Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3783
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 phonograph and some records in the pay-library, and the music comforts Trudi. She turns four and misses her mother “with a bottomless panic.” Leo takes Trudi to see fireworks for her birthday. Secretly, Trudi visits Doktor Rosen, asking for a pill to make her grow.
Trudi hangs from doorframes in hopes of growing. Leo’s sister, Helene Montag Blau, visits from the United States with her son, Robert. During the visit, Trudi and Robert become friends. Together, they discover a bee entangled in a spider web, and Robert cuts it gently free without tearing the web. After he leaves, Trudi becomes friends with Georg Weiler, who lives next door. His mother, Hedwig Weiler, dresses him like a little girl, refuses to cut his hair, and will not allow him to play with boys. The two children, outwardly so different looking, are ostracized by their peers.
During the flood of 1920, Franz Weiler drowns when he goes to the Rhein with some drinking buddies and entertains them by doing handstands on the dike. Frau Weiler insists Franz was en route to mass; however, the townspeople know otherwise. The point is made that the age-old local habit was to uphold the façade, to maintain family respectability. The narrator writes: “a complicity of silence . . . had served the town for centuries.” A week later, the unknown benefactor gives Georg lederhosen (leather pants with leather suspenders), though his mother does not permit him to wear them.
When she was a little girl, Hedwig Weiler was sexually abused by her alcoholic stepfather, and she developed a belief that men’s souls are contaminated. Her generalized distrust of Georg causes him to learn to lie. At Georg’s urging, Trudi cuts his hair, though she anticipates that as he becomes more like other boys, she will lose him as a friend. Leo lovingly assures Hedwig that “it was time.”
Trudi does the shopping: Anton Immers’s butcher shop, Buttgereits’s farm for white asparagus, and Braunmeiers’s farm for eggs and milk. Trudi takes to swimming alone in the river. At Catholic school, the nuns find Trudi pushy and intrusive. Though she is bright and enthusiastic, she must learn to wait to be called on and not volunteer to answer questions. The children exclude her whenever they can from games, and the nuns do not help the situation. They teach the children religious precepts that encourage feelings of German superiority and prejudice toward non-Christians.
At the end of summer, the Eberhardts’s pear tree is heavy with fruit, and the children eat pears, but their sweetness gags Trudi, who chokes whenever she tastes sugar and is reminded that she caused her brother’s death. Renate Eberhardt has a baby, whom she names Helmut. He is beautiful, with golden hair and blue eyes, but Trudi intuits that Helmut could destroy his mother. Because Trudi has no friends, Leo buys her a little dog, that she names Seehund. Owning the dog makes Trudi appealing to Eva Rosen, and their friendship develops privately, though Eva ignores Trudi at school. Trudi asks the priest for the name of the patron saint of dwarfs; all he can suggest is St. Giles, patron saint of cripples.
In a confidential moment, Eva reveals that she is different, too. She has a red birthmark that spirals across her chest and around her nipples. Eva anticipates that when she has babies, she will lactate “red milk.” Trudi does well in school but likes history best; she compares playground bullies to Napoleon. Leo tells her that Germans have a history of sacrificing everything for one leader, and this is because Germans fear chaos. Hans-Jürgen lures Eva and Trudi into the barn to see some kittens. He takes one up, swings it around, and throws it against the wall, killing it. When Hans burns a cat’s paw, his father breaks his arm for having a match in the barn. When Eva shuns Trudi, Trudi tells Helga Stamm about the birthmark.
At age thirteen, Trudi attends a carnival and sees another dwarf, the circus entertainer, Pia, who has a trailer in which the furniture is scaled down to fit her body. Leo adjusts the furniture in the pay-library to fit Trudi’s body. Trudi goes swimming alone and happens to see four boys swimming naked. When they spy her, the boys drag her into Hans-Jürgen’s barn and molest her. One of the boys is Georg Weiler, her childhood friend. Alexander Sturm arrives and calls out to Frau Braunmeier, causing the boys to flee. Wrapped in a cow blanket, Trudi gets back to the river and collects her clothes. She throws stones in the river, calling them by the boys’ names.
