Author Chris Bohjalian coming to Catawba Thursday
“Skeletons at the Feast,” by Chris Bohjalian. Shaye Areheart Books. 2008. 372 pp. $25.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
I’ve only read two of Chris Bohjalian’s novels, and they are vastly different, but with one thing in common ó they are supremely human.
My book club read “Before You Know Kindness” and I’ve just finished “Skeletons at the Feast.”
While “Kindness” dealt with incredibly spoiled people behaving badly, “Skeletons” deals with some spoiled people rising to their best under the worst of circumstances.
At first, the story of a Prussian family escaping from the Russians, with a concurrent story of a woman marching to a work camp, is desperately grim.The well-to-do Emmerichs, who have POWs to help them work their large sugar beet farm, begin to see that being in the east exposes them to the approaching Soviet army.
Although Mutti, mother, is fond of the fuhrer, and Rolf, the father, is a member of the Nazi party, Rolf knows the war is going badly. He prepares his family for a trek west to avoid the Soviet invasion, but it’s nearly impossible for them to believe the stories of what the Germans themselves are doing.
They take Callum Finella, a Scottish POW who has been working on their farm with them. He and daughter Anna are secret lovers, and his strong back is a boon for the travelers. Rolf has a soft spot for the young redhead.
Rolf and son Helmut go to Mutti’s brother Karl to convince him to join their exodus, but he refuses, declaring, “I will greet the Russian commander as one civilized man to another.” And when Helmut goes back to ask again, the entire family is not just dead, but brutalized, including a toddler.
The Emmerichs begin their trek with four horses and two wagons, Rolf, Mutti, Helmut, younger brother Theo, and Anna walking, Callum hidden under sacks of feed. Anna’s twin, Werner, is already in the army.
At the same time, Bohjalian begins the stories of Uri, who jumps off a train headed for a death camp, and Cecile, a French Jew who has been in a forced labor camp.
Uri saves himself by killing and then impersonating a variety of German or Russian soldiers, taking on new names and staying away from the frontlines. After the first couple of deaths, killing comes easily and Uri feels a certain satisfaction as he picks off soldiers, particularly ones caught in some heinous act.
Uri ends up traveling with the Emmerichs, while Cecile’s story moves separately. Uri cannot believe this family does not know of the death camps, the mass executions, the brutality of the Nazis. Rolf and Helmut leave them early to go try to help the Army. Only Callum and Uri realize they are going to their deaths.
Bohjalian had read the diary of Eva Henatsch, whose family had a large sugar beet farm in Poland. Her grandson, Gerd Krahn, was a friend of Bohjalian’s. This explains the awfully authenticity of details, the daily minutiae.
He read the diary in 1998 and never dreamed it would inspire a novel, but after reading the result, it’s easy to see all the things that must have made the diary compelling.
Bohjalian is a good storyteller; he doesn’t flinch from the beyond-horrendous parts of the war, yet he infuses the hell- on-earth with hope through his characters. Cecile never loses hope, though it is often dimmed by outrageous violence. Uri, although painfully cynical for a young man, still has drive for one thing ó he wants to tell the world what the Germans have done to the Jews. The Emmerichs march on for each other, even though the family is decimated. A death just as the family gains hope they will be safe is devastating and feels like a personal loss.
That anyone survives the cold, disease, starvation, beatings, fear, anger, hatred and utter blind stupidity is a miracle, but Bohjalian makes it happen ó we can only assume it happened in real life to Eva Henatsch, since her children and grandchildren lived to tell about it.
Bohjalian will speak about this and his other works Thursday at the 23rd Annual Brady Author’s Symposium at Catawba College. His lecture is at 11 a.m. with a luncheon to follow. He will speak again at 7 p.m. on “Reading in a Digital Age.” For ticket information, call 704-637-4393.