Sunday, May 16, 2010

Those Who Save Us Still Haunts My Soul

(Image from Barnes & Noble)
"'Who among us is not stained by the past?'" (page 371)
When Anna Schlemmer gets the cold shoulder from the church ladies of New Heidelburg, Minnesota, she's not surprised. Hurt, yes, but hardly shocked. After all, she can tell by the looks on the faces of the farmer's wives exactly what they think of her: She's a Nazi, a Jew-hater, an enemy. Anna doesn't correct them. Let the Americans think what they may - whatever crimes she's committed in their lurid imaginations can never compare to what really happened. Not that Anna will ever spill her secrets. She left her past behind in Germany, and that's exactly where it will stay.
Fifty-two years later, history professor Trudy Swenson takes on a daunting research project - she aims to record the experiences of regular German citizens during the war. Did they know what was happening to their Jewish neighbors then? How do they feel about it now? Although Trudy takes on the assignment reluctantly, she hopes it will give her an excuse to learn the one story she really wants to know - her own. She was born in Weimar, Germany, in 1940, then immigrated to the U.S. in 1945. Thanks to her mother's tight-lipped refusal to discuss the war, the bare facts are all Trudy has. And the flashbacks, the frightening images that dart through her mind, leaving her wide awake and trembling. What do they mean? Only one person can explain them: her mother, Anna Schlemmer.
In alternating sections, Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum, tells the story of these remarkable women. Anna's tale begins in October 1939, when she's a young woman coming of age in Weimar. Germany's just invaded Poland, but Anna's got a more pressing dilemma - how to keep her distant, demanding father happy. One wrong move can send him into a cold rage, something she's learned to avoid at all costs. So, she hides her romance with a Jewish Doktor, disguises the result of their union, and never, ever speaks of what she's hidden away in a secret room. Every day, the streets of Weimar grow more dangerous. Every day, Anna's panic grows. When everything dissolves, the young mother is forced to do the unthinkable to save herself and her daughter from S.S. retribution. Survival trumps all in a world gone mad. She sees the glares of her neighbors, hears the gossip of her "friends," but she knows her shameful secret is the only thing keeping her alive.
When Anna and Trudy arrive in America after the war, Anna forbids her daughter from speaking of the past. Anna did what she had to do. Period. But when Trudy discovers the horrifying truth, she balks. How could her quiet, unassuming mother have done what she did? Was it really only about survival? Or is there some darker reason hidden beneath her mother's placid surface? Can Trudy break Anna's 50-year silence to figure out what really happened back in Weimar? Or will the horrors of the past paralyze the women forever?
Blum's first novel dissects the complexities of the human heart with an honesty that's grim and gut-wrenching. Through vivid characters, lyrical prose and exacting detail, the author brings to life every horror of war, examining each atrocity with eyes both sympathetic and damning. It's a moving portrait of ordinary people making impossible decisions in the most desperate of times. Mesmerizing, heartbreaking and truly unforgettable, Those Who Save Us continues to haunt my soul. It's not an easy read, but it's an absolutely stunning one.
Grade: A-
If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, violence and sexual content
To the FTC, with love: I purchased Those Who Save Us from Border's, using some of the millions I make as a book blogger. Hee hee.

3 comments:

  1. First of all, I love the cover on this book. I found that I actually own it, but haven't read it yet. It has moved up the pile.

    Lovely review about a book that obviously evokes a lot of emotion. I'm sure I will be in the mood for something like this soon. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. I am not a prude when it comes to books (much to the dismay of my bishop!) -- but even I had a hard time dealing with the graphic nature of her relationship with the SS officer -- it nearly did me in. And as I recall, the ending didn't sit right with me either.

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  3. Kay - Funny enough, I found the book sitting on my bookshelves, too. People kept recommending the book to me, so I finally requested it from the library, only to realize I already owned it! I don't know how long ago I bought it, but I'm glad I finally picked it up.

    GDM - LOL about your bishop :) Mine would probably cringe at some of my reading selections, too.

    I hope I made this clear in my review, but maybe I didn't - the sex in the book is very graphic. It's often violent, sadistic and very disturbing. The author talks about why she included these scenes and why they are so graphic on her blog - http://www.jennablum.com/blog/?s=sex

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