Stones from the River

by Ursula Hegi

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Critical Overview

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Since its appearance in 1994 and continuing into the early 2000s, Hegi’s Stones from the River has received wide-ranging and positive reviews, enhanced by the novel’s 1997 selection for Oprah’s Book Club. Kitty Harmon, in a long Publishers Weekly review article, states that this novel is:

Hegi’s attempt to understand the conspiracy of silence in towns like Burgdorf throughout Germany—a conspiracy that countenanced persecution of Jews during the war and enabled a community to quiet its conscience once the truths of the Holocaust were revealed.

Hegi is quoted in this review as remarking that once she came to the United States, she realized “Americans of [her] generation knew more about the Holocaust than [she] did.” Discussion of the Nazi devastation was “absolutely taboo,” she is quoted as saying. In Stones from the River, Hegi challenges that taboo by dramatizing how ordinary Germans coped, adapted, resisted, and conformed during the Third Reich. A 1994 review in Booklist notes: “Though Hegi’s canvas is broad here, the focus is always on individual lives, not on the horrific events that swirl around them.” A 1994 Publishers Weekly review notes that in this “powerful novel,” protagonist Trudi Montag “exploits her gift” for drawing out people’s secrets. The review also states that the book describes the “vast amnesia that grips formerly ardent Nazis” after World War II.

Commenting on Oprah’s “reading revolution,” a 1997 review by Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly, notes that because of the novel’s selection, Scribner was advised to print “an extra billion copies,” and Oprah Winfrey is quoted as saying that readers who finish the “big” novel will find rewards in it “just as big.” Hegi’s accomplishment is summed up in a 2002 review by Judith Robinson in Library Journal: Hegi depicts “the emergence of Nazi Germany on an intimate canvas of a small town and its humanly flawed population.” Robinson notes that the novel helps readers start to understand how political shifts occur and gain sway and how an unsuspecting populace concerned with its own day-to-day obligations may be swept into something they never envisioned or invited. Another review in Booklist, this time of Hegi’s Tearing the Silence: On Being German in America asserts that Hegi’s work recognizes “the German—and human—capacity for evil.”

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