The Common Good
January-February 1998

Responsible To Our Time

by Dale W. Brown | January-February 1998

A novel of staying awake to injustice.

Oprah Winfrey on a magazine cover is no story. She’s been seen on more than a few checkout lane glossies. But her appearance on the Spring 1997 edition of Publishers Weekly, complete with a cover picture and lead article titled "The Oprah Effect: TV’s Premier Talk Show Host Puts Books Over the Top," is worth closer examination.

Have you heard that being named the Oprah bookclub selection means an added sale of more than 800,000 copies for those fortunate authors? The English teacher in me balks at the notion of Oprah as arbiter of literary taste. But some other part of me must grudgingly acknowledge that her selections have been pretty good. Who can complain about Toni Morrison or Jane Hamilton? And take, for example, her recent choice of Ursula Hegi’s novel, Stones From the River, a book you can now buy at grocery stores, sporting an orange label reading "As Seen on TV."

I didn’t expect to like this book. I admit the opening line is first-rate: "As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others." But the second sentence underscores Trudi’s difference, and the second paragraph makes clear that Trudi is a dwarf. After a few pages of absorbing the emotion of her desperate desire to grow, imagining her as she dangles from door frames trying to stretch her stubborn body, listening to her prayers to a silent God, I began to wonder if 500 pages of this would be manageable.

But then the spell kicked in; I was submerged in the story of Burgdorf, Germany, in that ’20s and ’30s high-stepping march toward the Nazi horror. And I revisited the power of that opening line as Trudi Montag introduced me to the people of her small town, as she explored what was going on inside others and herself. I became fascinated with the many stories of heroism or betrayal scattered through Trudi Montag’s circle of friends and acquaintances.

BURGDORF WAS A PLACE like other small places in pre-war Germany, a town of small shops, a synagogue, a Catholic church, and a quirky citizenry. Trudi, born in 1915, becomes the chronicler and storyteller of the town and its people from the first war that takes away so many of Burgdorf’s men to the second war that takes away the Jewish neighbors and Trudi’s former classmates who goose-step off to destruction and waste.

Readers gain a window on this dark sweep of the 20th century through Trudi’s introductions of her family and her neighbors: her sadly frightened mother who deteriorates into madness; her heroic father who maintains integrity in a culture of shifting values; and the unknown benefactor who acts as a mysterious Santa Claus in the community, bringing gifts to those who need. Trudi gossips about the people in her circle, as well as the friend who betrays her, the neighborhood boys who abuse her, and the quirky characters who come to her father’s pay-library. And she chronicles the growing suspicion of otherness, the book banning, the "fear of chaos" on which Hitler could build, the co-mixture of Nazism and religion, the guilt of the persecutors, the suffering of the persecuted, and the reality of a world in which the horrible became ordinary. Such is Trudi’s way of saying, "I am burdened and bewildered by the ongoing spew of hatred."

Stones From the River finally records the rise of the resistance, the network to save lives, in which Trudi and her father work. And here are some powerful moments for Trudi: a romantic relationship, a sense of being able to fight back against the horror, and the challenge to forgiveness as the war begins to wind toward inevitable defeat.

Trudi has remained throughout one of those who resists mindless obedience. She says of her homeland that it was "a country where believing had taken the place of knowing." Trudi’s skepticism keeps her awake in a world where a nominal Catholicism and love of family have been cruelly exploited by the Nazis. Trudi’s stark otherness, an otherness that brings "your deepest secret inside out—there for everyone to see," grants her a certain power to see deeply into other lives and other stories.

This may, in fact, be my one quibble with the novel. Hegi’s Trudi sees too well. As interpreter of the lives of her neighbors and the historical advent of Nazism, Trudi is perhaps rather too much removed from the human muddle to be credible. The story told here is a version of the history of the time; Hegi sometimes gets too close to the intimation that this is the only version.

Nonetheless, Trudi understands well the German silence, "a silence nurtured by fear and complicity." Trudi tells of her neighbors who tried to trust the government, who tried to find the good there, and of those who "fled into the mazes of their own lives," rejecting community and responsibility. "They knew how not to ask questions," Trudi says. "They had been prepared for it by the government and the church."

"No one," Trudi says, "could escape the responsibility of having lived in this time." Clearly it was a time where many retreated into worlds so insulated that even the jubilant gatherings at the blazing fire of their local synagogue aroused no sense of injustice.

The story of the tangled lives of Burgdorf is never really resolved, of course, because it is still resolving—in us. And we must thank Oprah, as well as Ursula Hegi, for having the good sense to remind us.

W. DALE BROWN is professor of English at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the author of the recently released book Fiction and Faith (Eerdmans, 1997).

Stones From the River. Bu Ursula Hegi. Simon & Schuster, 1994.

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