In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from Warsaw to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.
Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family’s farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred–who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz.
As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna’s and Callum’s love, as well as their friendship with Manfred–assuming any of them even survive.
Perhaps not since The English Patient has a novel so deftly captured both the power and poignancy of romance and the terror and tragedy of war. Skillfully portraying the flesh and blood of history, Chris Bohjalian has crafted a rich tapestry that puts a face on one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies–while creating, perhaps, a masterpiece that will haunt readers for generations.
In his 12th novel, Bohjalian (The Double Bind) paints the brutal landscape of Nazi Germany as German refugees struggle westward ahead of the advancing Russian army. Inspired by the unpublished diary of a Prussian woman who fled west in 1945, the novel exhumes the ruin of spirit, flesh and faith that accompanied thousands of such desperate journeys. Prussian aristocrat Rolf Emmerich and his two elder sons are sent into battle, while his wife flees with their other children and a Scottish POW who has been working on their estate. Before long, they meet up with Uri Singer, a Jewish escapee from an Auschwitz-bound train, who becomes the group's protector. In a parallel story line, hundreds of Jewish women shuffle west on a gruesome death march from a concentration camp. Bohjalian presents the difficulties confronting both sets of travelers with carefully researched detail and an unflinching eye, but he blinks when creating the Emmerichs, painting them as untainted by either their privileged status, their indoctrination by the Nazi Party or their adoration of Hitler. Although most of the characters lack complexity, Bohjalian's well-chosen descriptions capture the anguish of a tragic era and the dehumanizing desolation wrought by war.
A deep read.
I think now, in our current times we need to well remember the mistakes of a generation who blindly followed a madman, staring at but denying the truth of the near elimination of a people. Thank God he failed. This work describes beautifully the realization of a wealthy German family how brutal that truth can be. A must read for Americans who think nothing can happen to them.
Excellent book to make you think
Listened to this book on CD on a long car ride. I found that not only was my mind tricked into thinking the trip was shorter than usual, but I was so caught up in the storyline and the historical facts. It has made me so aware and think of the horrors and atrocities that millions of people endured during WWII. I highly recommend this book!
Skeletons at the Feast
I listened to the audiobook during 6 hour car commutes. I could not turn it off and presume that had I been reading the book, I would have had trouble putting it down. The characters are rich and distinct. The plot is complex and plausible. This story presented not only the points of views of the Jewish victims of the Third Reich, but of the German people who were seduced and coerced by it, and to some extent, of the European allied forces as well. Despite the horrors this story vividly depicts, it ends with fragments of hope sufficient to keep me from being utterly depressed about one of the most abominable eras in history.