Stones from the River, by Ursula Hegi, is the story of a dwarf who lives in the fictional small town of Burgdorf, Germany, through the first half of the twentieth century. The novel is an intimate look at what it was like for ordinary people to live through the rise of Adolf Hitler and the devastation wrought by the Third Reich. The novel conveys the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust as these become apparent in the small town. The advent of Nazism provides the context for an in-depth analysis of certain universal psychological tendencies, chief among which are the search for identity through group membership, the desire for social acceptance, and the fear of ostracism.
The novel demonstrates the nature of difference and how policies of exclusion divide a community. It also exposes the ways in which the Catholic Church and the fascist state engendered fear and promoted discrimination. Townspeople are persuaded by beliefs about community solidarity and outsider status, and the plot enumerates the diverse human impulses and choices at work when various people live in close proximity over decades, weathering global conflict twice in their lives.
In her acknowledgments, Hegi thanks her godmother, Käte Capelle, who “broke the silence by documenting her memories of the war years.” The novel exposes the little-known reality as it was experienced by the small-town German population. It addresses the common question about how decent Germans could have allowed the Holocaust to happen. Stones from the River was well received in 1994 when it first appeared, but it became a bestseller in 1997 when it was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club list.
The novel opens with a reflection on the time when the protagonist, Trudi Montag, as a child assumed that everyone had her gift for knowing “what went on inside others,” a time predating her understanding of “the agony of being different.” The narrator jumps ahead to Trudi’s pubescent molestation by four boys. That event showed Trudi that praying does not change things. For the first three months after Trudi’s birth, the unstable Gertrude Montag refuses to touch her baby, and the child is cared for by neighbor women.
Trudi’s father, Leo Montag, returns from World War I in October 1914. He impregnates his wife immediately and resumes his work, running the pay-library. Gertrude gives birth July 23, 1915, to a dwarf daughter, who is called Trudi. Gertrude persists in abnormal, even scandalous behavior, and Leo takes to locking her into the third-floor sewing room. Soldiers return home, disheartened and humiliated. They take over the daily responsibilities that have been handled by the women.
Late in the fall 1918, Gertrude tells Trudi the story of her ride on Emil Hesping’s motorcycle, how they fell and Gertrude got gravel under the skin of her left knee. On the day of this accident, or about that time, Gertrude had a brief sexual relationship with Emil. Gertrude believes now that her infidelity and the damage to her knee, which is its outward sign, caused Leo to be injured in his left knee on the same day while fighting on the Russian Front.
Leo takes Gertrude to Grafenburg, where she remains in an asylum for seven weeks. She comes home about Christmas time and suggests a sibling for Trudi, who rejects the idea. Gertrude tells Trudi that storks can be persuaded to deliver a baby if people leave sugar cubes on the windowsills over night. Because Trudi does not want a baby to come, she secretly eats the sugar. Born prematurely, the baby boy, Horst, dies. Trudi feels responsible for his death.
Gertrude returns to the asylum where she contracts pneumonia and dies. At the funeral reception, Trudi catches Herr Buttgereit kissing the baker’s wife and senses intuitively the power of knowing what others do not want her to know. Talk at the party touches upon refugees moving into the area, and the locals are “united against newcomers.” The unknown benefactor leaves a...
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