The William & Mary Alumni Boston Chapter selected this novel set in German-occupied Poland at the end of the Second World War. It tells the story of three different journeys that intertwine and complement one another. First there is the Emmerich family, prosperous German farmers in East Prussia with the elderly father and eldest sons off fighting, the women and children flee west to safety from the Russian army taking with them a Scottish POW. Then there is Uri, a Jew who escaped from the prison trains and has spent two years taking on the uniforms and identities of various German officers both for survival and sabotage. Finally there is Cecille, a French Jewish woman forced with her fellow prisoners on a death march (although this is the least well-realized of the three storylines).
Bohjalian does not shrink from the details of all that was horrible about the war and the Holocaust. Yet, in the end this is a book about hope. After tearing us down, Bohjalian builds us back up with the romance of 18-year old Anna Emmerich and the Scottish airman Callum, the persistence of Cecille, the bravery of Uri and many small, kind acts. The one thing I wish the author had not done was to distance the Emmerich’s so much from Nazism. It seems a cop-out that many authors/filmmakers fall on is the “good German” instead of trying to find humanity or promise of redemption in those who adhered to this evil ideology.
Recommended books: Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies