by Mary Louise Wells ‧ RELEASE DATE: April 13, 2023
A Prussian farming family cooperates with Reich control before experiencing traumatic displacement as refugees in Wells’ historical novel.
In June of 1937, Josef Haupt, a father of eight children and a farmer on the outskirts of Guttstadt in East Prussia, travels to town with eldest daughter, Margarete, who is 9 years old. Josef asks a merchant, Aaron Katz, why he is sweeping the town’s streets. Josef’s questioning of this treatment of a Jew leads to his apprehension by the Gestapo. Josef avoids being sent to a labor camp through the intervention of the town’s mayor, Bürgermeister Renkel, who has been pestering Josef to take the role of Ortsbauernführer, a position that will require him to organize and lead the farming community in the area. Josef realizes that he must now accept this assignment to avoid a worse fate, and the family receives a Nazi flag to fly and Polish POWs to work on their farm. As the war years go by, Josef’s four sons are drafted to fight for the Reich. Margarete attends a finishing school in another city but is forced to return when bombing starts as the tide turns against the Reich. Josef dithers, reluctant to flee the farm despite his cynical, wounded son Paul’s urging to escape. The family eventually does leave and is forced to contend with rapes, beatings, stints in refugee camps, and, for Josef, joining the Nazi’s desperate, last-ditch citizens militia initiative as he turns 60. The novel concludes in 1950, with some members of the Haupt family forever lost but others moving on to radically changed new lives.
The author notes in a preface that she originally intended to write a coming-of-age novel about her mother then expanded her focus upon discovering that her grandfather, originally an opponent of Nazism, had been an Ortsbauernführer. The resulting narrative is a sweeping family saga dramatizing the horrible decisions, dilemmas, and tragedies those living under Nazi rule faced. The book is full of striking scenes and heartbreaking images, including Jewish headstones ripped from graveyards to pave the broken roads of Guttstadt, and Margarete discovering the mutilated corpse of a classmate by spotting “a familiar-looking red coat with large black buttons in a heap on the snow.” Wells also effectively probes the psychology of her characters, from Josef’s guilt (“He was too terrified, too selfish to bless an old friend and too much of a coward to practice his religion. And if put in a similar situation the next day, he would act no differently”) to Margarete’s repression of her trauma (“Just as she was an observer of tragedy befalling others, she had become an observer of her own life. It was the only way to protect her soul and her mind. It was the only way to continue to live”). The story is ambitious in scope and at times overwhelming in its details. Overall, however, Wells skillfully weaves together her many plot threads to convey the seismic impact the war had on one family as it reshaped the world.
An evocative, engrossing depiction of the devastating choices and consequences of the World War II era.
Pub Date: April 13, 2023
Page Count: 354
Publisher: Posit Publishing
Review Posted Online: yesterday
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