Check out this book: it's by first time novelist Jenna Blum, a book that I first heard about in my "Book A Day" tear off calendar (which I have loved all year so far, except that it's driven me to buy more books--sigh). Since I bought it, I've seen it all over in various bookstores, and I finally got around to reading it this week.
Here's the story: 56 year old Dr. Trudy Swenson has come back to rural Minnesota from her life in Minneapolis to bury her father Jack. But he's not her biological father. She has suspicions and vague memories that her father is a tall man in an SS uniform, a man she remembers pieces of, and a man she found in a picture one day while digging through her mother Anna's bureau. Her relationship with her mother is strained and quiet.
Flashback to 1940, a young Anna is paraded in front of barely-desirable suitors--barely-desirable, that is, to her. She's more attracted to a Jewish doctor twice her age who lives down the street. But Jews have become the objects of persecution in Germany by this point, and Anna knows her growing interest in Max Stern will not be tolerated by her father.
Told through a series of flashbacks, this novel portrays a side of World War II that I have not often read about, the side of the Germans who lived through the war. Were they monsters, knowing the camps were miles from their homes? Were they innocents, oblivious to the rumors swirling around them? Were they something in between, torn between survival and ethics?
Ironically, Trudy is a professor of history in Minneapolis, and guess what her focus of study is: German women in the Nazi era. She feels a strong connection to this time, naturally, as she lived her first 5 years in the war zone, before she and her mother were saved by Jack. But as much as she knows about history, she knows very little of her own story. Her mother is silent, and Trudy resents her mother's closed mouth more than she knows.
What really brought this novel to life was the details, of course. Jenna Blum is herself an expert on the Holocaust, having worked for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation, which has collected the oral histories of almost 52,000 people who were affected by the Holocaust. This wealth of information gave her novel life. I finished the novel a few days ago, and the one image that has haunted me since then is that of the smell on the Obersturmfuhrer's body: he smelled something like smoked bacon, but not quite the same. This detail of scent was repeated at least three times in the novel, and by the last mention, I knew for sure that my suspicions were confirmed. It was the smell of the victims of the crematoriums that his body exuded. All of those who died had perfumed his skin so that every time he came near Anna and young Trudy, the scent of rich meat was almost overpowering.
It is details like this that make a novel memorable, believable, and powerful. The story was riveting, at turns touching and beautiful and horrifying. It is the story of what people do to survive, what they come to feel for those who save them, and how they come to terms with the after-effects of their decisions.
Please read this book. You will be so happy you did.