I just finished Ursula Hegi’s book for the second time. As I posted previously, the first time I read Stories From The River, I wasn’t sure I liked it. It made me uncomfortable. So when I came across it at the thrift store, I decided to reread it.
I’m still unsettled by the book.
Trudi Montag is a zwerg, a dwarf, living in Germany in the 1940s. She doesn’t fit in, she’s considered a freak, and even as a small child, she yearns to be tall. In some ways the novel is about Trudi coming to peace with who she is, and about her ability to be the story-keeper for her town. As I read the book, I understood, but didn’t always like, Trudi.
The book doesn’t end with everything neatly tied up. Some of the subplots are answered and some are not. For example, readers will never know what happened to one of the most important characters in Trudi’s life, who disappears. After all the suffering, I wanted a happy ending, and didn’t get it. That’s not to say there wasn’t peace for Trudi at the end. I just wanted more than that.
The first half of the book moves slowly, starting with Trudi at a very young age, dealing with a mentally ill mother. Sometimes the dialog and thoughts of Trudi seem far too old for her age. But that wasn’t enough to pull me out of the story.
There’s the temptation to skim past all this narrative that moves as slowly as the river in the story. But each little thing is skillfully woven into what is to come. If you skim, you’ll miss the meanings. Like I said though, it moves slow. You must be a patient reader.
One of the things that happens in this slow narrative is the reader is shown Germany during that time. How the people were brought up to be patient, to trust parents, adults, leaders, the government. To be orderly. The things that happen are tiny little trickles that slowly erode away the dam, allowing the flood that was to become Nazi Germany.
I think most people these days like to think that if they had lived during that time, they would have stood up, would have done something. But people now don’t understand the culture from that time period, the obedience instilled in everyone, even here in America, during the 1930s and 1940s. Especially in the women. In this book you see the ones who defied what was happening, and disappeared. You see the ones who embraced what was happening. The ones who secretly did what they could.
You see the racism, the ability of people to allow cruelty to others in order to keep their children safe. You see the slow, slow, slow encroaching of evil. So slow that most don’t even realize what was happening until it was too dangerous.
But at its heart, this isn’t a book about Hitler, or Nazi Germany. That time period is only about one third of the whole book. It’s a book about a child growing into a woman, absorbing stories, trying to find her life, struggling to come to terms with her difference. A woman who finds herself through all the stories that flowed into her from the people in her town. One who finds the power of stories.
I was uncomfortable reading about that time period and what everyone had to go through.
I was uncomfortable with parallels to the racism that still exists.
I was uncomfortable with the honest self-appraisal that I don’t know what I would have done in the same situation. I like to think I would have stood up for others, been brave, smuggled people out, fed the starving. Like the woman in the book who tosses a half-loaf of bread she’s just bartered for, to feed her family, into the train of starving Jews that passes through town. The woman is then arrested and never seen again. But the reality is I don’t know what I would have done, or would do, if my son’s life was in also in the balance.
In the end, I closed the book with this conclusion. Ursula Hegi is an amazing writer. She has created a story that got under my skin, that won’t leave me alone, that looked at life honestly, that looked at humanity honestly.
So no, there are no neatly tied up happy endings.
From near the ending, after the war is over:
‘They did not understand why Trudi Montag wanted to dig in the dirt, as they called it, didn’t understand that for her it had nothing to do with dirt but with the need to bring out the truth and never forget it. Not that she liked to remember any of it, but she understood that – whatever she knew about what had happened – would be with her from now on, and that no one could escape the responsibility of having lived in this time.’
Yes. No one can escape the responsibility of having lived in this time.