In the aftermath of this attack, Trudi refuses food, cannot sleep, and stays indoors wrapped in loose clothes and a blanket. She cannot bear to have Seehund with her, since the dog witnessed her degradation. She remains indoors all winter and into the spring. In April, the floods arrive, “loosen[ing] her rage.” Trudi takes revenge on her assailants by spreading false stories about them. Her stories cause Fritz Hansen’s bakery to lose business and Paul Weinhart to miss out on an apprenticeship. She tells Hans no woman will ever love him, but she holds off doing something to Georg Weiler. Helmut Eberhardt joins a youth group (soon to be the Hitler-Jugend [HJ]) and attempts to hurt Rainer Bilder, a morbidly obese boy.
A boycott of Jewish stores occurs and an anti-Semitic torch parade takes place, in which Helmut marches with a beatific look on his face, as though he is receiving communion. Hitler becomes chancellor, and Trudi sees him when she visits Düsseldorf. The priest’s sermon against sins of the flesh causes people to borrow more romance novels from the pay-library. Trudi wonders why the priest never attacks novels about soldiers being killed in battle. Prayers for the fatherland become more common during mass. In the spring 1933, two hundred authors are labeled indecent, and their books are burned around the country; Leo and Trudi hide books by these authors in the pay-library. Ingrid Baum’s religious fanaticism shows the extreme effect Catholicism can have on a conscientious person who believes she has sinned.
Klaus Malter, the eligible young dentist, begins socializing with Ingrid Baum and Trudi. Both young women are attracted to him, but Ingrid pulls back in strict piety, and Klaus rejects the idea of being involved with the dwarf Trudi. The Nazis come to power, and people take a wait-and-see attitude. Jews are identified as a political problem. Ilse and Michel Abramowitz lose their passports. Rainer Bilder disappears.
Dressed neatly in his Hitler-Jugend uniform, ten-year-old Bruno Stosick hangs himself. His father, Günter Stosick, so objected to the group that he forced his son, a champion chess player, to withdraw. Trudi and Ingrid go to Düsseldorf to a movie and see an anti-Hitler flyer on the bus. The movie and the news bulletins are examples of Nazi propaganda. Back in Burgdorf, Fienchen Blomberg, a girl of nine, is stoned by Hitler-Jugend members. Frau Weiler beats off the boys with a broom, warning she will tell their parents. Leo holds the girl while Doktor Rosen attends to her wounds. Next day, Frau Weiler is arrested for attacking children. Leo goes with her to the police station, swearing the boys were eighteen and the victim just a little child. Frau Weiler spends a week in jail, which enrages her. Leo tells her to be quiet and keep the vigil; they can help Jews more effectively if they act covertly. Günter Stosick is forced to resign from the chess club, and he and his wife are shunned during mass. Ingrid continues her blind faith in the absolute word of the Catholic Church, repeating the rosary and asserting that she is not the one to decide what is right and wrong. Though her father abused her, she believes it is she who is the unredeemable sinner.
More children join the political clubs: the boys join Hitler-Jugend; the girls join the Bund Deutscher Mädchen (Alliance of German Girls [BDM]). They are indoctrinated to be true to the Führer and not to trust their own judgment. One benefit of membership is these teens move more easily from school into apprenticeships and jobs.
Eva Rosen and Alexander Sturm marry one month before passage in September 1935 of the Nürnberg laws, which prohibit the intermarriage of Jews and Christians and deny Jews their German citizenship. Eva and Alexander have a costume party, in defiance of the laws that are shrinking the world of the Jews, and Eva wears a nun’s habit. Seehund dies of old age. Trudi and Leo celebrate his fifty-first birthday. In the face of Jewish persecution, onlookers practice silence “nurtured by fear and complicity.” When Anton Immers’s son marries, the father entertains wedding guests with stories of his World War I service, and the guests begin telling their own stories of seeing him in battle.
In March 1938, German troops enter Austria, and feeling his age, Leo turns most of the library work over to Trudi. Pastor Beier hears confessions of Burgdorf women who love Leo, and the priest would like to hear more about “Leo Montag’s successes,” yet celibate Leo confesses only three times a year and never mentions a love interest. By contrast, Emil Hesping plays the field, but Lotte Simon always takes him back.
The 1938 spring of Anschluss (Germans in Austria), the Rhein floods again. Gifts from the unknown benefactor appear in many houses. Lotte Simon is arrested in front of her store, and its contents are confiscated. The storefront becomes the Hitler-Jugend headquarters. Trudi and Leo quickly take valuables from the milliner’s apartment and hide them in the pay-library for safekeeping. When she returns four months later, Simon lives in a room elsewhere in town, a broken woman.
