open-minded Olivia challenges a conventional life. These dissimilar siblings function like the id (Erasmus), ego (Olivia) and superego (James). I became completely charmed by Olivia, by her loyalty, curiosity and determination. She attends lectures by feminists and abolitionists and questions women’s expected roles during that time: “That summer of 1829, culture and curiosity came over the city like the quickening of a maiden’s heart. Cincinnati was overrun by fanatics and intellectuals trying to make their case: Caldwell’s discourse on phrenology; Miss Fanny Wright on slavery and marriage; Dr. Alexander Campbell and Robert Owen battling the fundamental relationship between godliness and goodliness.” She’s not particularly interested in marriage [“I have never been one to pine for marriage, nor did motherhood enchant me. As I saw it, marriage was a function of economic dependence, and wrongly, too, since women rarely had money of their own.”] or starting a family. She does end up marrying a doctor who she falls in love with after spending time with him performing autopsies and doing research on corpses. When he dies, Olivia returns with his body to Kentucky to find her brother-in-law heavily involved in slavery. She’s determined to save a young black woman who has been living fairly free in Ohio from being returned as her brother-in-law’s property. She enlists the assistance of both her brothers. Through detailed descriptions and strong character development, I found myself completely engrossed. Taking place in the decades preceding the Civil War, slavery was illegal in Ohio, the first state created from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. Ohio was active in the Underground Railroad.  I recently found a family tree my grandmother created which traces several generations in Ohio and I’d like to conduct research someday to see if any of my ancestors had any involvement in the Underground Railroad.

The Eulogist by Terry Gamble. William Morrow| January 22, 2019| 320 pages | $26.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-283991-6

RATING: ****/5*

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: Tightrope


Tightrope by Simon Mawer. Other Press| November 2015| 512 pages | $15.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-723-9

RATING: 4.5/5*

In Tightrope, author Simon Mawer focuses once again on Marian Sutro, the central figure in 2011’s Trapeze which details Marian’s experiences during WWII. It’s a novel I recall fondly—a magnificent story that tracks Marian’s training and challenges working in espionage during the war.

Bilingual [French mother and English father] and well-educated Marian Sutro worked in Special Operations for Britain in WWII. After her release she returns to her parents’ home in Great Britain and begins to forge a post-war existence for herself. As many returning from a war, she finds herself distant from her family and unsure about her place in the world. She wants independence but isn’t sure about her identity at times. Is she a war hero—she has the awards to prove it—or is she just another woman chasing contentment? She finds work for a peace-keeping organization.

While I adored Trapeze it came out three years ago and I don’t remember minute details so I’m not sure how this can qualify. Is it a sequel? The novel stands alone so I’m not sure I’d call it that. However, it’s the second novel about the same character so by definition, it’s a sequel. When I tweeted about this I got a response from the author himself so it should be considered sequel. I got slightly confused by the narrator at times, a man who knew Marian when she was a teenager. He’d always had a crush on her. I’m not sure why the novel needed this narrator. At one point I forgot who he was and had to turn back to the novel’s beginning for a reminder. But then I decided I’d not let it bother me and just appreciate Marian Sutro and this novel. Mawer writes exquisitely and Tightrope draws you in to Marian’s life, the consequences of her actions during WWII and how she copes in the present.

Why is Marian Sutro a superb literary character worth revisiting? Mawer writes: “Try to see yourself as this lot see you. A stunning woman, dressed like a film star, who has done things no one here would dream of. Parachuted into occupied territory, lived a secret life, been captured and I don’t know, tortured probably.” She’s an independent spirit. She’s a feminist. She has lavish style and intensity. You want to be her or be friends with her. She exudes a magnetic charm and fierceness. Her military experience forces her into a gray zone. Whose side is she on? She was a spy and POW in WWII. She has sex with whomever she wants. She married a man who intensely pursued her, not particularly for love but perhaps for companionship. It doesn’t keep her from affairs with other men during her travels. On the cover, Marian looks like she’s in a Tamara de Lempicka painting. She’d be an ideal subject for the bold artist.

