Margot Benary-Isbert Essay - Critical Essays

Benary-Isbert, Margot

Introduction

Margot Benary-Isbert 1889–1979

German-born American novelist, short story writer, and poet. Benary-Isbert was most noted for her humane presentation of the postwar German experience. She began writing at an early age, publishing her first story when she was nineteen. The Nazi regime put an end to her publications from 1933–45 because she would not join the Nazi writers' organization. The U.S. Army liberated her section of Germany in 1945, only to hand it over to the Russians ten weeks later. Not wanting to live under another totalitarian government, Benary-Isbert and her family fled to West Germany. Life during World War II and the postwar German experience are the primary concerns of her novels. Her portraits of the German people are life-like, presenting the mixture of good and evil that exists in most people. Her books deal with vital problems of the twentieth century, such as government-sanctioned hatred and violence. But she also depicts the eternal qualities of life that survive under even the harshest of conditions, such as a young girl's first love and the warmth of family life. She does not peddle a ready-made morality about the German experience. Her readers are allowed to draw their own conclusions. As she says about the young reader, "He does not like to feel that the author wants to hand him out a moral, to educate him. He wants nothing more or less than a good story…. But don't we all remember our own childhood and what we felt when we had been given one of those books about wonderfully good children, living patterns of virtue, diligence and good behaviour, books which we detested because they bored us to death! We smelled the moral—and turned away." Benary-Isbert wrote in German but collaborated closely with her English translators. She has been widely praised for bringing the German experience of this century to young people of other cultures. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 2.)

[The Ark is a] heart felt story of a post-war German refugee family of five, but one that falls short of significance by way of sentimentality and an appeal to a too-sunny attitude towards life. From Pomerania, the Lechows … come to the town of Hesse in West Germany and are allotted two rooms in the house of Mrs. Verduz. With spirit—and it is here that there are the overdoses of gaiety—they settle down and find the friends who will keep them company…. Superficial treatment of more vital elements in pinioned country however, makes the book a disappointment. (p. 41)

Virginia Kirkus' Bookshop Service, January 15, 1953.

Marjorie Fischer

In ["The Ark,"] one of the first books for young people to come out of post-war Germany, we meet the Lechow family, refugees from the East Zone….

The setting is unusual and interesting. But the best part of the book deals with the birth, death and care of the animals on the farm, described with knowledge and affection. The story is handled rather amateurishly, with too many characters seen from too many points of view, so that the reader is sometimes confused, and the effect is scattered. Moreover there is constant self-pity and a feeling of a world too small and isolated. Apparently all these people have been living in a political vacuum, where no one of them has ever felt sympathy for the Nazis (who are never mentioned); there is something—to this adult reader, at least—disingenuous about the picture.

Marjorie Fischer, "The Refugees," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1953 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 1, 1953, p. 32.

Anne Carroll Moore

Mrs. Benary-Isbert is a born storyteller who [in The Ark] has been able to create living characters in the midst of the aftermath of war in a defeated country. Whether drawn from life or from the imagination of the author, every one of them takes a natural place in the story. While it is a true picture of life and death among a homeless people, it is lighted by a courage and a warm human sympathy and understanding that leave a glow in the heart of the reader. (p. 102)

Anne Carroll Moore, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyrighted, 1953, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), April, 1953.

Virginia Haviland

[The Ark, a] rare and perceptive book, reflecting something of the author's own experience, contains much of importance to reach the hearts and minds of young Americans. With an acute awareness of the effect of war on children and adolescents; with a consciousness of homely details that interest them; and with a wonderful depth of feeling for country things, she pictures a year's experiences of a close-knit German refugee family whose father, a doctor, is missing in Russia. Following bravely optimistic Mummy Lechow and her four children to assigned rooms in a German town and later to the Ark (a railroad car converted into a more cheerful home on a farm) is like accompanying real people. Lonely Margret, with her intimate attachment to the animals and her rapt learning of animal husbandry when at fourteen she becomes a kennel maid, will especially appeal to young readers. Although happiness comes to this family with the father's final return, there is no minimizing of their sufferings and sacrifices. (p. 124)

Virginia Haviland, in The Horn Book Magazine (copyrighted, 1953, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), April, 1953.

Lavinia R. Davis

["The Shooting Star" tells of when Annagret and her mother were getting over pneumonia and] were sent from their German home to the mountain village of Arosa in Switzerland for three months convalescence…. [Annagret's discovery of Alpine pleasures and] her new friendships constitute a deceptively simple story with … warmth and unself-conscious goodness…. The effect upon Annagret of the beautiful mountain country is conveyed with rare skill.

Lavinia R. Davis, "The Happy Exile," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1954 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 28, 1954, p. 24.

