Find it at a local indie!
- Why I read it: A German perspective of WWII, Minnesota nice
- Disclosure: Received a copy as a birthday present. Thanks!
Anna Brandt is eighteen years old in 1939. In her hometown of Weimar, Germany, where relationships between Germans and Jews are outlawed, Anna and the man she loves are committing the crime of race defilement. When Anna is forced to flee the home of her father, a Nazi sympathizer, she takes refuge in a bakery owned by a Resistance member. Soon Anna is making pastries for the officers of nearby Buchenwald while also making "special deliveries," risking death to bring bread to the camp's inmates. Then she is noticed by one of Buchenwald's highest-ranking officers. And everything changes. Five decades later, long after Anna has emigrated to Minnesota, she still refuses to speak of her wartime experiences. Anna's daughter Trudy has only one clue as to what they might have been: a family photograph featuring Anna, Trudy, and the Obersturmfuhrer. Haunted by the guilt of her heritage, Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins a deeper investigation of the past and not only finds a chance for redemption but unearths the heartbreaking secret her mother has kept for fifty years.When I received this as a birthday present, I wasn't sure about it. Yes, Trudy's part is set in Minnesota, which is always a benefit for someone with as much love of my beautiful state as me. (Yes, even when it's -25 degrees Farenheit and there's three feet of snow on the ground and you have to bundle up like a marshmallow to walk to the mailbox. Hey, it's an excuse for hot chocolate!) But the mere mention of a concentration camp in fiction has started to make me cringe. It's a topic so vast, so horrible, and so utterly incomprehensible that any attempts to explore it are almost certainly going to fail. We've been hit over the head with so many Holocaust books that it's hard for even a bleeding heart like me not to get frustrated. (Which, in a sidebar, is why Maus by Art Spiegelman is a brilliant and original way to do it. If you haven't read it, you should.) I'd much rather see a writer tackle another of WWII's horrors - the Japanese "comfort women," mass murders of Filipinos, Indonesians, Koreans, and other ethnic groups, even the Greek Civil War which started right on the heels of German and Italian surrender - than the "We hid from the Nazis" theme.
Still, I sat down to read Those Who Save Us one night, deciding that (almost) every book deserves a shot, especially books with pretty covers. The clunky prose and confusing beginning almost forced me to put it down again, but by chapter three or four I was completely engrossed in Anna's story and even mildly interested in Trudy's.
Those Who Save Us avoids the usual "Nazi" shtick by using an ordinary German's perspective, one who isn't particularly brave, one with mouths to feed. It's a study in the word culpability and where it really lies - and you start to realize it's not entirely at Hitler's feet. The author worked for Steven Spielberg's Shoah foundation interviewing Holocaust survivors, and it's clear that this novel is written from rich experience. While I found myself skimming through Trudy's sections to get back to Anna, even with the lovely Minnesota connection, WWII through the eyes of Trudy's German project is also fascinating.
The prose, unfortunately, didn't get much better through the course of the novel, and that along with the nature of Anna and the Obersturmfuhrer's relationship made for some icky, icky awkward sex scenes that would probably make an adult reader blush and cringe. As a teen it was downright painful. I think we were supposed to be revolted, similar to Kiana Davenport's Song of the Exile (the only novel I've ever found that features comfort women), but it was still tough to read. Blum's themes and story are brilliant, but her execution not so much.
I always feel odd as a teen reviewing adult books (which is why my review request policy says I don't accept them), and this book epitomized the reasons why. It's gritty, mature, and uncomfortable, and as grown-up as I'd like to think I am my evaluation of style is a little clouded by themes I don't understand. I'm not sure I'd recommend this to my teen blogging peers, but adult readers might find a lot to enjoy. Four out of five stars.