Mawer includes cold war fears, atomic bombs, a gay scientist (Marian’s brother) as well as Marian’s love affair with a Russian Jew. On this relationship, Mawer writes: “In Absolon’s presence she no longer thought of Benoit, or Clement, or Veronique or Alan. They all seemed irrelevant. And she no longer contemplated death and betrayal but speculated instead on the possibility of staying with this man, Absolon, for the rest of her life, in Canada maybe, under an assumed name. Absurd, of course, but she had these thoughts.” Marian’s brother is one of the scientists working on weapons and, more importantly, bombs. He’s gay during a particularly dangerous time to be gay in England. Marian scoffs at his choice of lover: “Her brother queer, the lover of some skinny, common youth.”

Plenty of elements keep you intrigued. It’s not the confusing John Le Carre-type espionage plot which I could never follow. This novel remains character-driven with lovely descriptive passages and a riveting narrative.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.


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book review: The Muralist

the muralist

The Muralist by B.A. Shapiro. Algonquin| November 3, 2015| 352 pages | $16.95| ISBN: 9781616203573

RATING: *****/5*

When you think every WWII story has been told, an original narrative comes along and you realize there’s a plethora of war stories remaining to be explored and shared. Abstract expressionist art, French refugees and the WPA collide in this riveting historical fiction novel that focuses on the sudden disappearance of young Jewish-American artist Alizée Benoit. Post-depression and pre-war, Alizée works alongside Lee Krasner on murals for government-funded WPA. The Works Progress Administration], established as part of the New Deal, hired the unemployed for public works projects and hired artists, writers and actors to develop arts, media and literacy projects]. Alizée vanishes amidst personal and political turmoil.

Author B.A. Shapiro drops this fictional character in among real historical figures such as Krasner, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and William de Kooning, well-known abstract artists in the 40s. This only works when you believe that the fictional character could have truly existed and with the outstanding depiction and details. Readers become involved in Alizée’s story and in her quest to expose the truth about the war and save her family from impending atrocities the Nazi Party will commit in France [Alizée’s family lives in France] before the United States became involved in the great war. While she falls into an affair with Mark Rothko she remains focused on her art as well as helping refugees flee Europe while the Nazis begin to evoke terror.

Rothko seems the most understanding being Jewish and having depression: “Whenever they passed one of the many restaurants in New York with a RESTRICTED sign in the front window, indicating that neither Negros nor Jews would be served, Mark was the first to say that he wasn’t interested in eating anywhere he wasn’t wanted. But there was always a particular set to his mouth, a hardness in his eyes, as they passed on.” Her friends including Pollock and Krasner support her and even assist her to create one political mural but fear losing their livelihood as artists by becoming too politically-involved. Shapiro writes: “Alizée understood they felt safe and secure on their side of the Atlantic, content with a worldview that didn’t cross over much to the other.”

By day she works for the government-funded WPA and in her free-time Alizée remains part of the counter-culture. She meets Eleanor Roosevelt [“Mrs. Roosevelt was a moving force behind the WPA/FAP, and every artist on the floor revered her for that] who purchases several paintings and becomes quite impressed with Alizée’s talent and desire to use her art to convey messages. She belongs to a communist anti-war group, Americans for No Limits. Alizée saves all her money to purchase visas for her family to leave France. She’s met with many roadblocks. Shapiro notes that there’s a young congressman (Lyndon Johnson) secretly transporting refugees to Texas. Unfortunately he’s not focusing on France at that time.

This clash of ideals makes Alizée a target and puts her into increasingly dangerous situations. President Roosevelt didn’t want the United States to become engaged in the war and to that end didn’t seem interested in assisting political (Jewish) refugees either. Honestly not that different from the United States willingness to bring Syrian refugees here. Alizée makes enemies with Eleanor Roosevelt’s isolationist enemies– Joseph Kennedy, Charles Lindbergh and Breckinridge Long.

In present day, Alizée’s great-niece Danielle Abrams works as a cataloger at Christie’s auction house. She gave up her plans to become an artist years ago. Instead she works to research and authenticate remarkable art for auction. Danielle discovers paintings hidden on the backs of potential masterpieces by Pollock, Rothko and Krasner which she believes might belong to her great-aunt. So begins a mystery which forces Danielle to follow her great-aunt’s tracks even traveling to France. Her family, particular her grandfather and Alizée’s brother, never revealed that much about Alizée who disappeared and devastated her brother prior to the war. Although he eventually made it to the United States, Henri never found out what happened to his sister.