Francis Lander Spain

"Rowan Farm" carries on the story of the Lechow family begun by Mrs. Benary-Isbert last year in "The Ark." The latter volume, it will be recalled, transmitted a sense of excitement and tension in its account of a family experiencing displacement and rehabilitation. This is lacking in "Rowan Farm"; but the new book does portray the maturing of the children, the satisfactions of accomplishment, and the feeling of security that comes from problems faced and at least partially solved. (p. 35)

Francis Lander Spain, in The Saturday Review (Entire issue copyright 1954 by Saturday Review Associates, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 21, 1954.

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Louise S. Bechtel

[The Margret of "Rowan Farm"] is a teen-age girl in postwar Germany. She is working hard on a farm,… and involved in various hopes and dreams of rebuilding her part of her war-torn country. She also is experiencing the difficulties of first love and making decisions that will shape her adult life. Her story, however, is the basic thread of a family story that gives many aspects of reconstruction in Germany. It includes interesting adults who have felt the war in different ways. It pierces the problems of war guilt as a teen-ager would feel it. So the book is truly a junior "novel," giving us a rich, full slice of life and the emotions and development of an admirable girl, whose inner life will be recognized as true...

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Ellen Lewis Buell

[Margret's] experience as kennel-maid with the farm animals, the temptation to take a job in America, her inevitable romance with the landowner's son give continuity to ["Rowan Farm,"] a many-faceted, rather complicated narrative of family activities.

Like "The Ark" this is an uneven performance. It is frequently sentimental and even a little banal, yet it has little of the Teutonic self-pity which seeped through the earlier book. Its horizons are wider and there are times when the author makes the reader sharply aware of the emotional as well as the physical devastation which follows war. (p. 38)

Ellen Lewis Buell, in The New York Times Book Review ©...

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Louise S. Bechtel

[In The Wicked Enchantment, Mrs. Benary-Isbert] offers a modern fairy-tale full of suspense, fun, excitement, answering children's love of animals, the circus and magic. She uses an Old World setting and plays with an old German legend, weaving in her memories of old arts of Europe; the book is both gay and serious, ending in the cathedral on Easter Eve, where, listening to the ancient bells, we know that love and courage can overcome superstition and tyranny….

With all its wealth of detail the story is clearly told and its very real human relations balance its magic. The pages glow with … colorful imagery…. It is a rare book to stimulate the wits of bright children besides stirring...

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Mary Louise Hector

Leni Winkelberg is 16 in 1948, a lean year in post-war Germany [as depicted in "Castle on the Border"]. Determined upon theatrical stardom, Leni arranges her life with calculation and detachment, habits wherewith she had survived as an orphaned refugee from bombed Berlin…. Slowly she develops into a young woman of maturity, able finally to talk about her parents; to participate in Advent and Christmas traditions for their meaning, beyond the sorrow of memory; to attend her gentle uncle at the hour of his death.

Leni's finely drawn problem works itself out amid events that move constantly, and among people widely representative of the courageous national effort to rebuild a life and a land. "Castle...

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Jennie D. Lindquist

[Castle on the Border] is an unusually rich book for young people, for the author gets so much of life into it. There are Leni and her brother and their friends determined to conquer all obstacles in order to make the Castle Theater Company a success. There are Aunt Friderike and Uncle Hubertus and their courage in beginning life again after escaping from the East Zone, he working on his scientific study of spiders, she making a home of the castle and trying to bring beauty back to its gardens. There are children and animals to lighten the story; and to give it added depth there are the refugees coming over the border and hiding away a night or two in the castle. And there is the effect all this has on Leni and...

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Norma Rathburn

There is much to recommend this superior teen-age novel ["Castle on the Border"]. Romance, humor and gaiety, the satisfaction in unselfish living, the understanding which can exist between the aged and the young, the joys of a creative life, and a sensitive response to nature are all skilfully interwoven.

Mrs. Benary-Isbert is an author who knows that one faces life with courage and she transfers this truth to young people with the conviction that they will understand. (p. 37)

Norma Rathburn, in The Saturday Review (Entire issue copyright 1956 by Saturday Review Associates, Inc.; reprinted with permission), August 18, 1956.

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Mary Lee Krupka

Just as Kay Boyle's short stories painted vivid portraits of post-war Germany for adult readers, so have Margot Benary-Isbert's novels traced a similar pattern for teenagers. ["The Long Way Home"] covers somewhat wider ground, detailing the journey of a 13-year-old orphan boy from an impoverished East Germany to a longed-for permanent home in California.

There is a basic honesty in Mrs. Benary-Isbert's writing, refreshing to find in young people's literature. Characterization is fully dimensioned, each personality being clearly defined without glossing or patly resolving weaknesses. And through the travels of a wide-eyed yet mature Christoph Wegener, American youngsters will discover the...