In November 1938, during Kristlenacht (Crystal Night), mobs vandalize Jewish stores and synagogues, wasting property and making a terrible mess for which the Jews are later taxed. Twelve hours before his wedding, Helmut Eberhardt and two other HJ members break into the Abramowitz house, destroying personal property and hauling off Michel Abramowitz to be beaten. Through the night Leo stands beside Ilse Abramowitz, waiting by the window. Finally, they see Michel crawling along in the street. At Helmut’s wedding the next day, Trudi whispers to Renate what her son has done. Ruth Abramowitz comes to comfort her parents; she foolishly believes that being married to a Christian physician will protect her from the Nazis. The local synagogue is destroyed by fire; townspeople watch the fire, having learned “to take the horrible for granted.”
Helmut and his wife move into the upstairs rooms of his mother’s house, but he relentlessly badgers Renate to sign over the house to him. He wants to occupy the larger ground floor rooms and have her live upstairs. She refuses to buckle under his pressure. Resolute in her compassion and generosity for suffering people, Renate continues to befriend Jews, even though Helmut warns her that doing so is unpatriotic. In June 1939, Helmut warns her that she could be arrested. On September 1, 1939, Hitler invades Poland. Helmut turns in his mother, and she is arrested. By December, Jews must wear a yellow six-pointed star on their outer clothes. The following year, Hilde gives birth to a little boy, and Helmut is killed in action. Hilde lives upstairs with her son, keeping the downstairs clean and ready for the return of her mother-in-law. But Renate never comes home again.
Ingrid goes off to teach a large class of children, and Klaus Malter ends a six-year courtship in order to suddenly marry Jutta Sturm. Jews in many cities are forced into crowded housing.
At the age of twenty-six, Trudi answers a newspaper romance ad and meets Max Rudnick in Düsseldorf. Klaus Malter’s mother, a professor and Christian, is arrested. Herr Blau turns away a young Jewish man who comes in the night seeking a hiding place. Afterward, Blau deeply regrets his refusal to help the man and seeks ways to make amends for it. Lotte Simon is relocated and later writes to Ilse Abramowitz about the labor camp conditions. Max pursues Trudi; he says her being a dwarf bothers her, not him.
Fourteen through Sixteen: 1942
Trudi discovers Erna Neimann and her son Konrad hiding under the pay-library and takes them in. Seeing an urgent need, Leo and Trudi develop the means to hide people, making house rules and excuses to discourage those who want to visit. With the help of Emil Hesping and Herr Blau, they dig an escape tunnel between the pay-library and the Blaus’s house. Working together on the tunnel gives Trudi a new sense of community. Ilse Abramowitz says she would “rather be subjected to injustice . . . than to be the one who inflicts it on others.” She predicts that the Germans “might survive, but they’ll never recover.”
Eva is questioned about her parents’ escape by car to Switzerland. She has chosen to stay behind because of Alexander and is convinced if she were arrested Alexander would voluntarily go with her. Eva goes into hiding at the pay-library. Erna Neimann and Konrad must be moved to another hiding place, and for a special farewell dinner, Leo burns banned books and cooks a roast with vegetables. Eva decides to return for one night to her husband, but she is informed on by the butcher and arrested. Alexander cowers before the Gestapo, “paralyzed with fear,” as his wife is taken away.
Matthias Berger gives a recital at Fräulein Birnsteig’s estate in October 1942. Trudi makes a comment about the Nazi flags and is immediately arrested. After three weeks confined in the Theresienheim, the local convent hospital taken over by the Nazis, she is interrogated by the officer who arrested Lotte Simon. She sees right through this man, realizing at once that he does not believe in what he is doing and will be a suicide within the year. She tells him a story about a man born with his heart outside his body. The officer releases Trudi with a warning.
Trudi tells Max Rudnick that while she looks different on the outside, she is really like everyone else on the inside. Max says this is not so: “Each one of us is different.” Every person is unique; even people who look and act alike are different from one another on the inside. Max and Trudi have a romantic and sexual relationship. Max is a watercolorist, and his room is decorated with paintings of buildings transformed into red and yellow flowers. These images signify sexual orgasm to Max, but they also foreshadow the destruction of Dresden in which he is killed.
