“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” Heinrich Heine
Books selected for Oprah’s Book Club are not supposed to be ones that wind up having a profound impact on one’s soul, but that’s exactly what happened to mine when O named Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River as one of her 1997 selections.
For me personally, February 1997 was a bit of a challenging time (we were in Infertility Hell). So it’s a bit of an understatement to say that I related to and connected with Ursula Hegi’s story of Trudi Montag, a “zwerg” (the German word for “a dwarf woman”) living in fictional Burgdorf, Germany between 1915 and 1951. The themes of feeling different, of being “set apart” (not to mention Trudi being the town’s librarian and collector of the townspeople’s stories) deeply resonated with me in ways that I cannot quite begin to describe other than saying it was just the right book at the right time.
So suffice it to say that Stones from the River remains one of my all-time favorite “take-to-a-desert-island” books to this very day and Ursula Hegi one of my very favorite authors. (With the one exception of her 2008 novel The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done, which for me was absolutely unreadable. I couldn’t get through more than a couple of dozen pages. It wasn’t pretty.) I do remember enjoying Floating from My Mother’s Palm and The Vision of Emma Blau, but since those were prior to my book blogging days, I don’t remember much about them. (Time for a re-read!)
I mention all this – and these three previous books of Ursula Hegi’s – because they are all part of what she refers to as the “Burgdorf Cycle,” of which Children and Fire is the latest offering. (When I saw this on the library’s shelf and saw that it was a continuation of the Burgdorf stories, I practically wept.)
And right from the get-go of Children and Fire, Ursula Hegi had me captivated again. I wouldn’t say I loved this as much as Stones (because again, I think my love for that book stems from the time that I read it in, if that makes sense) but I really enjoyed this novel. I loved that Trudi Montag made several appearances in this one. (It was like saying hello to an old friend.) That being said, I don’t think one has to have read the other Burgdorf Cycle books in order to appreciate this one, although it would probably be beneficial. (And if you’re going to do that, read them in order: Floating, Stones, Children, and Vision. I think. Someone correct me if I’m wrong.)
If you’re a teacher, you’ll probably especially appreciate Children and Fire. Thekla Jensen teaches a class of 9 year old boys in Germany in 1937, and her style and approach to education is one of incorporating all subjects along with a strong sense of caring and compassion for her young students. She thrives on their very presence (almost a bit too much, in some cases) and is wholly invested in their lives. Thekla rents a room from the Sostick family, whose only child Bruno is one of her students. (In the Burgdorf Cycle of things, Bruno’s mother Gisela was once one of Thekla’s classmates and theirs was a bit of a strained relationship.)
Bruno, who clearly has what we now know as Asperger’s Syndrome although that isn’t mentioned by name (which it wouldn’t have been, given that we’re talking about 1937), wants desperately to join the Hitler-Jugend (Hitler youth). Thekla is conflicted about how best to support his individual decision as his teacher, while also struggling to do what’s right by Bruno’s family.
“When she followed Bruno to the rally, she could spot right away that it had been organized by people who understood about teaching, how to respect children and inspire them. It was the way Thekla taught, instinctively.
Too many of her students had been raised with the rule that children should be seen but not heard. Of course, it was intoxicating for them now to have a voice, to be told they were important, Germany’s future. Alone, none of these children had power; yet, being part of the marching columns gave them a mysterious power, all of them moving as one. That part made Thekla uneasy, and she wouldn’t mind saying that to Bruno’s parents.
But what she wouldn’t admit to them is how, from being critical one moment, she was sucked into the swirl of song and of fire, into the emotions of the mass, that passion and urgency, that longing for something beyond them, something great, till she could no longer separate herself, till those emotions became hers, too, that hand to her throat, that sigh, that upsweep of her arm. She felt repulsed. But she didn’t let herself show it. Because someone might be watching. Because it might be a trap. And because just before that moment of repulsion – for the duration of a single heartbeat – she had felt the children’s rapture as her own, felt their pride at being part of this ceremony that was as mystical as church and as lavish as opera with its pomp and music and processions.” (pg. 12-13)
Internal and interpersonal conflicts, those spoken and unspoken, are at the heart of Children and Fire. Thekla’s a complicated, conflicted woman, proud of her independence but who learns that it has come at a price paid by others’ dependence and guilt. While she’s thrilled to have finally landed a teaching position after ten years, it comes with a combination of guilt and loyalty to her beloved teacher and mentor, Sonja Siderova. There’s the personal torment of those in her family (her mother Almut, her father Wilhelm) that they can never escape, that keeps them prisoners in their minds. There’s Thekla’s inability to commit to Emil, whom she loves but who she won’t allow herself to fully love. (“Loving was different. It was only the falling she minded. She wished she could love like a man, be skin only, lust only. Her friend Emil was good practice.” pg. 13)
The structure of Children and Fire works beautifully and provides for the novel’s tension, particularly toward the end. The chapters alternate between February 27, 1937 as we follow Thekla and her students through their school day and the years 1899 – 1933 which provides the critical elements to the novel’s backstory such as the relationship between Thekla’s parents and a wealthy Jewish couple in town and her father’s family tragedy. The day that the current action takes place, Tuesday, February 27, 1937, is not random; it’s the one year anniversary of a fire that destroyed the Reichstag, the parliment building in Berlin. Even though that fire was hundreds of miles away from quiet and quaint Burgdorf, there is the fear that whatever evil force was responsible for the fire will eventually come to their small village. (And as the reader knows from history, it surely will.)
(“But within a few weeks after Markus left [a Jewish family who left Germany for America, despite others saying leaving was premature] Jewish children were no longer allowed in her school. Instead, they were taught all their subjects in the synagogue across the street.
Thekla steps toward the window of her classroom. Steadies herself with one hand. How much do I know? How much must I try to find out? Once you know, it’s tricky to keep the knowing at bay, to press it back into the before-knowing.” pg. 22 “Must I keep asking till I find out what I’m afraid to know? Or can I decide to be satisfied with not knowing beyond what we are told? Because once I know, must I then come forth with that? The risk –” (pg. 24)
I loved this one for the timeless and universal questions that we can all relate to, that we continue to seek answers to. This one is going to stay with me for awhile for all of those reasons.
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