Sunday, May 29, 2011

Book 43: Stones from the River

I'm not sure why I never read this book before.  Originally, it may have been the fact that it was on Oprah's Book Club or perhaps I felt like I needed a break from World War II literature when my mom read it, I don't know.  When I looked at it later, the comparison to Gunther Grass's The Tin Drum probably would have turned me off: I hated that book.  I didn't like the protagonist at all, and thought he was oddly lecherous and devious.  However, having read this book, I believe that comparison has more to do with the fact that both of the protagonists are dwarves in small towns in Germany rather than other similarities.  Yes, both use a degree of magic realism (more so in Grass's case), but Trudi comes off as a real, normal person who happens to be a dwarf, someone who I wouldn't mind talking to, while the protagonist in The Tin Drum does not.
The novel spans from World War I era through the beginning of the post World War II period.  It takes place in a small German town near Dusseldorf, and is the story of Trudi Montag.  Conceived after her father returns home early from the war due to an injury, she is born in 1915 and her mother has a breakdown after her birth.  Trudi realizes early on that she is different, and as she grows up she comes to realize the power of secrets and relishes discovering others.  As a result, she becomes the town gossip, which is made easier by the fact that her father runs the town's pay library so there are always people coming in and out of the family business who are looking for new stories in the form of Trudi's gossip and novels.  While Trudi has a hard time making friends at school due to her difference, she is also an integral part of the town.  She may not always be well liked due to her sharp tongue, but her father is a very respected member of the community, and the women of the town are drawn to him after his wife's death, though their passions always remain chaste and unrequited.  Trudi can be a very hard person as she withdraws and distances herself from friends before they can leave her, and she does a few things that are petty.
As the Nazis come into power, all the various characters of the town begin to splinter within the community.  People that have been neighbors for ages and well-respected members of the town are now shunned because of their differences.  Many of the Jews are some of Trudi's closer friends and she sees the effects first hand.  Due to her own difference and inability to fit into the Aryan ideal, she is not drawn into Hitler's rhetoric like so many others, and she and her father end up sheltering Jews.  While there are a few that speak up, most of these are silenced early on - in some cases, one prison visit is enough, in other cases they disappear never to come back again.  Though the novel uses Trudi as its main protagonist and its eyes, it is really about a small community and the Nazi regime.  Some of Hitler's followers were opportunist while others truly believed in him.  Of course, most would claim after the war to have never agreed with Hitler and to have not known what was going on when only a few could really claim to have resisted.  As horrible as the Holocaust is, it is easy to forget the small parts: the fact that in most cases it wasn't Germans attacking Jews they had never met: they went after neighbors, people that they had known for ages, whom they had sold or bought groceries from, doctors they had visited for aches etc.
In order to really reinforce this, it helps that Hegi begins her novel in 1915, thus truly showing the fabric of the town to the reader and how it gradually changed with the Nazis.  Even the end of the war doesn't fix things: no one wants to talk about what has happened, and the people want to move on, but the silence and secrets are obvious.  These aren't the only secrets the town tries to bury as the town also weaves lies and people in and out of its history throughout the novel, but Trudi remembers and digs for the truths at all times, cherishing her gossip and her stories.  The only stories she does not share are ones about herself, letting people make their own conclusions about her based on her outward appearance.  I quite liked this novel, and the rich tapestry that Hegi created in this town.  I admit that at one or two points, I thought about how many stories about Nazi Germany tend to be about the "good" Germans, the ones that helped the Jews - on occasion, it seems like if there had been as many good Germans as are described in these novels, many more Jews should have survived, but Hegi does a good job of balancing the community, showing the people that were ambivalent, purposely blind, and fanatic compared to those what were actively attempting to make a difference.  One character I thought was interesting felt like she had been a collaborator by helping to make the prisoners more tolerable.  As she believed later, she had helped the Nazis by handing over calm and docile prisoners, and blamed herself - even those with good intentions could simply become cogs in the machine of genocide.

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