Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian (New York: Shaye Areheart Books, 2008).
Jacket Summary: "In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from the Russian front to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.
"Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family's farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred -- who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz.
"As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna's and Callum's love, as well as their friendship with Manfred -- assuming any of them even survive."
Opening Line: "The girl -- a young woman, really, eighteen, hair the color of corn silk -- had been hearing the murmur of artillery fire for two days now."
My Take: Among World War II novels, Skeletons at the Feast is no The Invisible Bridge. Among Bohjalian's work, it's not quite Midwives. That said, it's not as disappointing as The Law of Similars, either, and remains a solid, intriguing take on the World War II novel.
I've said here before that I both enjoy stories set during World War II and have become a bit picky about them. Perhaps that's inevitable; read enough of a particular sub-genre, and it becomes difficult to find characters and plot elements you don't feel like you've seen dozens of times before. Skeletons is reasonably successful in this regard; it's set on the Russian front, in a swath of Poland and Germany just south of Danzig and the Baltic Sea. When the novel opens, its main characters are still relatively untouched by the war. Although the Emmerichs' estate, on the banks of the Vistula River, is technically part of Poland, the family themselves are Prussian. They've always felt more German than Slavic anyway, and from their perspective, the Third Reich takeover of Poland just undid the wrong that happened when their home was deemed to be part of Poland and not East Prussia. Anna's mother, Mutti, even has a portrait of Hitler displayed proudly in their home, and speaks of the fuhrer with something that's half religious reference, half schoolgirl crush (although her husband admits privately that he's not all that sure the Nazis have the right idea). Besides, aristocrats or not, they're basically just a farm family. The rumors they've heard about the concentration camps can't possibly true, and are chalked up to BBC propaganda -- particularly as the stories of Russian atrocities in nearby East Prussian villages are closer to home and far more plausible.
And so their exodus begins. Anna, convinced her parents and brothers know nothing of her affair with Callum, is initially surprised that her father brings the POW with them. Just across the Vistula, though, this makes sense; her father Rolf and twin brother Helmut leave the family to help defend their homeland from the barbaric Russians, and the large red-headed Scot offers some measure of protection for the two women and ten-year-old Theo. (It's also possible that Rolf is more knowing than he seems; he knows the Reich is done for, and hopes that when his family meet the Allies, Callum's presence will convince them that the Emmerichs aren't just your ordinary run-of-the-mill Nazis.)
Their story is intercut, initially, with two others. The first of these is Manfred's (nee Uri's). Having been separated from his family just before their deportation to Auschwitz, he is driven by two things: his mother's injunction to survive and tell the world what the Nazis have done to the Jews, and his drive to find out what happened to his sister Rebekah. It's the former that prompts a cinematic leap from a moving Auschwitz-bound train, and kick-starts his determination to do whatever it takes to survive (including posing as a series of German officers, and killing any stray Nazi soldiers that happen across his path). Eventually, he meets the Emmerich party as they struggle to mend a broken wagon, and joins them despite considerable suspicions as to the depths of their Nazi sympathies (though he doesn't reveal his true identity until much later).
The third and, to me, less compelling story follows Cecile, a French Jewish prisoner on a forced march to an unspecified work camp (probably Auschwitz). Here's where I found my pickiness about WWII stories kicking in. Yes, the camps were brutal beyond imagining, and including at least a taste of their atrocities seems de rigeur for the genre. Unfortunately, it also makes it darned hard for a given author to bring much new to the genre. On this point, Bohjalian doesn't quite seem up to the task. The story is mostly the Emmerichs' and Uri/ Manfred's, and we just don't see enough of Cecile to understand how her narrative fits in with the primary one. The threads do cross eventually, but not until near the end of the book, and not in a way that significantly alters any of the characters' trajectories. I suppose the point is to convince Anna and Mutti that yes, the rumors they'd heard about the camps were true ... but it's not well-executed here, and seems a bit forced.
My other gripe is with the book's epilogue. Sure, it's nice to see that those characters who survive have a mostly-happy outcome in the end, but it almost seemed a bit too pat and perfect. The story would have been stronger, in my opinion, had it ended in 1945, rather than giving us a quick glimpse of the principals' lives three years later. Some ambiguity is a good thing, and we could still have imagined a happy outcome if we so desired ... but the last, brief chapter had a tacked-on, Hollywood-style feel to it that didn't quite mesh with the bulk of the story.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.