Saturday, October 22, 2011

244 (2011 #49). Those Who Save Us

by Jenna Blum,
read by Suzanne Toren

This was a most excellent book!  It's about a mother, Anna, and her daughter, Trudy, and set in their birthplace of Weimar, Germany in 1939-45, and in Minnesota in 1993 and 1996-97.

Motherless 19-year-old Anna Brandt falls in love with Max Stern, a Jewish doctor, and hides him in her home.  They conceive a child (Trudy) before Anna's Nazi-toady father discovers Max and turns him in to the Gestapo.  When he discovers her pregnancy, he turns her out, too, and she becomes the apprentice to the local baker, Mathilde Staudt.  Frau Staudt is a member of the Resistance and delivers bread to the prisoners at the nearby Buchenwald concentration camp, where Max is.  Anna makes some of the deliveries and witnesses atrocities at the camps' quarry.  Mathilde is caught and shot on a delivery run, and when an SS officer comes to the bakery, Anna saves herself and Trudy by becoming his mistress.

In 1993, Anna's husband and Trudy's adoptive father, Jack Schlemmer, dies at their farmhouse in rural Minnesota.  Trudy is now a divorced, childless professor of German history at a university in the Twin Cities.  Three years later, Anna is hurt in a fire at the farmhouse, and Trudy puts her in a nursing home in her hometown.  The only thing Trudy brings from the farmhouse is a picture of Anna, the SS officer, and herself as a little girl.  Anna does not like to talk about her past and has never told Trudy who her father is - so of course Trudy assumes the worst. She's teaching a class on "Women's Roles in Nazi Germany," and starts a project to interview non-Jewish German immigrants about their activities during World War II.

The book alternates between Anna and Trudie in Germany during World War II, and Anna and Trudy in Minnesota in 1996-97.  It's a war story, a mother-daughter story, and a survival story.  Between Anna's story and the stories of people Trudy interviews (including an angry Jew), the reader/listener sees/hears the horrors experienced by both the Jews and many German non-Jews, both those who confronted the Gestapo and those too frightened to do so.

Author Jenna Blum is of Jewish (father) and German (mother) heritage, and also interviewed Jewish survivors for the Steven Spielberg Survivors of the Shoah Foundation in the Twin Cities in the mid-1990s.  Blum has written about the novel's backstory at her informative website.

I thought the author did a wonderful job presenting another take on the usual World War II story.  She's also written a compelling story of what shame and guilt can do to a person and to those they love.  Trudy's romance in the latter part of the book doesn't ring true to me, and some reviewers have criticized the ending as being a little too neat, but I think both were necessary for Trudy to heal and move on.  The author provides some interesting perspectives about this in a Q&A on her website (see points 7, 6, 5, 4, and 2).

Actress Suzanne Toren's reading of the book is excellent; she handle the German words and German accents beautifully. The only quibble I have was with her giving Anna the same old-woman heavily-accented-English voice of the aged 1997 Anna in 1945 when she first comes to the United States with Jack. Trudy is still a little girl with a little-girl voice; Toren could have used the same voice as she did for 1945 Anna in Germany.

Because I listened to the audio, I did not notice the lack of quotation marks around dialogue in the book, but I don't think that would have bothered me. I highly recommend this book.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook and a hardbound print copy were both borrowed and returned through interlibrary loan.]

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