Clearly Shapiro conducted extensive research and concocts a brilliant story that allows readers to learn about some of the government programs and policies prior to WWII. It’s an exciting and vivid imagining of what might have occurred during this tense and difficult era. Besides Alizée’s political involvement, there’s much about Rothko’s depression and a stint that Alizée spends in a mental institution. Her friends see her for the final time before Rothko drives her to be admitted. There’s much discussion between mental illness, self-medication, mental breakdowns, creativity and artwork.That’s fascinating and could be a novel in itself. When Danielle discovers that her great-aunt Alizée spent time in a mental institution she finds out that “there’s a strong statistical association between what we consider the artistic soul and the disease; compared with the general population, creative people—writers, painters, dancers, musicians, actors, directors—are much more frequently diagnosed with a psychiatric condition.”

Alizée is independent, brave, determined and talented. Much like her aunt, Danielle is a strong, outspoken and a confident woman. From page one I became engulfed in both Alizée’s and Danielle’s stories and how their lives intertwined. I learned many aspects about this time period of which I’d been unaware. This is a must-read for fall. It’s the November 2015 Indie Next #1 Great Read.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin.

B.A. Shapiro will be at Brookline Booksmith on Tuesday, November 3 at 7pm and Concord Bookshop on Thursday, November 5 at 7pm.

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The Muralist: A Novel

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book review: The Travels of Daniel Ascher


The Travels of Daniel Ascher By Deborah Levy-Bertherat.
Other Press| May 2015| 182 pages | $22.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-707-9

Rating: *****/5*

Touching, creative, lovely novel. It tells the story of a child of the Holocaust in a unique manner. There’s a story within a story. French author Deborah Levy-Bertherat provides splendid descriptions of present day Paris as well as Paris during the Nazi occupation. It’s a wonderful translation by Adriana Hunter. The Travels of Daniel Ascher proves to be mysterious, adventurous and moving.

Archaeology student Helene Roche never paid much mind to her eccentric uncle Daniel, the author of a popular series of adventure novels in the vein of Treasure Island with a rapid following like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. She arrives in Paris to study—living in a flat in Daniel’s building– and begins dating Guillaume, a serious fan of her great uncle’s novels and his heroic protagonist Peter. “In the most perilous episodes in every book, the insignia reminded Peter he’d brushed with death and it had saved him, and it would give him the strength to continue his battle against the adversities and injustices of this world.”

To create novels within a novel demands immense creativity for which Levy-Bertherat possesses plenty. Helene soon decides she needs to learn about the real Daniel not just the swashbuckling traveler who regales the children at holidays with his outlandish tales. Helene never knew that Daniel was adopted and one of the orphans of the Holocaust that her family took in during WWII. As she begins to investigate and discuss Daniel with her aunts she uncovers the truth. She travels to New York to meet his biological aunt. She then speaks with Daniel to discover that while he’s Daniel Roche he’s also Daniel Ascher too. He’s split between two worlds. Saved from great atrocities he lost his parents and sister to the Holocaust. Helene grows closer to her uncle and appreciates him much more.

It’s a delightfully-written exquisite novel.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.

The Travels of Daniel Ascher

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book review: The Hormone Factory

hormone factory

<em> The Hormone Factory</em> by Saskia Goldschmidt. Publisher: Other Press [November 2014]. Fiction. Hardcover. 304 pages.

The cover, title and description pulled me in and the stirring, gossipy, colorful writing kept me in this debut novel by Dutch author Saskia Goldschmidt. This is historical fiction at its best. The ruthless and debauched Mordechai De Paauw recalls his experiences as Dutch co-founder and CEO of the first pharmaceutical company to invent and manufacture the contraceptive pill and hormone treatments. He runs a meat factory. He’s not a scientist but he realizes that animal organs which the company discards daily could be used for experiments. De Paauw would increase his wealth and gain power and prestige: “I walked outside and just stood there staring at the colossal mountain of offal in our factory yard. Who’d have thought that stinking pile contained unsuspected riches, like the copper ore trapped in rock deep in the earth’s crust, or the gold in the mud of a riverbed?”

