My thoughts on Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi

I finished reading Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi a few days ago. It made such an impression on me that I decided to write about it today and share my thoughts on the other books I read in January in next Monday’s blog post.

I enjoy following the blogs of book reviewers. Their reviews often pique my interest in books I might have otherwise overlooked. From a review, I can be fairly sure a particular book is or isn’t for me. My fellow blogger, Stella Maud Maurer (https://stellamaudmaurer.wordpress.com/,) wrote about author Ursula Hegi a couple of months ago. It was that blog post that nudged me to read Stones from the River.

I don’t consider myself a book reviewer. I just enjoy sharing my impressions of the books I read. I don’t abide by the rules that book reviewers adhere to. (And if you think I shouldn’t have ended that sentence with a preposition, I’m excited to tell you that I recently learned that “rule” is now just a “guideline.” Look for more on that in a future blog post.)

Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi

Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi

After reading Stella’s blog post, I wanted to read something by Ursula Hegi. I decided to start with the first novel in her Borgdorf Cycle series, Stones from the River. It wasn’t long before I was captivated by her prose.

Oh, to be able to write descriptions like Ms. Hegi does! She deftly weaves phrases of description into sentences in a way that you hardly notice. I admit, I was reading the book as a writer and not as a reader. The writing really isn’t supposed to pull the reader out of the story, but I just couldn’t help myself.

Trudi, the main character, is a little person. Her mother had what sounds like post-partem depression after Trudi’s birth. Her father, Leo, never gave up on bringing his wife and their daughter into a loving relationship. As a young girl in the late 1910s in Germany, Trudi yearns to grow tall. Her childhood isn’t an easy one, not only because she is different but because her mother is different, too. Her mother’s depression spirals out of control and she takes to hiding under the house, sometimes taking Trudi with her.

And then there’s the neighbor boy, Georg, whose mother wants him to be a girl. She dresses him like a girl and doesn’t cut his hair. Trudi starts to realize that she’s different, her mother’s different, and Georg is also different.

Through it all, Trudi has a priceless sense of humor that comes through especially in her dealings with her friend, Ingrid. Ingrid is tall and beautiful. Trudi would give anything to look like Ingrid; however, Ingrid thinks Trudi is the lucky one.

Trudi works in her father’s “pay library.” 1933 brings Hitler’s orders to destroy all books written by the great authors and thinkers of the day. She and her father hide some of his prized books under rental books in boxes. After all, what better place to hide books than in a library?

One day, Trudi discovers a woman and her little boy hiding under the house that she and her father still share along with the pay-library. They start hiding Jews in their cellar.

Due to her small stature, Trudi never expected to find romantic love. That yearning for love and a family of her own is a thread throughout the novel. I’ll just leave it at that and not spoil the story for you if you wish to read it.

This is a story of the unpredictability of life. It’s a story of thinking you know someone, but then realizing you don’t really know them. The constant backdrop was Nazi Germany. Step-by-step, day-by-day, year-by-year life became more precarious not only for the Jews but for everyone living in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Every word and action was suspect, and you never knew who was listening and watching.

What struck me, though, about this novel was the parallels I saw between Germany in the 1930s until the end of World War II and the United States in 2020 and 2021. If I’d read it when it was published in 1994, it wouldn’t have affected me like it did as I read it in December 2020 and January 2021. Over and over, sentences and paragraphs jumped out at me as if to say, “Wake up, America!”

It’s almost as if Ursula Hegi wrote pointed phrases and sentences in Stones from the River to serve as a cautionary tale for Americans living in the last five years.

The following sentence from Stones from the River stopped me in my tracks, since it rang so true for the United States in 2020: “She fought him by reminding herself what her father had said to Emil Hesping – that they lived in a country where believing had taken the place of knowing.” It seemed in 2020 and still today that nearly half of Americans believed what they were being told by the right-wing media and the Trump Administration instead of believing what they should have known to be true – what they saw and heard with their own eyes and ears. I’m not sure how that gets corrected, but I pray it will be.

There were several other quotes from the book that caught my attention. These three, in light of January 6, 2021: (1) “…breaking of windows….”  (2) “Maybe now, she thought, now in the blaze of fire, they surely would have to see. But it was as if they’d come to take the horrible for granted, mistaking it for the ordinary.” And (3) “Their allegiance to one powerful leader now became their excuse: since they had not made decisions but merely obeyed orders, they were not to blame.”

And this quote from the book parallels the fear some members of Congress now live with because they know that some other members of Congress wish them dead: “‘The Jews in this country,’ she corrected him one Saturday afternoon when he followed her into the garden, lecturing her, ‘are Germans and far more decent than those – those friends of yours who terrorize them –.’”

Since my last blog post

I almost finished the research necessary for the writing of one of my historical short stories. A little more research is needed in order to fill in some blanks. The story morphed into an essay. I had a lot of fun writing the 2,800-word piece on Saturday. The point-of-view “character” is a house. No more clues. I hope before the year is out, I’ll get to turn my stories and essays into a book. You’ll learn it here first, so don’t miss any of my blog posts!

Until my next blog post

Note: Tomorrow through February 8 is “Read an E-Book Week”.  If you’ve been wanting to take the plunge and try reading a book on your electronic device, this is the perfect week to do it. Don’t be an “I only read printed books” snob.

Note: Next Saturday, February 6 is “Take Your Child to the Library Day”. If your local public library is open and you feel safe to take your child there, perhaps you can do so. But if the Covid-19 pandemic has closed your library to in-person service – or you don’t feel safe going there yet – take next Saturday as an opportunity to explore the online resources your local public library system offers. Get your child excited about using the library online now and in-person as soon as that is safe. It will be a gift that keeps on giving for the rest of their lives.

