Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Book Review: Stones from the River

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Stones from the River

Author: Ursula Hegi

Publisher: Scribner

Date: 1994


Length: 525 pages

Quote: “Trudi had come up against that moment when she knew...that she was as tall as she would ever be.”

Trudi Montag was a short, stoutly built child. Very short. Very stout. Like most of the small European towns where genetic quirks have been bred into the population, her community had a special word for people like Trudi: Zwerg, “dwarf.” She grew up conscious of being different from other people, shamed (among other things, by boys who violated her modesty not even out of lust but merely out of curiosity), blamed (for, among other things, the mental fugues her mother suffered before dying young), yet in some ways socially acceptable; other people looked like her, and some even married and had taller, slimmer children. She learned to protect herself by taking a detached, sometimes cruel, attitude toward other people.

Stones from the River is the not terribly unusual story of how Trudi finds self-esteem and recovers some degree of good will toward others, as an adult. It's not an overtly Christian novel; Trudi has always been a reasonably good Catholic, but not especially devout or spiritual, nor does she develop those qualities in the course of the story.

Instead, what makes Stones from the River unique is Hegi's intention of writing sympathetically about German people in the early twentieth century. Trudi doesn't belong to the Nazi Party and isn't especially pleased to see them in power. It's her interest in knowing people's secrets and vulnerabilities that allows her to understand why some of her neighbors do join the Party. It's her well-developed talent of intimidating bullies that allows her to fall into line with Nazi policies while quietly helping people escape from Nazi persecution. In Trudi's neighborhood, the local Nazi has been afraid of Trudi's insights and social connections longer than he's been infatuated with Hitler.

Nancy Willard, who's written some novels that tend to linger in readers' minds, herself, describes this novel as “unforgettable.” I don't know that that's the word I would have chosen. “Insightful,” perhaps, or “empathetic.” Stones from the River seems to have been written with the intention of showing readers the difference between what, in the place and culture in which Hegi grew up, was German and what was Nazi, and celebrating what was German. If so, “successful” might be a word I'd use to describe it; reading this novel does remind me of hanging out with people who were born in Germany. Quiet, frugal, tidy, sensible people who like books and music and fresh local produce. Ordinary; easy to like.

I tend to be impatient with novels, and Stones from the River is a long novel, but in the end I find it worth the time it takes to read: Hegi is not just telling a story, her purpose is to create an atmosphere of time and place, and at that she succeeds. 

Lots of different themes emerge in the course of this novel. In the end what turns out to be the central thread of the plot is forgiveness, and Trudi's need to forgive the best childhood friend who failed to protect her from the careless cruelty of their other little playmates (as Trudi tried, and failed, to protect her second best friend from Nazi persecution). The emotional healing of their friendship begins with their remembering and affirming the good things that made them friends in the first place. The result is definitely a feel-good story, and is recommended to anyone who tends to feel depressed, discouraged, or defeated in personal relationships, or who wants to forgive someone but is not sure how to begin...or who just likes novels.

So, Stones from the River is a Fair Trade Book. Hegi is alive and writing; if you like this novel you might want to read her others. If you buy it from this web site (salolianigodagewi @ yahoo.com), 10% of the total price, which is normally $5 per book + $5 per package, will be sent to the author or a charity of her choice.