I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher. I was excited to read it, because, if you know me at all, you know that I love me some gut-wrenchers, and this book seemed to have all the makings of one.
The first part of this book, which is only 26 pages, starts the book off in horrifying and tragic fashion. Even for someone like me who loves books that push me to see the ugliness and unfairness and atrocities of life, I read this part with wide, unbelieving eyes. This part of the book made me anxious and a little hesitant to read the rest of the story, which is unusual, to say the least. I thought, if this is how it starts, do I want to know where it's going to go? But I'm no coward, so I read on, and in some ways I was rewarded, and in others I was a little disappointed. This is a book that is hard for me to quantify, honestly. It's a story about life and loyalty, and the way that things don't always go the way that they should, or the way that we want them to go, but we go on anyway.
The story technically starts with the second part, which takes us back to 1897 Germany, to the story of how Magdalena Schultz, newly-pregnant at 16 and unable to marry the father of her baby, travels to America with her sister Frieda to find a new life and a new husband. She finds both, but they aren't exactly what she expected. Frieda snags Archie Richter, who runs the local German newspaper, as her own husband, and arranges the marriage of Maggie and Wilhelm Richter, Archie's brother, who is nearly 40, and a farmer, and a bit brutish, in Maggie's estimation. He isn't abusive, but he isn't overly empathetic either. So the Richter family begins, and the story takes us through babies (five of them), deaths, war, tests of loyalty and accusations of treason, and unexpected friendship and connection.
This comes from Liesel Richter, who befriends the mentally disabled son of her neighbor, mean-spirited, angry and vindictive Harald Sutter, a man who holds a personal grudge against the more successful Wilhelm Richter. Harald causes a lot of trouble in Wilhelm's life, using the war against Germany as an outlet, and pretty soon, things take a sharp turn from Troublesome Road onto Too Far Lane. Leisel, left alone to care for her family after her mother's death, finds companionship and acceptance in Lester, who routinely brings her turtles for food as gifts. Only when Leisel allows Lester access to her most closely guarded secret, thinking that he wouldn't understand that she was different from other girls, things go badly, and Leisel makes an irrevocable decision, both for Lester and herself.
This isn't a happy story. It's one of struggle and hardships (the emotional kind, not the monetary kind), and uncertainty. It's a story of learning who you are and that sometimes it's not enough to just do what you think is the right thing. Sometimes the world turns its back anyway. Which brings me to the one thing that felt incomplete in this story. Frieda and her husband were accused of treason for printing their German paper with stories from both sides of the Great War, which included showing that there were victims on both sides - a direct contradiction to the Official Story demonizing Germans as heathens and killers, etc. (Times haven't changed much since...) Frieda is arrested, and her husband is subjected to public humiliation, and while the rest of the story plays out, nothing is ever resolved with Frieda - was she released? Was she imprisoned forever? Did she decide that she would make a better martyr than prisoner?
There was a tiny touch of magical realism in the story, which both fit and seemed a little out of place in a story so steeped in the everyday ordinary world we all live in... but I felt that the ending was fitting to the story.
Overall, I can't say that I truly enjoyed the story - but it isn't that kind of story. It has a different purpose, and a different goal. It's the kind of story that one reads to try to understand people different from us, not be entertained. If you're interested in those kind of books, this one may be for you.