I hope you have a good book to read (in print or on an electronic device) or a good one to write.

Wear a mask and get the Covid-19 vaccination as soon as it’s your turn and you can get an appointment.

Stay safe, and be respectful of others’ desire to stay safe and well.

Janet

Three Historical Novels I Read in February 2020

For me, the month of February can be summed up in three words. Best laid plans.

What actually happened

I thought I’d get a lot of reading done in February while being confined to my home with a fractured leg. I discovered it was hard to concentrate. I only completed three books in February. When given the opportunity to read 24/7, it loses its appeal – or at least it did for me. Added to my concentration problems was a hospitalization due to a pulmonary embolism. It was quite a month!

Since I didn’t get anything posted on my blog last Monday, I’ll try to get back on my weekly posting track now. I’ll try to finish writing “FixYourNovel #4 – Characterization, Part 2” for next Monday.


Moving on to today’s topic

Some readers look for a blog post the first Monday of the month about the books I read the previous month, so that’s what I’m doing today. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, you might like one or more of these three books.


The Last Train to London, by Meg Waite Clayton

As usual, I can’t remember how I heard about this historical novel. I’m glad I did, though.

The rescue of Jewish children from Nazi Germany
The Last Train to London, by Meg Waite Clayton

Meg Waite Clayton did extensive research and wrote this book over a 12-year period. She takes you to Germany in 1938. Through several real people, she weaves a suspenseful story of the Kindertransport effort through which 10,000 Jewish children were saved from certain death in Nazi Germany. Those 10,000 children were taken by train from Germany to The Netherlands and from there to England.

The references to closed borders and Hitler’s accusations about “the lying press” sent chills up and down my spine as an American. The parallels with the policies of the current United States president are striking and frightening to those of us who value our democracy.

There are gut-wrenching scenes of parents putting their children on trains with admonitions to make the most out of the museums and educational opportunities they’ll have in England. The children are entrusted to strangers with promises from their parents to somehow get to England and reunite with them.

No child under four or older than 17 years old was allowed to go. Each child was assigned a number. When they arrived in England, they were reviewed by prospective adoptive parents on Sundays.

As is stated in the “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, “Although fiction, this novel is based on the read Vienna Kindertransport effort led by Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer of Amsterdam, who had begun rescuing smaller groups of children as early as 1933. She was, to the children, Tante Truus.”

I regret to quote the following from near the end of the book:

“Efforts to effect similar transports to the United States, through the Wagner-Rogers Bill introduced into Congress in February of 1939, met anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic opposition. A June 2, 1939, memo seeking President Roosevelt’s support for the effort is marked in his handwriting ‘File no action. FDR.’”

I hope you get a chance to read this excellent historical novel.


The Cold, Cold Ground, by Adrian McKinty

The ophthalmologist who treated me for shingles in my right eye several years ago was an avid reader. During my frequent appointments, we often discussed our favorite novels and authors. He introduced me to the novels of Stuart Nevillle and Adrian McKinty. I finally got around to reading my first novel by Mr. McKinty last month.

Police suspense novel set in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland
The Cold, Cold Ground, by Adrian McKinty

The Cold, Cold Ground was Mr. McKinty’s twelfth novel, but it introduced a new character, Sean Duffy, a Roman Catholic police officer in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. At least one of my immigrant ancestors came to America from Carrickfergus, so I was immediately drawn into the story. My ancestor was a Presbyterian, though, which has always intrigued me in light of “The Troubles” between Protestants and Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland. I just don’t understand Christians hating other Christians, but that a topic for another day.

Back to the novel… Duffy is often put in awkward situations since he is one of only a few Roman Catholic police officers in Carrickfergus.

In The Cold, Cold Ground, a serial killer is making a statement, and Duffy is determined to solve the case and see the murderer brought to justice. There have been two murders. No one else suspects a connection except for Duffy.

I look forward to reading other Adrian McKinty novels.


A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

I was really on a roll last month with good historical novels! I wish I had remembered more details from the Latin American history courses I took in college. Some of that information would have been a helpful backdrop while reading this novel about the Spanish civil war in the 1930s.

You may wonder what Latin America had to do with a late-1930s civil war in Spain. I wondered the same thing, so I was in for an education.

A Long Petal of the Sea, by Isabel Allende

Hundreds of thousands of Spanish citizens fled across the mountainous French border when General Franco and his Fascist followers overthrew the Spanish government.

In A Long Petal of the Sea, you follow a pregnant young widow, Roser, and her army doctor brother-in-law, Victor Dalmau, as they join 2,000 other refugees on the SS Winnipeg, a chartered ship to Chile. The voyage is chartered by poet Pablo Neruda. He described Chile as “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” Hence, the name of the novel.

The day they arrive in Chile just happens to be the day World War II erupts in Europe – September 2, 1939. The novel spans decades and four generations as these refugees make the most of their new lives in Chile while always yearning to return to their beloved Spain.

Isabel Allende, the author, was born in Peru and grew up in Chile. Since she was the first author to donate an autographed book for the autographed books auction held by the Friends of the Harrisburg (NC) Library some years ago, Ms. Allende holds a special place in my heart.

The novel was beautifully-translated into English by Nick Caistor and Amanda Hopkinson.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading a memoir, Inheritance:  A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, by Dani Shapiro and listening to Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett.

Thank you for reading my blog post. You have many things vying for your attention and time, so I appreciate the fact that you took time to read my blog today. Please visit it every week to see what I’m up to.

Let’s continue the conversation

Have you read any good books lately? Share your thoughts with us.

Janet