Stones from the River
by Ursula Hegi
Although I often read history, especially books regarding World War II and Germany, memoirs, collected memories, analysis into the various horrors and sheer arrogant stupidity of what the Nazis and others did, I seldom, if ever, read fiction books about those times.
This book, however, caught my eye because the central character was a Zwerg, or dwarf, one of the many groups considered “unfit to live” which were summarily done away with under the Nazi regime. Secondly, this character, Trudi Montag’s best friend as a child was a boy named George whose mother dressed him as a girl and kept his hair long. Naturally, I being I, was intrigued. Without reading anything further into the short synopsis on the back of the novel, I thought it might be about their personal interactions, regarding their “disabilities”, with those who meant for them to die. In the end, the book is about far more.
Germany is a country I love. It’s my favorite place in the world, and I never truly feel peace or relief or joy unless I am there. This is quite shocking to some people, those who still look on Germany as Nazi, intolerant and ugly. It is infuriating to others who insist on judging a whole population by their former government or by certain groups. Subjectivity without objectivity. Whatever one thinks of modern Germany and its population, whether one is insistent on their culpability and propensity to commit evil acts, or is merely doubtful in some way, few people know the depth of the self-loathing, national examination and fury of descendants of “those ones” who participated, “looked the other way” or somehow minimized what happened. Though it is considered a more “unreligious” Christian country, there is a national insistence almost nearing religious fervor, that one be tolerant of all peoples, all thoughts, all desires and lifestyles, etc. and I share that fervor.
First of all, it’s a subject few Germans except scholars or other academicians will discuss with “outsiders”. It’s a subject if brought up, the faces shut down, become wary or misdirective, or if they are the outspoken sort, they will question why you are pursuing the topic. Some, usually the younger generations, don’t want to hear about it anymore because they are sick and tired of the still accusatory comments or jokes made towards them, their people and country. In reality, no nation or peoples on this earth now living are free of some sort of holocaust or attempted massacre of another people. Australia, Spain, England, the USA, Russia…each and everyone. It is still happening in areas of Asia and Africa. Read this objectively, please.
I initially found the book difficult to get into, not because of topic, but because of style, which was choppy and sporadic, with a POV which toggled between an omnipotent viewer and the main character as an infant and toddler who made observations about individuals and situations that would be impossible for a child of that age. Often there were snippets of thoughts or memories provided as if from old age looking backwards, yet it was in early childhood details. Many other facts are merely implied. You have to ascertain a conclusion from information presented, and you’re often left doubting or wondering if you understood something correctly.
The setting is a small village in Germany, one of the many burgs which often surround or are near a larger, cosmopolitan city. Hegi is excellent at setting a mood so you can “see” and feel what it’s like to live in such a place: the little relationships, the jealousies, the short-lived boasts and affairs which kept everyone just a certain distance apart yet always together. There are good people and bad people, ones you ultimately as a reader can judge as such, yet the author makes no such attempt. She gives you the information, you can draw your own conclusions.
You are drawn into the world of Trudi Montag, her father owns a book circulation library and is a former injured veteran of WWI. She is visibly different, painfully and emotionally aware of the fact, yet with ingenius courage survives and keeps a dignity so many thoughtlessly attempt to brush away. That very difference, Trudi’s birth, her dwarfism is yet another trigger into her mother’s slow descent into madness, and poignantly we observe the bittersweet nature of a child’s desire to please and make happy a parent who soon is helpless against their own compulsions.
As other peers grow taller, grow up and pursue the nature courses of life, Trudi feels trapped yet determined to also grow in all ways, but her obsession with being “normal” teaches hard yet important lessons which keep her alive during the years to come. Unrequited love, secret abuse, solitary agony and loneliness. Trudi is small in stature but hugely spirited, fierce and passionate in her hates and personal battles.
Characterization is extremely important to this writer, even if the amount of names and descriptions can be confusing at times, with each person Hegi shows aspects of the German character, its idiosyncracies, faults and positives. About midway through, Hegi finally hits her stride, as the inevitable events we now know as history, begin to unfold. Almost frenetically we are drawn along in the emotional flood knowing what is going to happen, but as we’ve been made to care for each person, reluctant to progress already realizing the inevitable.
For some who are more narrow-minded, they will not take away from the book the knowledge Hegi is trying to impart: that although virtually all Germans of that time knew and felt something very wrong was occurring, and they knew the basis on which it was focused, the ridding of the fatherland of Jews, many resisted and helped those Jews or others as they could with risk to their own lives. Some more than others. Others not at all, but many in some way or another did. It’s very easy with hindsight or a superior attitude to proclaim what one would have done in such a situation, but Hegi excels at showing just how normal people can change, and how the world around can change you.
For those who’ve studied socialism or communism, you’ll clearly see the examples of what type of attitude a police state creates in its populace. One most notable is the willingess to turn in others to prove their own loyalty, even children against parents, sibling to sibling, old friends of old friends. And later, to minimize or justify those acts. To conveniently forget what roled they played.
Yet the book is not a political statement. It is not a justification. It is not a mediation. It is starkly plain as seen through Trudi Montag’s eyes what people are and can be. As a little person who was often ignored or dismissed, her insight is brutally honest yet acceptable as truth. It is a character which I often find in Germans today, the willingness (if they allow you in) to harshly examine self, to admit to weaknesses or wrongdoing of thought or deed, but with a pragmatism which accepts those facts but is unwilling to be dismayed by them. Life goes on. Some people call that arrogance. For myself, I would much rather be with someone or among a people who admit wrongdoing and go on with life, instead of those who apologize profusely yet don’t mean a word of it. If a German says something, they mean. If they don’t mean something, 9 times out of 10, they are not going to say it. It might be said hard, but the intention is not to hurt. But my commentary is listing to the side….back on track.
As an editor, I would have been compelled to “clean up” Hegi’s writing, make it more coherent and flowing, yet it would have lost the sparkle which makes unique her voice. As a reader, I found it challenging, but overall this book is extremely successful. I would strongly consider it one not to be missed. Although they make hundreds of films these days about anything and everything, this is a book I would love to see adapted for film. With its snippet like quality, it would be perfect for the big screen.
A bittersweet and wonderful gem. I am glad I didn’t put this one to the side simply because I don’t often read contemporary fiction or because the stamp on my copy proclaimed it a “Oprah’s Book Club Selection”. I would have been much less having not read it. It really is perfect in it’s view of German life of the era, the complexities underlying an entire country and people’s past which continues to haunt with a darkly golden light.