Thursday, December 8, 2011

Those Who Save Us

I'd have eventually read this novel simply based on the title. Isn't it lovely? But a friend and active member of my library discussion group saw a paperback copy on the Friends of the Library sales rack and she handed it to me with a command. Read this book! I'm ashamed to admit that, for some time now, it's been in that growing pile of "books to read" that graces my less than generous kitchen counter. I'm slowly winnowing it down to make more room for Don's desserts.

Perhaps I've put this book on the back burner because it's another Holocaust novel and there's been so many of them. Still, Jenna Blum ( takes a different tack and that makes all the difference doesn't it? Her novel toggles back and forth between 1940's Weimar, Germany, and 1990's New Heidleberg, Minnesota, examining the relationship between two complicated women, a mother and daughter, Anna and Trudy.

Trudy is a loner, unable to sustain relationships, not close with her mother, in fact, embarassed by her. Yet she's an overachieving college professor, respected by her co-workers, a teacher of German history who has gotten involved in a project much like NPR's StoryCorps.

She interviews former German citizens about their remembrances of their lives in Germany during World War II, much like the Shoah Foundation interviews Holocaust survivors for their stories. In fact, Ms. Blum worked for the Shoah Foundation for several years leading up to the publication of this book and it shows. The irony is that, as Trudy delves more and more into these people's pasts, she hurts more and more from the realization that she knows nothing about her own mother's past, recalling nothing from her childhood except the nightmares that plague her.

We, the readers, of course, learn Anna's amazing story. We know about the illegitimate child she had by the Jewish doctor she had hidden in her father's house. We find out about the courageous Mathilde, a bakery owner who takes Anna in, employs her, and enlists her help in the Resistance. We watch in horror as the Obersturmfuhrer rapes, brutalizes and finally subdues Anna, a woman who will hold her head high against the ugly gossip of the townspeople, aware that she will do anything to keep her Trudy fed and alive.

Anna as an older woman is an extremely frustrating character. I'll have to admit that I didn't really warm to her very much because I wanted to shake her! I wanted for her to see how her daughter was suffering by being kept ignorant and how much more fulfilling their relationship could have been if only Anna could have opened up the way Trudy's subjects did. But then Ms. Blum managed to write a denouement that settled this conundrum satisfactorily, for me at least.

I have to believe that this would make an excellent book for discussion groups. The characteristics that I look for when I'm choosing our discussion books are all there. Interesting, complicated characters. Moral relativity. Nuance. People who have committed what some might consider immoral acts but for reasons that may justify them. This is a book about life in all its messy intricacies. Remarkably, it is a debut. Once again, I'm amazed at the talent out there.

1 comment:

Kelly Robinson said...

I agree --the title is lovely on its own!