Saturday, January 16, 2010
the year in books: skeletons at the feast
Then I got hooked on our weekly lunch at the library programs (remember the watercolors?), and I decided that the monthly book club's first selection of the year, Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian, would be my first read too. Having made that monumental decision, I proceeded to ignore the book for several more days. I started Skeletons on Sunday with a deadline of noon Tuesday when the book club met. I almost made it. I had about sixty pages to go by book club time, and I made the decision to go anyway. I knew the end of the book would be spoiled for me, and I knew that the fates of enough folks were still up in the air that it would be a big deal for me. And I went anyway because I was afraid that there wouldn't be enough folks for a good discussion. The Tuesday discussion did yield some spoilers, but I was glad to be a part of the discussion and finished the book on Wednesday.
****I am not a fan of spoilers, so I can promise you that whatever book discussions I engage in on this blog will remain spoiler-free.*****
Having said that, Skeletons at the Feast is set in East Prussia and later across Germany during the winter and spring of 1945. The Emmerich family, Germans who are members of the Nazi party, flee their farm in East Prussia as the Russian army approaches. The father and older brothers of the family are fighting, but the mother, eighteen-year-old daughter, and ten-year-old son are traveling with a Scottish POW, who they are hoping will be collateral on their journey westward should they encounter Allied troops. That sounds very calculated, but the Emmerichs are not the bad guys. They're mostly kind and sheltered and shocked by the things that they learn about the Reich as they travel. In their journey, they encounter Uri, a German Jew who escaped the train taking him to a concentration camp and spends two years masquerading as various German soldiers to elude capture. There's also a parallel story of several Jewish women who are marched westward from their work camp as the Russian army advances.
Monday when folks reading asked me about the book I said I was enjoying it. Monday night when the reading was making me so sad and uncomfortable and horrified, I wondered how I used a word as benign as "enjoy" for what that book and I were going through. I was drawn in and felt connected to the characters and had a heart for the themes, but it's just difficult to read about that time and place and not feel sympathy and guilt and a helpless lack of understanding that atrocities like the Holocaust and other more recent genocides happen. But despite its heavy content, the book isn't overwhelmingly depressing. And there's enough suspense and action in the families travels to provide some interest also.
Overall, the book is completely worth my time (and probably worth yours, although I am hesitant about making blanket book recommendations to anyone who happens to read these words). I started a second book of 2010 on Wednesday, but I may have to pause it and find a lighter read as it has a post-WWII Holocaust survivor cast of characters. I think I may need a break from that.
Stay tuned for more of my year in books.