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Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

By Jen K. | Books | November 2, 2009 |

By Jen K. | Books | November 2, 2009 |

Publisher’s Note: Before we kick off this cycle’s Cannonball Read reviews, we wanted to run one last review from Jen K., who finished up the last cycle with a whopping 119 books read from between January 1st and October 31st. Congratulations and thank you!

I’m not sure why I got this novel exactly — I’m sure it was recommended by Amazon since I have read a few World War II and Holocaust novels, but this tends to be more as seen from the German side rather than through the eyes of their victims. It is probably a little harder to write from that perspective, especially when trying to make sympathetic characters because there is always that issue of “even if they didn’t directly participate in the Holocaust, they were complicit by allowing it to happen or benefited from Hitler’s regime in some way.”

Anna, the main character, is the 18-year-old daughter of a well-to-do family in the part of Poland that was once German, and then not, and then basically helped serve as an excuse for Hitler to invade. Being of German blood, obviously, the Nazi occupation didn’t hurt them and in fact benefited them. For example, when the novel begins, it is towards the end of the war, and Anna’s family has seven prisoners of war under their care to help them with the harvest. After the harvest, all but one are sent back — a young Scottish man named Callum who is in a “secret” relationship with Anna.

However, the novel mainly portrays Anna’s family’s flight from their home as the Soviet Army drives the Germans further and further west. Along with many others, they form as stream of refugees heading westward. Anna’s father and twin brother leave her, her mother, little brother, and Callum behind at the beginning of their travels to help make one last stand against the Russians for their home. While Callum does offer some male protection, the family also has to keep him hidden in their wagons because a) any male of his age would be suspicious and possibly shot as a deserter, and b) as a POW, he is probably even more likely to get shot if they run into any German authorities. Of course, Anna’s family has Callum along not just for protection but also as an assurance for the future: with his word, if they make it far enough west, they might be accepted by the Allies more easily.

Even this late in the game, the Germans still have faith in Hitler — according to this novel at least, they hoped that the Germans would make an alliance with the US and the UK to fight against the Soviets, the “real” enemy. Bohjalian introduces a few characters to show the different reactions people had and how deeply Hitler’s propaganda had worked. Obviously he doesn’t want to completely vilify the family whose journey he is describing, and shows that in some ways, due to their isolation in the country, some of the incredibly anti-Semitic rhetoric hadn’t reached them quite as much. Still, there is also an idea that they chose not to know. Anna’s parents had Jewish friends that they offered to help and shelter, but the friends left anyway due to the neighbors. Despite this, Anna’s mother was still a staunch supporter of Hitler, possibly blaming things on his officers but also just probably not thinking about it too much because that would invariably lead to questions.

While on the move, the family meets Manfred, who appears to be part of the Wehrmacht. In reality, his name is Uri, and he is a Jew from Schweinfurt (my grandmother lived there!) who has been surviving the past two years by donning various military uniforms until people grow suspicious or he kills SS members, thus necessitating a new role.

In addition to these characters, the novel also has sections told from the perspective of Cecile, a young French woman from a rich family who has been in a work camp. It describes her life in the camp as well the march she is forced to go on and some of the atrocities that take place under the guards.

There is naturally a lot of loss and death in the novel, and it shows Anna and her mother finally recognizing and seeing the crimes that Germany has committed and is now being punished for. While many of the other Germans talk about how horrible and violent the invading Russians are and how it shows how incredibly uncultured and barbaric they are, Anna’s mother starts to wonder about what they, the Germans, had done to deserve this, and states something along the lines of “we must have done something horrible for them to be so angry.” Callum, who as a POW is of course an ally with the Soviets, still doesn’t support all their actions, and believes that if America and Britain were in charge on this side, things wouldn’t be quite as brutal because those nations are so much more civilized, which is of course easy to say but the Germans were nowhere near as violent in the countries in the West as on the Eastern front. It is therefore hard to compare reactions. Also, I would say the battles in the Pacific theater might attest otherwise.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Jen K’s reviews, check out her blog, Notes from an Officer’s Club.

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