Friday, October 08, 2010

Ultimate Cliffhanger Ending Sours Me On Traitor

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

As many times as I've confessed this on my blog, I can still hardly stand to type these words: I enjoy reading books about World War II and the Holocaust. Enjoy. What kind of monster does that make me? It's not that I enjoy reading about other people's suffering or delight in tales of hate and violence - for me, it's about the triumph. That human beings could endure the kind of horror Hitler brought on the world and not only survive, but actually possess enough resilience to continue living, is what draws me to these stories. Survival, sacrifice, stoutheartedness in the face of crippling fear ... it's depictions of those victories that fuel my addiction to this genre. I seriously cannot get enough. So, when the very generous folks at Carol Rhoda LAB offered me a copy of Traitor by award-winning German author Gudrun Pausewang (translated by Rachel Ward), I really couldn't resist.
The novel begins with 15-year-old Anna trudging through the forest to her family's farm in tiny Stiegnitz, Germany. She's arrived home for the weekend, leaving behind the larger city of Schonberg, where she attends school and lives in the attic room of a local widow. Although her hometown is a miserable bore of a place, it offers a nice reprieve from the incessant talk of war that permeates the larger town. Here, in her little village, politics are less important than the weather, the abundance of the harvest, and the fact that pickles are available, without a coupon, over the border in Czechoslavakia. The dreary war has left no place untainted, but at least here, life goes on in nearly the same manner as it always has.
Anna is thinking of her grandmother's cooking, the possibility of a letter from her soldier brother, and the warmth of the indoors, when she spies peculiar tracks in the snow. The impressions appear to have been made by men's boots, but none that look familiar to her. So, why do they lead straight to her family's barn? When Anna discovers their owner - a gaunt, frightened man who refuses to speak - she assumes he's a lunatic who's slipped away from the nearby asylum. It's only when she hears that a group of Russian prisoners of war have escaped, intent on sneaking across the border, that she realizes the man's true identity. The war's gone on long enough for Anna to have grown disillusioned with the Fuhrer, but that doesn't mean she wants to risk the Nazis' wrath by aiding the enemy. Still, the man is obviously ill. If she doesn't help him, he'll die. If she does, she risks being shot as a traitor to her country.
Gossip in the village says the war will soon be over. Germany will surrender and the Russian's presence in Stiegnitz will no longer matter. Surely, Anna can keep him safe for that long. An abandoned bunker in the woods seems the perfect place to hide the escapee, but for how long can she keep up the charade? How will she sneak him the things he needs, especially when she spends her weeks at school? What if someone finds the Russian? What if they recognize the stranger's clothes as belonging to Anna's brother? What if someone like Anna's overzealous younger brother finds the prisoner? What will happen to him then? What will happen to her? As she juggles all these worries in her head, Anna considers the even bigger questions: Are the Russians as evil as the propaganda films make them out to be? Are the Germans as good? Are the rumors of Jewish death camps true? How can human beings inflict those kinds of horrors on one another? Is there any good left in the world, anywhere? What will become of a human race capable of doing such things?
Although Traitor has all the drama and intensity inherent in a WWII novel, it's more contemplative than edge-of-your-seat compelling. Still, it's a decent enough story and would have been perfectly satisfactory if it wasn't for one thing: it has the worst ending I've ever read. Why? Because right when the story is finally climaxing, it stops. And I mean, stops. Like right-in-the-middle-of-the-action stops. Not in an artfully ambiguous way either. It just halts without finishing the scene, without resolving any of the story conflicts, without coming to any kind of finale. I was seriously combing through the book trying to find the rest of the chapter. Never in my life have I been so aggravated by the end of a novel. Just thinking about it makes me grind my teeth. So, not only do I not know what happened to Anna and her Russian, but now I'm totally soured on a book that I liked right up until its last page. Grrr.
If you think this ultimate cliffhanger of a crap ending might turn you off as well, I recommend not even starting this book. Or at least not reading the last page. You can just imagine a happy ending and be done with it. Which is exactly what I should have done. Double grrrrrr.
(Readalikes: Although I haven't read it (what is wrong with me?), I'm guessing Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene is similar.)
Grade: C
If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for mild language (no F-bombs), intense scenes and some sexual innuendo
To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of Traitor from the generous folks at Carol Rhoda LAB. Thank you!

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