In February 1943, Trudi learns that Max is married but has been separated from his wife for a long time. Ingrid returns to Burgdorf, pregnant. Her father persuades the father of her child, Ulrich Hebel, to come to Burgdorf and marry Ingrid, who gives birth to a daughter, Rita, one week after the wedding. Ingrid is convinced the baby is the outward sign of her depravity. Ingrid becomes pregnant again and then her husband is killed in action, and this second child, Karin, is born after Ingrid is widowed. Ingrid sees the facts surrounding her daughters’ births as signs of her sinfulness.
Alexander Sturm joins the army. His guilt about abandoning Eva is so great that he hopes to be killed in battle. Hans-Jürgen is missing in action in Russia; Fritz Hanson returns to Burgdorf without his jaw. The identity of the unknown benefactor is revealed. Emil Hesping attempts to steal the small statue of Hitler and is shot in the act. The police realize he is the benefactor when they find a ledger in his apartment going back years, noting needs and clothing and shoe sizes of townspeople, and dates on which gifts were delivered. His brother, the bishop, visits Leo. They discuss Emil’s courage and love. The bishop reveals that Emil embezzled money from the gym in order to pay for the gifts.
A postcard comes from Zurich; Erna and Konrad Neimann have made it safely into Switzerland. In June 1944, Michel Abramowitz dies in his sleep, and his wife is arrested after she takes her cane to the HJ headquarters, breaks up the interior and hurts the young men in there who were responsible for beating up her husband. After Ilse is deported, Leo acts like a widower again. He wants to get the Abramowitzs’s valuables to Ruth in Dresden. He and Trudi drive there and search in vain for her. Alexander Sturm deserts, having had no success in getting himself killed in action. He returns to the attic where Eva was arrested and jumps from the window to his death.
Max gets a week off from the factory, and in February 1945, just before his thirty-eighth birthday, he agrees to take the Abramowitzs’s valuables to Dresden and search for Ruth. He apparently is killed in the firebombing of Dresden in which thousands die. American tanks arrive in Burgdorf in March 1945.
People resolve not to discuss the war. Eva’s parents are alive in Sweden. German POWs from Russia arrive, starving and in rags; German POWs from England arrive well-fed and in clean clothes. When Americans question local people about having supported the Nazis, these individuals disavow any such loyalty and seek supportive statements from Leo and Trudi. Babies are born; even the widowed midwife, Hilde Eberhardt, has or adopts a baby and names it Renate in memory of her mother-in-law. The town makes itself pretty again; the site of the synagogue is paved over, making a parking lot.
Trudi sees the “crippled state of her community.” Jutta and Klaus have a baby, Hanna, and Jutta paints a picture that reminds Trudi of Alexander and Eva. Matthias Berger visits from the seminary and tells Trudi how he was sexually abused by other seminarians. He abhors his homosexuality and resolves to return to the seminary because being there, he believes, is good for his soul. In April 1947, Ingrid attempts to save her children from lives of sin by throwing them off a bridge. She believes this will expedite their innocent flight to heaven. Rita drowns, but witnesses save the baby, Karin. Ingrid slips further into a psychotic state and dies. Karin is raised by Ingrid’s brother, Holger, and his wife, who together hide the fact of Ingrid’s existence; Karin grows up believing that her uncle and aunt are her biological parents. In November 1948, Hans-Jürgen murders his girlfriend and her male companion; he is tried and people testify to his history as a psychopath, but Trudi does not tell what she knows about him. Rainer Bilder reappears, so thin people barely recognize him. Now a journalist, he interviews Hans-Jürgen in jail and writes an article that describes Hans-Jürgen as “lonely and troubled,” seeming to blame the town more than Hans-Jürgen himself. The murderer is sent to the asylum at Grafenberg. Ironically, ten years later, the released Hans-Jürgen murders Rainer Bilder’s brother.
After the war, anti-Semitism continues. Trudi spends time with little Hanna and notices as she continues to work in the library that she views her own stories differently, seeking their meaning rather than using them against her neighbors. Trudi makes a nice dinner for Leo’s sixty-seventh birthday, and he dies the following afternoon. Hundreds attend his funeral, including Matthias who returns by train. At the reception held in Frau Blau’s house, Trudi remarks that her father had predicted that war could come again, so long as Germany “has a need for violence to settle conflict.” In the weeks following the funeral, Trudi finds many gifts left on the doorstep of the pay-library. The house feels large, but her grief is larger. In the final scene, Trudi broods about the nature of story, thinks about a dream in which she meets Georg and he asks her what will become of him. She feels enormous compassion for the people who have loved and lived in her stories, and she knows her story-making will continue.