She was tired of wanting the madness to end; tired of life in a country that could feel so much repulsion for a human being, for a child, for her child. She was exhausted from so much fear of the war- fear of losing it, fear of winning it. She knew that her little family wouldn’t win under any circumstances.
War, all of it’s horror stories, full of so many sides of the same coin, where despite the repulsion and evil deeds there is sometimes goodness. Goodness is easy when it doesn’t cost us yet it’s hard to find in darkness. When we must protect our family, it’s shocking what people are capable of. This novel is about two families uprooted by war and everyone they meet on their path. Children are forced to join the effort on the front, or if too young than to remain ever watchful in their homes, or if a captured enemy, then to serve your captor as a prisoner of war. Segovia isn’t concerned about victors, because in this novel everyone loses, there are no winners just people who crawl out of the rubble half human, if they are ‘lucky’ (that word like a razor blade in the mouth). Despite what we imagine, the movies we watch, the fictional and non-fictional books we read, even the experiences our own family members share, we will never be able to comprehend what survivors endured. Your own people becoming enemies, a war that grew into a monster that went out of control devouring everyone. Separation, starvation, betrayal, death and people who have no choice. One thing spectators of the past like to do is shout how they would be brave, how they would never go along with things, they would be giants but in reality, non-compliance and rebellion was met with death or something worse- because yes, there is always something worse.
The Hahlbrock family have already survived the devastation of war, now the Führer has provided a life of order, food and a promise for a great future. When their youngest, Isle, is born they cannot imagine their Führer’s grand ambitions, nor what he has planned for his people and the rest of the world. Their darkest days are not behind them after all. The Schipper family’s youngest son, Arno, is celebrating his third birthday on the streets of Königsberg. It is this historic day, on the shoulders of his father, that Arno watches amongst a sea of people as red flags wave, slogans echo in the air, and heavy military vehicles pass in a parade of power. As a swell of voices chanting, “Heil Hitler!” dance in his head, it feels like confusion and when Hitler speaks through a loud speaker, Arno is too young to understand any of it, but it will change his entire live. Both Isle and Arno will be robbed of their childhood. As war approaches, school will drive home dangerous ideas, frightening parents, but one must keep their mouth shut and remain steadfast to the cause. Neighbors can’t be trusted, nor can soldiers. Fathers and sons are forced to either maintain their farms to feed the soldiers or join the war. When East Prussia starts to fall, Isle and her family are forced to flee. Januz, a forced laborer on her family’s farm (prisoner for all intents and purposes), dazzles young Isle with ‘tales of a besieged kingdom in the Baltic Sea from which spill the amber tears of a heartbroken queen.” Loyal to the Hahlbrock family, to the disgust of his fellow laborers, it is his mother’s stories that he uses to keep hope alive in the child’s beating heart. Something about Isle reminds him of someone he has lost, and for the first time, he feels cared for in a strange way, not much minding the hard work, now that he is no longer in danger of the wolves in the cold forest. But wolves are everywhere, and you can never trust anyone. Even when they must flee the Soviet Army, he remains steadfast, refusing to leave Isle, her mother and siblings to fend for themselves, even at his own detriment. Januz is my favorite character, and my heart was ripped out for it. As they escape, more than tears will be spilled.
Arno and his mother are going through their own dark winter of the soul, hiding in the ruins of a Königsberg mansion, with bombs falling around them, so much death from one day to the next, soon living like rats cowering in the shadows and rubble from the enemy. Neither knowing what happened to Arno’s father, or his siblings, afraid that maybe they were abandoned. His mother is losing faith and hope, weakened by her illness, unable to see the light at the end of this hell they now find themselves in. Tyrants and liberators are one in the same. Memories feel like nothing but fading lies, reality is distorted. Forced to give up their land, their very roots, each other… how is anyone to survive when bound to nothing, when loved ones are reduced to ash? Does it matter what side is winning when the world is decimated? Every character suffers invasion, and must do what they are ordered to do, so long as they have breath left within them. They must be grateful for another day, for crumbs. The war continues and they must give everything they have, including the lives of their sons and daughters. Some use stories to escape the scorched earth, but all stories must come to an end. The wind will change direction many times, and it is with a gift of an amber teardrop that will provide a future for Arno and Isle when their stories converge.
This is a painful read for every stage of life. Beautifully written despite the horrors because of the character Januz’s presence. He is able to warm the coldest heart. Yes read it!
Published May 1, 2021