He’s imprudent and corrupt about a lot of things. He experiments on and sexually exploits his female workers. There’s one employee that he calls “Fat Bertha” and summons to his office for sexual trysts on the regular. He also walks into the factory and selects women as if ordering from a menu. They must see the boss in his office or endure dire consequences. In the ultimate in blurred lines, De Paauw admits: “I must confess their inhibitions didn’t always hold me back. There’s something titillating in a little resistance, I find; a bit of a struggle, a head-shaking no, a hand fending me off, a tussle, until the wench accepts the inevitable and lets you have your way, limp as a lab rabbit receiving an injection.”

Disturbing on many levels. The language. The disrespect. The idea of getting [or really taking] what you want when you want no matter who gets hurt. The compulsion. You wonder how this guy can be this wicked. How can he abuse his employees, take short-cuts but be successful in numerous ways. His rather mild-mannered twin brother Aaron gets imprisoned due to De Paauw’s manipulations. His wife keeps reminding him of his “everlasting impatience” and that others might know much more than her husband. De Paauw refuses to accept these facts. Their marriage unravels after his brother’s imprisonment and a factory girl getting pregnant with his child at almost the same time his wife Rivka becomes pregnant with their first son. Thus De Paauw later admits: “I kept my distance from the factory girls; I had learned my lesson, but even in the new puritan atmosphere there were plenty of attractive, available women.”

“My need for such one-night stands began to lessen when, in the mid-nineteen-fifties, I met Diane Drabble in New York. She was one of the rare female chemists at the time and worked in tour U.S. lab. She was an intelligent, fine-looking woman and had nothing in common with the prim little misses mincing through the fifties in their coy wasp-waisted dresses, their nylons and garder belts, the immaculate white collars, the veiled little hats, the silk gloves, the clicking stiletto heels and prissy pocketbook in which, in a kind of courtship ritual, they were constantly fumbling to pull out a power compact, a lipstick, an embroidered handkerchief or a chrome cigarette case.”

What drove men to develop birth control? Not that all men are sexist and anti-feminist. Some men believe in equality and the greater good. De Paauw enjoyed the idea of having sex with as many women as possible and reducing the probability he’d impregnate them. He’s wealthy and powerful after all. That’s why he had to marry his wife. She got pregnant. Today men still make decisions and impose themselves onto women’s choices. Many men (and women) created The Pill and IUDs and hormone treatments such as Plan B but now in the United States, men want to restrict women’s access to protect themselves and maintain control over their bodies and their sexual experiences. The Hormone Factory delves into the time right before and during WWII when these advances became real possibilities. As WWII heightens and Hitler invades Holland, the future seems bleak for De Paauw, his company–many Jewish scientists for there– and his Jewish family. The family flees to England.

Goldschmidt works as a drama teacher and children’s theater director. The Hormone Factory‘s based on the real Organon. The Van Zwanenberg Slaughterhouse and Factories founded in 1887 by twin brothers. In 1923, Saal van Zwanenberg established Organon to develop medicine from meat waste products. Goldschmidt’s father survived the concentration camp Bergen Belsen. In the afterword she writes: “It took me over fifty years to find the courage to research my family’s history and to probe what kind of influence that history and my father’s concentration camp stay had on me. She published a memoir Obliged to Be Happy: A Portrait of a Family in 2011. The author’s theatrical background and meticulous research influenced the credibility and flair of this debut novel. Goldschmidt uses impeccable tone and extraordinary detail. Though covering a serious subject, it’s at times amusing with its dry wit. She paints the story in gray not black and white. Quite effective as many flawed characters might express regret or comprehension for their actions and words.

RATING: ****/5

review by Amy Steele

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.</em>

purchase at Amazon: The Hormone Factory: A Novel

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book review: Ghost Waltz

ghost waltz

The Ghost Waltz by Ingeborg Day. Publisher: Harper Perennial (June 2014). Memoir. Paperback.  232 pages. ISBN13: 9780062310002.

