* warning: I do carry on a bit, but it’s the story that has me so moved. So please forgive my digressions.
“It wasn’t long before the judgement of the village fell like a gavel onto the Hildesheims.”
The quote only hints at the meanness of the villagers when they turn. The story begins with Ursula, her brother Anton and a group of Krampuses and in a way ends with them. Yes, you read that right, but it’s a tradition, a bit scary too. They live in the village of Felddorf in Nazi occupied Austria. Then we are in the summer, and the villagers are heard to say “Poor herr hildesheim”- “He’d be ashamed to see how his children run wild. that woman.” The reader knows how Urusla and her family have fallen in the eyes of the villagers from the start.
Soon it is January, and a letter arrives about her father, missing since Stalingrad urging them to hold on, because the party is unsure if he is dead or alive. She befriends Schosi hillier at the same time, and everything begins. Because of his being different (disabled), Schosi isn’t supposed to make his presence known but he loves his friend Ursula and even being punished or beaten can’t keep him away. Anton’s hatred and disgust of the ‘weak’ Schosi doesn’t stop Ursula from growing close to him. When Russian prisoners escape and Anton in caught up in an incident that leaves one dead, Anton’s nature seems to alter, but does it really just surface more? It is brutal to learn about the villagers, how easily they turn on each other and judge one another. Watching and trying to fathom why loss can make you mean and bitter lead you to turning people in for no other reason than to make them suffer happens so easily. Ursula’s hero worship of her beloved brother (loyal to the cause of Hitler) causes her to make terrible choices that effect her mother, and such loyalty to someone bent on abandonment costs her more than her young mind could have foreseen. Read as a child though, if you can, how the source of your downfall in the villagers mind could lead you to an ‘easy fix’. Think about being the outcasts day in and out, the horrible shunning, the shame, the hunger in your belly that could make a mother easily open her arms to ‘sin’. There is so much bullying, and the shame young Urusula feels at her meager belongings as she sees her ‘friend’ so well dressed, not wanting to bring shame on her by being in her presence hit me hard. Ursula comes of age and loses her innocence, but in a brutal time.
It’s a slow dark happening with dear sweet Schosi hillier, a horror the reader sees creeping up on them all and when he is in trouble even his mother’s deep abiding, protective love cannot save him. We see into the true horrors of what it meant to be considered ‘inferior’ and disposable.
This was the hardest part of the novel for me to read but the most beautiful too. From earlier when we witness the horrible thing Anton does to a cat and sweet Schosi’s reaction, readers see into his beautiful soul and love him. To think on the childlike innocence of those with disabilities and the sheer confusing terror of what happened when they were taken is enough to horrify anyone. That humanity can think to do such evil, because it is evil, that such depravity exists in the minds of man is enough to make anyone question the meaning of life and whatever God of your choosing. In fact, his fellow patients (prisoners actually) question God themselves. That as long as ‘well, orders are from higher up, so I do what I am told’ as a way to keep your conscience clean is a mystery to many. It’s not easy to think about those who didn’t agree and still went against their nature to do terrible things. Strangely, with all the brutal ugliness, you can see the psychology of why some followed terrible orders, how fear is enough to stick with the wrong side and point fingers at others. (If I judge, cast judgement than I am safe, as are my loved ones) but not everyone had a choice. Flip the coin and there are those that embraced darkness because it was already flowing through their veins. Remember too, there were those that risked their lives to help others.
Sadly for Ursula, the latter is the case with her beloved Anton. When the second world war is at it’s end and the Russian soldiers enter Felddorf, more horrors visit. I think about the line when Hungarians are seen running saying “hide your women, wear all your clothes” something like that, “those crazy Hungarian refugees”, they think. Not so crazy, but aware of what was coming to the women of Felddorf. As an aside, I was much reminded of my Hungarian family history. My own grandmother has stories of Russian soldiers entering her village and raping many of the women, young and old alike. My grandfather and great uncle, along with my grandmother and her brother’s wife were in two separate rooms when Russians broke into their home to rape the women. But seeing my great aunts baby boy sleeping between his parents, they left them alone and left my wounded grandfather in peace, his own wife hidden with my father. Of course they went on down the road and raped someone else. The other Russian soldiers they encountered loved children (mind you very young ones) and didn’t hurt little kids. In fact, even played with my own father and uncles who were 1 to 3. Many were young teens forced into fighting. Stories of them shooting chickens in my grandmother’s yard, hanging them from the walnut trees to cook and feeding my own father is contrary to the nature of the horrible things they did. So in our family, the presence of an infant saved my aunt and grandmother from rape. Others weren’t so lucky. It is true that they raped girls as young as 12 (younger too) and old women. It happened often, for far longer than you can imagine. As with any war, there were good soldiers that didn’t have that blood-lust, and others who did. If you were lucky, the good ones intervened. In any village, some women welcomed the soldiers as survival, and those who didn’t were raped anyway. For me to read about everything that happens to the village women of Felddorf, how accepting your fate makes a whore of you in the villager’s eyes… well… what were women to do with no men to protect them? It is something those living in a free country are lucky to be removed from.
It is untrue that this story is all ugliness and black hearts. There are those who stand up, and so much more moving when it is someone already shunned like Schosi’s mother, because it takes that much more beauty to already be an outcast and stand up for someone else. There is love, there is so much alive in the muck-not just Ursula and Schosi’s friendship, but his mother Frau Hillier and farmer herr esterbauer. Their strange relationship and his fatherly love for the lad Schosi, is solid to the end. He goes beyond what most would do to help Schosi. In Ursula’s mother any woman can understand why she would hunger for the comfort of a man, almost any man really, in times of war, hardship and deep loss. The stress her venomous son Anton brings to his mother’s heart, what can a mother do ? Anton is the flame that incinerates everything good and still Ursula loves him, even when it dawns on her all the darkness that is growing and pulsing through him is real and dangerous.
This story got under my skin, I read it to the very end last night and find myself thinking about every character. From the outside it’s easy to say ‘never me’ and to assume you would be above the villager’s behavior, that you would be shielding the weak and hunted, that you would never shun your fellow neighbor to save yourself (but when you enter your children into that equation friends, it’s amazing what you would do to protect them.)
A heavy read but there is light too. When reading about Schosi and others like him, I thought about our own treatment in America of those with mental disabilities or physical ones in the not so distant past. 5 stars for this novel because it provoked different feelings and questions, had me thinking outside the story too. It is very engaging. There are those who restore your faith in humanity as much as those who make you question it. My heart went through phases of anger, sorrow, shock and love. I don’t know if I read this differently because of my family history and the things they went through. It brought to life many of the stories I have been told throughout my life. The judging on the readers end of the what is right and wrong is easy. But if you think such horrors could never happen anywhere else in the world, like here, you’re sorely mistaken. Humanity can be both ugly and beautiful, evil and good a thin line between.
Release Date: October 11, 2o16