I haven’t read anything by Chris Bohjalian since MIDWIVES. Not for any particular reason; I was just busy reading other things.
A few months ago, I listened to an interview with him about his newest book, SKELETONS AT THE FEAST. I was so taken with his description of the story and how he came to write it that I went out and bought a copy of the book the same day.
Set in 1945, it’s the story of the Emmerich family, Germans living in what had been Poland until 1939, when Hitler reclaimed it as part of Germany. The Emmerichs are well-to-do farmers, with one son in the Wehrmacht and three younger children at home. A Scottish POW, Callum, is living on their farm and working for them. Callum and 18-year-old Anna Emmerich fall for each other just as the family must flee from the Russian army. Seeking revenge on the Germans, the Russian troops are moving relentlessly toward Berlin, killing and destroying everyone and everything in their path. The Emmerichs, along with Callum, are hoping to find refuge with the Americans or British.
Two other stories run parallel with the Emmerich’s. Uri Singer, a Jew who has survived by assuming the identity of various Nazis (most of whom he’s killed) throughout the duration of the war. Uri’s story could be a book of its own. Eventually he meets up with the Emmerichs and joins them on their journey west. This is all on foot, by the way, in January and February.
The third story is that of a group of Jewish women prisoners who work in a factory making goods for the Nazi war effort. They live in appalling conditions, and their lives are constantly threatened by their sub-human guards. One of them, Cecile, has an indomitable spirit, and she bolsters her friends when they think they can’t take one more step or bear one more humiliation. Suddenly they’re uprooted and made to march west to a different factory, and then yet a different factory. Their lives also become intertwined with Uri, Callum, and the Emmerichs in a heart wrenching moment when each person’s fate is decided.
We don’t see the Emmerichs as evil. Bohjalian portrays them as people duped by Hitler, naive and unwilling to believe the worst about their countrymen, but slowly realizing the true horrors of Nazi Germany. The helplessness, the loss of loved ones, the desperate struggle to survive from one day to the next are things all the characters have in common.
Quite simply, Bohjalian takes the abstraction of war in all its horror and puts a human face on it.