“It was simple. If I detested anti-Semitism with my brain and soul, I had to distance myself from my parents to a degree unbearable for me. So I detested anti-Semitism with my brain alone.”

An editor at Ms. Magazine, Ingeborg Day published both Nine and a Half Weeks and Ghost Waltz in the 1980s under a pseudonym. Born in Austria in the midst of World War II, Day didn’t hear about Nazis, Hitler or the Holocaust until she moved to the United States in 1957. However she already retains a hatred for Jews, Jewishness and Israel ingrained into her psyche from an early age. She recognizes that she works with many Jewish people and counts many Jews as her friends. This memoir recounts memories of her Nazi father as well as retracing her mother’s ancestry to Vienna.

“To say, ‘My father was a Nazi,’ is bad enough. To say, “He belonged to the SS,’ and to say it in Manhattan, today means that every listener assumes my father pushed bodies into gas chambers, spend quiet evenings stretching skin into lampshades.”

Day traverses between her past in Austria to her present in New York. She explains the differences between Austria and Germany during WWII and that many people don’t distinguish between the two countries. She provides immense historical background about Austria and the Nazi party. She somewhat comes to terms with her own degree of anti-Semitism as much as a New York magazine editor can. Day connects a dark past, her parents’ even darker existence with her present. She recalls the time she slept with a Jewish guy who thought it rather reckless, even bemusing, that he was having sex with a Nazi’s daughter. He only wished she could dress the part. Ghost Waltz is detailed and somewhat provocative. It’s also indulgent. A glimpse into one’s soul-searching that proves absorbing at parts and tedious at others.

RATING: ***/5

<em>FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Perennial/Harper. </em>

purchase at Amazon: Ghost Waltz: A Family Memoir (P.S.)

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The Bungalow: book review

The Bungalow , by Sarah Jio. Publisher: Plume (December 27, 2011). Romance. Paperback, 290 pp.

What spoke to me was nursing, in all its gritty rawness. It promised to fulfill a part of me that had lain empty for the majority of my life a part that longed to help others in a way that had nothing to do with money.

When I sent author Sarah Jio a tweet about her novel The Bungalow, I had no idea it was a romance. I never delve into that genre. However for a diversion, The Bungalow takes an intriguing, clever concept, mixes in a murder mystery and WWII and turns out quite the page turner. Is the WWII bungalow that a soldier and nurse fall in love in the same one that artist Paul Gaugin found solace within? Anne Calloway lives a privileged life but decides to join the Army Nurse Corp during WWII. She’s recently engaged and doesn’t particularly need to work but wanted to go to nursing school anyway. At the start I liked Anne’s attitude and seemingly feminist spirit. At times it’s a bit too romance-y with predictable meetings and reunions but Jio compensates by providing lovely descriptions of Bora Bora.

purchase at Amazon: The Bungalow: A Novel

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The Last Brother: book review

The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah. Publisher: Graywolf Press (February 1, 2011). Fiction, 176 pages. Paperback.

Often I wonder how many additional unique stories about WWII remain to be told. Apparently, quite a few. The Last Brother tells about the mass exodus of European Jews turned away at Haifa and deported as illegal immigrants to the British island of Mauritius. In 1944, nine-year-old Raj, a resident of Mauritius, remains unaware of the battles waging beyond the small island he calls home.

While others struggle for survival, this young boy endures daily beatings at the hands of his father. After both his brothers die during a massive storm, Raj and his parents move to another village where his father takes a job as a prison guard. The prisoners are unlike any Raj ever imagined. Varied in age, tired and weary, these white people look identical to him. He becomes rather taken with David, a boy his own age, and when he ends up in the prison hospital after a particularly nasty beating, he and David become friends. Raj misses his brothers and thinks that David could fill the void. He decides to rescue David from prison. The residents of Mauritius, a British island off the southeastern coast of Africa in the Indian ocean, remain deliberately oblivious to the war waged on far away lands. Raj doesn’t even realize the truth about his friend David until he researches the events himself many years later.

