Book Review: Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

I’ve read Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi at least three times over the years. This fascinating historical, fictional look at the lives of the people in a small town in Germany during World War II will sear to your memory. The unforgettable protagonist is Trudi Montag, a Zwerg, dwarf, born in the fictional town of Burgdorf, close to the real-life city of Dusseldorf, toward the end of World War I. The story encompasses all of World War II. Trudi’s world is made up of the people of Burgdorf, her Catholic ties and Jewish friends. She is high profile, and while rebelling against the shape of her body, and the size of her head, she never hides. She looks hate in the eyes and is always the last to blink.

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Author Ursula Hegi is a storyteller, and she puts her very capable skills into the hands of young Trudi –– whose  stories encircle the residents of the town –– alarm them, intrigue them, empower them, weaken them and sometimes, frighten them. Trudi Montag’s storytelling becomes the lifelong fabric of her body and soul. Stories are her weapon, her charm, and they draw others to her.

She doesn’t see another Zwerg until she is thirteen years old. The first chapters give us the background of Trudi as a child, but as she enters her teen years and beyond, during WWII, this is the part that draws me back to this book.

Trudi’s father, Leo Montag, is the first soldier in WWI to return to Burgdorf after an injury to his knee that left him with a painful limp. Trudi is conceived the night he returns home to his wife Gertrud. She is a beauty, and is as crazed as she is ethereally alluring. When the dwarf child is born, it takes many months before Leo can get his wife to hold her baby. The women of the town help take care of the strange little girl, pampering her, while the mother hides in a neighbor’s flower garden, or under the dark and damp raised foundation of the Montag home.  Gertrud was in and out of a sanatorium, and died there a week before her daughter’s fourth birthday. From a young age, Trudi felt responsible for her mother’s “illness.”

As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside other. That was before she understood the power of being different. The agony of being different. And the sin of ranting against an ineffective God. But before that –– for years and years before that –– she prayed to grow. . . .

…Trudi had come up against that moment when she knew that praying for something did not make it happen, that this was it: that there was no God-magic…and that anything that would happen to her until that day of her death would be up to her to resolve.

By the end of World War I, with few men in the town, the women had grown to like their independence, the freedom to make decisions, and being the backbone of their community. When the War was over, these women reluctantly went back to their place in the household, with a man residing there beside them –– men stunned that Germany lost the war. When Hitler enters the story, she remembers a time when her father tells her that “they lived in a country where believing had taken the place of knowing,” and “To win this war would be the worst possible fate for the Germans.

The people of Burgdorf were drawn in [by Hitler], gradually, almost imperceptibly. They didn’t know the destination, they only saw the beginning.

When the American liberators, “Amis,” they were called, entered Burgdorf, the people were still conflicted.

Trudi had a sixth sense about people. At times, she was certain she could see the futures of others, and she knew how long she would live –– not because of a diagnosis, but simply because she knew it.

By the time she began school, she already harbored an anger anchored in misery, at the children of the town.

Regular-size girls, Trudi was certain, had it easy, and she envied them, especially poor girls like Helga because the conspicuous line of her let-down hem announced to all the world that this girl was growing.

Leo had a pay library in his home where he also sold tobaccos. Trudi learned the business quickly. She exasperated the nuns when her hand shot up to answer a question, far more often than appropriate for a girl.

Trudi did look at the other girls, and what she saw made her uneasy –– they kept silent even if they knew the answers, while the boys  raised their hands, demanding to be heard.

She had a passion for math and especially history:

. . . And the old Romans –– find out that only five of their many emperors had been good emperors helped he to grasp the disillusion in her father’s voice when he discussed politics . . .’We Germans have a history of sacrificing everything for one strong leader,’ her father had said. ‘It’s our fear of chaos.’

 

Over and over, I’ve thought about how the people of Germany let Nazism consume them. Stones from the River shows good people denying the first glimpses of the horror to come, while beloved friends living next door are sewing gold stars onto their clothing.

To strengthen your family and encourage you to reproduce, the government gave you incentives, interest-free loans of up to one thousand marks –– about what the pay library brought in over five months. For each child you set into Germany, your loan was to be reduced by one quarter, and after four children it would become a gift. And there was an even greater reward: honor. . . .the cross of honor for the German mother. Every year on the birthday of Hitler’s mother, August 12, kinderreich –– child-rich –– mothers throughout Germany were celebrated with the Ehrenkreuz: the most cherished in gold for eight or more children, silver for six, and bronze for four …the child ennobles the mother …

But not only the Jews were in danger. Rumors were coming through that the weak and deformed and retarded were at risk. . . .

I mentioned that Trudi is a storyteller, and through her stories, she changed the lives of others. Examples:

1) Now the purpose of her stories had changed. She spun them to discover their meaning. In the telling, she found, you reached a point where you could not go back, where—as the stories changed—it transformed you, too. . . .

Because of the people in history, Trudi felt a far stronger link than ever before to the people in her town, and from all this grew new stories, which she told to Eva and her father, and to Frau Abramowitz who listened to every word and sighed, “Trudi, you and your splendid imagination. . . .

2) Trudi’s gift lay in knowing. Knowing the words that named the thoughts inside people’s minds, the words that masked the fears and secrets inside their hearts. To force their secrets to the surface like water farts and let them rip through the silence. They called her a snoop, a meddler. But even though she was more inconvenient to them than ever before, they kept coming back—to borrow books, they liked to believe—yet, what they really came for, even those who feared Trudi Montag, were the stories she told them about their neighbors and relatives. What they brought Trudi in return were stories of their own lives, which they yielded to her questions or, unknowingly, to her ears as she overheard them talk to each other between the stacks; and they didn’t even miss what she had taken from them until the words they’d bartered in return for her tales had ripened into new stories . . .

3) The risk her stories posed to others—and to herself—was more subtle. When she was younger, she had used secrets as if they were currency, but she’d found out how secrets could use her instead by becoming stronger than she. It happened whenever she couldn’t stay away from a secret—drawn to it the way Georg Weiler was drawn to the bottle—though she sensed it would be better for her not to know.

Trudi questions each relationship, over and over. There was a love interest for her, but I won’t give it away.

Author Ursula Hegi was born in Dusseldorf. According to this source, she used “her writing to explore her conflicted feelings about her German heritage.

Stones from the River is a beautifully crafted book about a terrible time in the history of the world, and the serious challenges of Zwerg Trudi Montag. You begin to know the people in her world as you might your own neighbors. I adored Frau Simon and could see the beautiful hats she made –– the hats the women of Burgdorf wore proudly. If the first few chapters don’t grab you immediately, do yourself a favor and stick with it. I recommend this female-oriented book for anyone interested in World War II, especially from the viewpoint of a German.
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