Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

I am a confirmed bibliophile: I love to read. I absorb books.
I am a European historian: I am trained to ferret out the nuances and recognize there is no *T* truth.
Once in a while my two worlds collide. The book Those Who Save Us spoke to both of my personalities and at times they argued, at odds about the power and appeal of Jenna Blum's book. In this post I will talk about Those Who Save Us as a powerful novel. I wrote a post on my other blog talking about Those Who Save Us as truth-based historical fiction.

Those Who Save Us is the story of a mother and daughter both trying to understand, overcome, and possibly forget about their experiences in World War II Weimar, Germany. Anna, the mother, lived through the War as a young mother doing what she had to to protect her daughter. Trudy, the daughter, is a German historian, who is trying to understand the Germans and how and why they acted as they did during the War. The story jumps back and forth between the lives of the two women - one in the 1940s the other in the 1990s. As the two stories merge, the reader has the omniscience that the two women lack which makes the story tragic because of the characters' inability to speak and explain.

Blum tells a compelling story of love and hate. Self-hatred plays a strong role in the understanding of the two women. As I read, I suddenly understood why the field of psychology and self-analysis blossomed in the thirty years after World War II. Both of these women desperately needed an outside person to absolve them of their individual guilt. The self-immolation is centered around the character of the brutal ObersturmfΓΌhrer who takes Anna as his mistress. Trudy believes the Nazi Officer is her father and hates herself for her heritage. Her field of study becomes a personal psychological attempt to understand her own life and absolve herself for her family's actions.

The finale of the novel is uplifting but Blum does not fall into the Hollywood trap of wrapping everything up into a neat little box. Questions are answered but everyone is not completely forgiven and happy.

Blum has a history working with Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. She has a good working knowledge of the Jewish (and some German) experience during the Holocaust. That comes through clearly in her novel and the reminiscences of the Germans in the story are honest, brutal, and well-written. My angst about the book revolves around her descriptions of average Germans outside of her main character. I find Blum's writing less frustrating than I find her representation of Trudy who as a historian, even 13 years ago in 1997, should have had a more nuanced and "shades of grey" view of the German people. I am a product of my own schooling and my professors did an incredible job of showing the Germans as Ordinary Men NOT Hitler's Willing Executioners. Blum could have used a touch more understanding.

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