This is my book club’s choice for this month. We’ve done plenty of WWII historical fiction, but none quite this epic…it spans 1915-1952 in the town of Burgdorf, Germany.
Trudi Montag is a Zwerg (dwarf) woman living in Burgdorf with her father Leo who owns the pay-library. At the start of the novel, Trudi is 4 years old and newly realizing that her stature sets her apart and makes her undesirably “outsider”. Trudi also discovers that she is a natural storyteller, and her position in the pay-library affords her knowledge of the goings-on of a huge cast of neighbors, friends, and townspeople with whom she can swap stories. Because she is different, she senses the differences of others with keen empathy and understanding. “For Trudi, it was amazing to discover how many reasons other than size could turn you into an outsider–your religion, your race, your opinions. Enemies could endanger you with rumors; friends might involuntarily destroy you by repeating something they’d heard you say.”
This outsider backdrop is a fascinating way to filter the very gradual and insidious rise of the Nazis and Hitler in the everyday lives of average Germans. I can’t remember reading any fiction that tracks the indoctrination and political and personal pressure over such a span of time. Some of Burgdorf’s people think Hitler will bring great glory and economic success to a struggling Germany, while others see the danger of handing over so much power. It’s easy to see how it could happen anywhere. It’s hardest to read about those Jews and political dissidents who have an optimistic view of their beloved country and neighbors…they keeep thinking people will come back to their senses…that the unthinkable can’t happen. But of course, it does.
Trudi’s very personal heartbreaks and the struggles she shares with her townsfolk lead us again and again to the Rhein, which is as prominent a character in this book as any person. “…as her eyes followed the river, she could all at once see how the end of every motion became the beginning of the next, how the water that came up against a rock found a pattern as it joined the rest of the stream, how the crest of every wave became the descent into the rocking hollow…”. We all know how this story goes, so we naturally wonder how Trudi and her loved ones will fare, how they will cope.
At 525 pages this was not a light read. There were times that I felt that it was work to move through the huge breadth of story. It’s a challenge to take such a huge story and keep it focused. The prose was lovely, and I was most interested in the early years of the Nazis rise as you could see the town being taken over little by little. I’m not sure how much discussion this will generate in my book club, as fiction is flooded with excellent WWII novels, and we’ve already discussed a few.
3.5 out of 5.