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Helen E. Kinsey

Too long-winded, over-crowded with people, places, and events, and less deeply felt than [Margot Benary-Isbert's] first books, the story of Chris Wegener's experiences [in The Long Way Home] is nonetheless a perceptive and often moving one. Readers will be interested not only in Chris's plight but also in a view of themselves and their country as seen through the eyes of a stranger. (p. 575)

Helen E. Kinsey, in The Booklist and Subscription Books Bulletin (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright 1959 by the American Library Association), June 1, 1959.

It is easy to be sentimental about refugees...

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Margaret Sherwood Libby

[Dangerous Spring is the story of a spring] in Karin Lorenz' life, sixteen, almost seventeen, and in love with Helmut Lobelius, almost twelve years her senior, a young idealistic pastor with an imperturbable passion for truth and indifference to worldly things. It was a desperately dangerous spring. The Third Reich was tottering. The American army would be in Erfurt, Karin's city, any day, and word had gone forth that the city was to be defended….

Karin accompanies Lobelius on his parish calls and watches his sympathy for the heterogeneous group of refugees who crowd his home and bicker constantly, nerves snapping under the long strain. She wonders if she can be the tower of strength this...

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Mary Louise Hector

Based on diaries kept by the author and her husband, "Dangerous Spring" is an extraordinary success on two-interdependent levels, fiction and document. The story is well-constructed and minutely controlled…. [The] documentation strikingly reveals that, behind the solid mass of German national guilt, there were conscientious and distressed individuals. (p. 18)

Mary Louise Hector, "The Americans Came," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1961 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 14, 1961, pp. 16, 18.

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Ruth Hill Viguers

The varied cast of characters [of Dangerous Spring], many of whom are refugees sheltering in Helmut's home, have surely been drawn from life. Especially appealing are Karin, deeply in love but unaware of the necessary practical qualifications of a minister's wife, and her young brother Till, fanatically devoted to the Hitler Youth Movement to whom the desperate last-ditch activities of the Storm Troopers bring complete disillusionment. A fine book which can do more than a library of factual accounts to make young people see the senselessness of war, and the idealism that can survive in great hearts even through the most devastating experiences. (p. 272)

Ruth Hill Viguers,...

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Mary Lee Krupka

To American teen-agers viewing the Germany of the nineteen-thirties from film clips and history books, the decade emerges as a kaleidoscope of goose-stepping Nazis and Hitler's frenetic gestures. In ["Time to Love"], Margot Benary-Isbert proposes that within certain upper-class German families who detested the political pattern of the times, it was possible to enjoy a productive life in relative seclusion from the horrendous events taking form in their land—at least for a time. (p. 14)

The author subtly injects politics into the story, but merely in relation to the Benninger family, to whom Hitler's ambitions are at first a remote annoyance. By book's end, however, the war erupts about them, and...

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Keith Harrison

[Under a Changing Moon is] the story of a bourgeois family in the Rhineland in 1865. The family is large and respectable—ruled over by a benign father who is the local magistrate, and a busy wife who, with the help of her daughter Paula, just out of convent, manages to keep her many sons in order. The whole novel is the record of a year's domestic minutiae, quite elegantly written, but with an attitude so coy that I can only assume it was intended for a certain kind of child. Most kids wouldn't be convinced. People like this may have lived a hundred years ago, but that's not the point. Maybe I have misread the book—indeed, I hope I have. (p. 214)

Keith Harrison,...

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Marcus Crouch

Vogelsang [of The Wicked Enchantment] is a German city. It is not obviously detached from the rest of the world, but through many centuries it has gone its own way, living for the most part contentedly beneath the shadow of the great Gothic cathedral. People from other towns say 'We are all a little touched', but the Vogelsanger madness is of an agreeable kind and the ghosts who haunt the town are mostly 'nice and respectable'. But evil comes to Vogelsang; to be precise, it comes from within the town, from the forgotten vault beneath the cathedral where Earl Owl of Owlhall rests uneasily. (The parallel with Nazi Germany is implicit.) (p. 133)

Margot Benary adopted an appropriately Gothic frame...

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Carolyn T. Kingston

The Ark is a story of how one family managed to survive when their home, possessions, father, and one son were swept away during World War II. As all those chosen by Noah to come into the ark survived, so this story shows that life can be ongoing despite floods and wars, or holocaustal conditions. (p. 108)

The tragic moments of the story are the times when Margret faces the loss of something or someone she loves. The first tragedy is conveyed in retrospect, a device that helps to cushion the sorrow the reader must feel in learning of the loss of Margret's happy home and the death of her twin brother…. One day she meets an old woman who has lost an only son in the war. Mari has found a way to...

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