In this impressive novel, writer Nathacha Appanah charms and delights in recounting an appalling time told through a child’s viewpoint without precocious airs. She’s created an endearing, courageous character in Raj. Told in a haunting yet magical style, The Last Brother is an intriguing, heartfelt story about loss, belonging and place.

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book review: Skeletons at the Feast



Title: Skeletons at the Feast

Author: Chris Bohjalian
ISBN: 978-1-84737-314-4
Pages: 363
Release Date: February 10, 2009 (paperback)
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review source: personal copy
Rating: 5/5




Anna understood on a level that was more intellectual than visceral that aging represented a steady winnowing of a life’s possibilities. She grasped death from bullets and bombs and bayonets far better than she did death from old age and cancer. But she was not uncomprehending of the reality that the infinite steadily contracted, the options narrowed, and eventually one’s future would be as shallow as a spoon. As predictable—and enervating—as the mud that followed the first thaws in March. And so as they walked on toward Stettin, three more days beneath a dreary, ever-lowering sky, in her mind she recited a litany of names. Yes, they did get distracted. All of them. They were distracted as much by their memories of what—of whom—they had lost as they were by what loomed before them. Gone, she thought, at least for the moment, was Werner. And disappeared behind him into that great fog of battle were her father and Helmut. Her twin. Then there was her mother’s brother, dead, as well as the obdurate man’s daughter and daughter-in-law and grandson. There were Klara and Gabi, not certainly dead but most likely dead. Russians, two killed in a barn in the midst of an act of inexplicable kindness. No, that wasn’t right: It wasn’t an act of kindness at all. They were stealing everything her family had: They had simply chosen not to rape and murder her in the process. Funny how war altered one’s definition of mercy.

Skeletons at the Feast highlights an aspect of WWII that many people may know little about: when the Third Reich finally was losing ground in Germany, Russian forces started to take over the countryside and people began to flee their homes in an attempt to reach Allied Forces (British and American) across the lines of the Third Reich. Chris Bohjalian depicts the horrors and the disregard for humanity and numerous despicable moments in this unforgettable work of historical fiction. Bohjalian makes the story much more powerful by adding memorable details: soldiers raping, humiliating and killing young girls and babies; a girl at a camp who survives due to the boots her boyfriend gave her before the war; trading family jewelry for beets and potatoes, entire wagons of Jewish prisoners being burned alive, discussions about banned German books, listened to the verboten BBC radio, the Hitler Youth, a woman having her period and having a riding crop forced inside her vagina by an SS guard.

Skeletons at the Feast focuses on the Emmerich family, Prussian aristocrats. 18-year-old Anna is the central figure. Her lover, Callum Finella, is a Scottish prisoner of war, who had been brought to work at her family farm. Her mother Mitti and younger brother Theo join the group that embarks on this bitter winter journey. Uri Singer, a German Jew who escaped from Auschwitz, and has taken the identity of a Wehrmacht corporal joins them on the journey. Skeletons at the Feast painstakingly describes the details of their relationships, struggles, feelings, and reaction to the war-torn countryside.

–review by Amy Steele

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 Skeletons at the Feast Paperback

The very kind Chris Bohjalian managed to answer some questions via email between radio interviews [he’s currently off on tour].

Amy Steele: You mentioned finding a journal that sparked the idea for Skeletons at the Feast. What interested you about writing a book about WWII?

Chris Bohjalian: I have always loved reading big, sweeping, epic World War II love stories – novels such as Sophie’s Choice, The English Patient, and Atonement. That was one factor.

But there was also this: In the past my novels have had, by design, a ripple of moral ambiguity to them. Not this time: World War II was a conflict without moral ambiguity. There was good and there was evil, and good triumphed. That was a factor that drew me to the subject, too.

Finally, there is the reality that the women and men who survived the Holocaust are now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Many of the people I interviewed – the Holocaust survivors and the Germans – were telling their story for one of the last times in their lives.  It was important to me to get their memories down for subsequent generations.

STEELE: It amazes me that there are so many untold stories of WWII still to be told. The Russian invasion of Germany is not talked about often. What do we learn from the past and WWII in particular?

CB: Well, we learned that the Greatest Generation really was pretty great.  That’s one thing.

