Stories From The River Review

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.

Mary Emerick Review

You know that feeling when you open a new book and know right away you’re going to love it? And then you’re faced with the difficult decision to either sip or swallow in one long gulp? Such is The Geography of Water by Mary Emerick.

The opening lines immediately sucked me in by showing two characters with questions that I had to read further to answer. The beginning did just what a beginning should do – hook the reader and make you want to turn a page.

‘When my father left on his hunting trips, my mother and I would come out of our hiding places. We would scamper like mice through the empty lodge, throwing open the windows to erase the smell of men. We would fill up the damp air with our own voices, losing little pieces of our hearts with doomed Janis Joplin, the volume turned up past ten. We would surrender like drowning to afternoon sleep in beds that were not our own. We would eat, finally, sitting down like normal people, peaches sliding down our throats, each swallow almost too sweet to bear. We would stretch ourselves big in a world that usually forced us to be small.’

The book is set along the southern coast of Alaska in a bay called Never Summer, and the author brings the setting so alive that the rain, ocean, trees, the sense of place, become a character as vital to the story as the living beings. I’ve only found one other author, Ellie Griffiths, who so brought a place alive for me.

There’s a bit of mystery in the book, but don’t limit it by labeling it a mystery. You can read the book jacket to find out what it’s about and this isn’t a review that gives away the whole plot. Basically there is a young girl on the cusp of woman, in a wild and unforgiving land with an abusive father and a mother who weaves stories as if from the air they breathe.

What made the book hold me was the lyrical writing, the sense of place as I’ve mentioned, the water that so influences everything, from ocean to rain, from streams to mist, from fog to the moisture breathed out by trees in their ancient self-contained eco-systems.

The author also pays close attention to detail. For example, near the beginning she talks about cormorants and how the birds dive deep in the ocean then must wait to dry off before they can dive again. You read it as description and nothing more until later in the book when one sentence draws a powerful parallel to Winnie (the young girl) and where she is.

All of the characters are strongly developed, believable, and flawed. Not all questions will be answered, but life isn’t so neatly tied up either.

Mary Emerick does an amazing job putting words together, creating this song of place.

‘We looked out toward the ocean. Whitecaps marched in a solid line, rollers fighting the flood time. Out there it was what we called a confused sea, waves colliding from all four directions. I knew what that felt like because I felt it too, love and hate mixed up in a ball, rolling around loose inside my skin.’

Here she is speaking of two old men, Isaiah and Birdman, Vietnam vets who found safe harbor in Alaska, and who give her safe harbor. ‘They blended into the country in a way my father never had. For the first time I realized that I could slip inside the skin of a place without tearing it open.’

Wonderful book and now I wish I’d sipped instead of swallowing whole, in one rainy-afternoon sitting.


Plot Holes

We watched Interstellar last night. Long movie – almost three hours. And there was a huge plot hole in the middle.

In the movie, the heroes travel through a worm hole to save the earth. They are headed to two stations where previous heroes went to see if places were habitable. One station has quit transmitting and the other has been transmitting regularly that the place is livable. So our heroes go there, having adventures along the way and losing one crew member. All good so far.

When the heroes arrive, they are met by the lone survivor of the earlier trip. This station is a world so frozen that even the clouds are ice. But the survivor tells them how the place is livable in a lower level so they start unloading all their stuff. However, he turns out to be the Villain who attacks the leader then steals their ship in order to get home because he’s lied and the station isn’t habitable after all.

So the Villain is desperate to get home. Understandable. But here’s the giant plot hole. All he would have had to do is tell them the place wasn’t habitable when they arrived. They would have loaded him up and moved on to the next station, or tried to go home. There’s a twist with going home, but that’s not relevant here and I don’t want to list too many spoilers. There was absolutely no reason for all the storyline maneuvering, the attacks, stealing the ship and all that drama. I mean, the heroes wouldn’t even have had the excuse that they couldn’t save the Villain because they would be over a weight limit on their ship since they lost a crew member earlier. And the Villain is an experienced pilot which they could have used.

In other words, no believable reason for the Villain to be a villain.

I lost interest at about that point.

It’s the same with books. A reader might let one, or maybe two, coincidences slip by. Maybe they’ll allow one instance where the point of view character does something that has no ties to the plot threads. But more than that and the reader will move on and probably never pick up something by that author again.

It reminds me of a book I read a long time ago about a knight on horseback who turns to his trusty companion and says ‘No shit, Sherlock’. Seriously. And that was only one of many such dialog issues. Oddly the author is well known and has a lot of books out with this same knight. He’s one busy dude, slinging contemporary slang as easily as his sword.

Anyway, if the action sequence raises questions because the route taken makes no sense, the author better insert a compelling reason that ties character and plot together. Otherwise the audience is going to move on.