Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 727
Herr Brauxel operates a mine in which no ore is processed, yet Brauxel’s employees report for work daily. During morning shifts, Brauxel creates a map of the Vistula, Poland’s longest river, which empties into the Baltic Sea in Gdansk. As he shapes the course of the river on his desk out of various objects, Brauxel relates the story of two young friends, Walter Matern and Eduard “Eddi” Amsel, growing up along the Vistula from the mid-1920’s to mid-1930’s.
Walter is Roman Catholic and the son of a local miller with clairvoyant powers gained from listening to flour mealworms. Eddi is half-Jewish and the son of a prosperous merchant. The boys have exchanged oaths as blood brothers, and Walter, known as the Grinder for his habit of grinding his teeth, acts as protector of pudgy Eddi. The two comrades often play with Walter’s black dog, Senta—a German shepherd who is also part wolf—alongside the river where Eddi salvages debris to build lifelike, incredibly effective scarecrows that he rents or sells to local farmers. He invests the money he earns to make even more elaborate and grotesque scarecrows.
Poet-playwright Harry Liebenau, son of a carpenter, writes letters to his cousin Ursula “Tulla” Pokriefke, but he never sends them. Harry’s missives relate his memories from the mid-1930’s until the end of World War II in 1945. Like the older boys, Harry also has a black dog, Harras, the offspring of Senta.
Harry’s letters detail ominous signs of change: Germany has absorbed Danzig, flags with swastikas have blossomed, and Hitler Youth groups are beginning to appear. Harras sires a pup named Prinz, who is presented as a gift to Adolf Hitler. Meanwhile, Walter, after a stint with the communists and a fling as an actor, joins the paramilitary Nazi brown shirts. In disguise, Walter and his comrades attack Eddi, who has been making mechanical figures that mock the Nazis, and knock out all of his teeth.
Eddi, grown wealthy from an inheritance, moves to Berlin under the name Hermann Haseloff and has his teeth replaced with gold dentures (earning him the nickname Goldmouth). As Hermann, he becomes a ballet impresario while coaching his star performer, Jenny Brunies. Walter marches with the German army in the invasion of Poland that begins World War II. He is later wounded, after which he is assigned to an artillery unit in Danzig, where he encounters teenager Harry, an auxiliary.
Harry’s cousin Tulla sleeps around, hoping to become pregnant; she eventually does, but has a miscarriage. Jenny’s feet are crushed during an Allied air raid, ending her ballet career. Walter deserts to the Allies, while Harry joins the armored infantry and is wounded while participating in many battles. With the war in its final throes, Prinz deserts the doomed Hitler.
Walter is released from a prisoner-of-war camp and wends his way home, intending to settle old scores. A black dog (a disheveled Prinz) follows him, and Walter names him Pluto. Walter, with Pluto, visits former acquaintances, upon whom Walter wreaks revenge. He spreads gonorrhea and fathers a child while sleeping with erstwhile friends’ wives and daughters. Meantime, Goldmouth sets up Walter’s father, Anton, as a fortune teller. Germany’s most important postwar businessmen visit Anton and receive advice that makes them successful. Walter reunites with his father in 1949 and builds an enterprise around the fortune-telling business. In 1953, Anton is kidnapped.
Walter, now unemployed, takes to the road again with Pluto. Not long after Brauxel & Co. introduces miracle glasses that allow youngsters to see adults as they really are, Walter lands a job as an actor on radio. He runs into Harry, who publicly subjects him to a humiliating confession of his sins. Walter deserts Pluto and flees to East Germany by rail. As he travels, he passes scarecrows in Eddi’s distinctive style and sees a black dog racing the train.
When Walter arrives in East Berlin, he is met by the dog and a slim chain-smoker called Goldmouth. The two men go barhopping, and Goldmouth eventually reveals himself as Eddi. Walter and Eddi go to Brauxel & Co., where Eddi turns out to be Brauxel as well. The former mine is now a factory where Eddi creates mechanized scarecrows—representing the entire gamut of human emotions—to be released upon the world.
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