We also learned that some people’s fortitude and courage and resilience are profound.

But, sadly, we also saw that the human capacity for barbarism is limitless, too. 

And, sadly, as we gaze around the globe and look at the post World War II world – Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur – we just don’t seem to be evolving in that regard.

STEELE: It’s such a difficult subject and you add all these crucially integral details: the basic disregard for humanity—raping young girls/pillaging, Uri who steals SS officer’s identity, discussion of literature/ listening to the BBC, the Hitler youth, Cecile in the camp, the friends who are so verbal in hatred of the Jews… How much research goes into a novel like this? Do you research before you write or as you go?

CB: I do an enormous amount of research, both before writing and as I am writing.

And I do all of my interviewing myself. In this case, that was especially important. I wanted to hear firsthand the stories of the Survivors and the stories of the German refugees.  There is often an inflection in an answer or a small gesture that teaches a person more than a transcript of an interview.  Moreover, by doing the interviews myself I have the chance to ask follow-up questions I might not have thought of, and to explore avenues I hadn’t anticipated.



STEELE: What is most important to you when writing a novel?

CB: Giving readers a good story – one that makes them really want to keep turning the pages.

STEELE: What is your favorite aspect of this story?

CB: This novel has some of my favorite characters – people like Anna and Cecile and Uri and Theo.  This is the first time I have finished writing a book and been sad that it was done.  I missed those characters and wanted to spend more time with them.

And, of course, I always think of the extraordinary people I met in my research, and my friend’s mother – the diarist’s daughter.  She was a 16-year-old when she and her family made that unbelievably arduous trek west across Poland and Germany in 1945.  She’s a remarkable woman.

STEELE: You have a beautiful old house in Burlington, Vermont which seems like an idyllic setting in which to create novels. Why do you like living there and how has it affected your writing?

CB: Actually, I have a beautiful old house an hour from Burlington. I live in a village of barely a thousand people halfway up Vermont’s third highest mountain.

Writers talk with an agonizing amount of hubris about finding their voice. I found my voice in rural Vermont. I never would have written books such as Midwives or The Double Bind had I not moved there.

And while I might have written a World War II love story, it wouldn’t have been Skeletons at the Feast because I wouldn’t have become friends with a wonderful guy (and his family) whose mother and grandmother made that long walk across Europe, and whose grandmother kept a diary.

STEELE: You’ve written novels about vastly different topics. How are you able to switch from one to another? What do you do for down time between novels?

CB: There is no down time between novels.  I finish one and embark on the next.  Really, I write every day, and I have to write something.

STEELE: Why do you write?

CB: The mortgage. 

I’m kidding – sort of.  There is a certain artistic passion that drives any novelist or poet (recall Rilke’s inspiring words on this subject), but it is also a lovely way to make a living. 

STEELE: What is the greatest challenge of being a novelist?

CB: In my case, it is battling back an ever present inferiority complex – that sense of my own mediocrity.  Every month I seem to read a novel that is better than anything I will ever write in my life.

STEELE: What is in your to-be-read pile?

CS: A forthcoming collection of short stories by Jabari Asim, A Taste of Honey, and Audrey Niffengger’s Her Fearful Symmetry

STEELE: What advice do you give to someone who wants to start a novel and just cannot start writing?

CS: Aspiring writers can find my thoughts on this at length on my blog

STEELE: Where do most of your ideas come from?

CS: Usually from people I meet.  They tell me a story or show me a photo or ask me to look at a diary – and I am off and running.

 STEELE: Your publicist sent me an ARC of Secrets of Eden— another topical and potent subject—domestic violence. Cannot wait to read this one. How did this novel come about?

CS: Thank you.  Secrets of Eden is a literary thriller in the tradition of The Double Bind and Midwives.  It’s about a domestic abuse murder-suicide with a twist; it seems the husband did not shoot himself after he strangled his wife, as everyone initially assumed.  Someone else shot him. 

The idea grew from the stories women told me after The Double Bind was published.  The reality is that violence against women in this country is absolutely epidemic.

Chris Bohjalian will be  at the Concord Festival of Authors Breakfast with the Authors on November 7.

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