Stones from the River

by Ursula Hegi

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How Storytelling Conveys characterization and Affects Plot in Stones from the River

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Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River is about storytelling. It is about fairy tales and old wives’ tales, about memories based on fiction, church-spawned morality tales, political agenda and film propaganda, and ultimately the writing of history. Storytelling is one way of selecting from and compressing complex, multifaceted human experience into the arbitrary linearity of chronology. In providing ways to understand self and world, stories perpetuate or mask the truth and shape individuals’ beliefs about themselves and others. Storytelling can even shape events, putting a certain interpretation on past occurrences, influencing the outcome of present events, and giving direction to future choices and policy. The novel shows how stories provide formulas for denial, how fantasy augments reality for certain sexual or psychological purposes, and how old tales or mythologies assert their worldviews and cause some individuals to see the world in their terms. Ultimately, the novel is about the power of story.

The immediate setting, a small-town pay-library where the protagonist works as a librarian, is central to the novel’s focus on storytelling. The dwarf Trudi Montag is both an insider and an outsider, a person who lives at the hub of the community and yet is somehow ignored when people speak privately to one another in her presence. She is literally a purveyor of stories, since she buys, organizes, and checks out novels to patrons. These people gather in the pay-library to visit; to confide in Trudi’s father, Leo Montag; and to exchange news. As she matures, Trudi capitalizes on what she hears or knows about others, markets and trades gossip, and in revenge for being scorned and violated learns to punish offenders by making up false stories against them. Able to keep her own secrets, Trudi exposes the secrets of others as a kind of social currency.

Trudi’s story is directly linked to the novel’s central composite symbol, the river and the stones that come from it. A universal symbol for time, according to the definition given in A Handbook to Literature, the river seems to signify in this text the flow yet constancy of time as it moves across or through events. Within its banks, the river signals chronology, since events are commonly plotted in linear arrangement, as the chapter headings suggest by designating specific years. The stones mentioned in the title may then be the people who enact the events; at least that seems to be the message in the passage following Trudi’s violation by four boys. Trudi throws stones into the river, assigning the boys’ names to the stones, throwing several with the name of Georg Weiler, her next-door neighbor and early childhood friend. Add to this scene the description of Trudi, born of “two long and angular people” and yet shaped “like a pebble—round and solid” and one gets the correlation Hegi is drawing. Furthermore, an early story Gertrude tells Trudi, about the motorcycle fall with Emil Hesping in which gravel gets embedded in Gertrude’s skin, connects the stony particles to the larger story of Gertrude and Hesping. Gertrude presses the child’s fingers against her left knee to feel the stony bits, and the intuitive child takes “in the story beneath the anguish” and feels “the secret shaping itself into images.” Even as a preschooler, little Trudi understands her mother’s sense of guilt and the causal link Gertrude sees between her marital infidelity and Leo’s injury on the same day and similarly in the left knee.

Since her home is a library, Trudi grows up surrounded literally with hundreds of stories. The wider culture of her hometown, Burgdorf, is also full of stories....

(This entire section contains 2092 words.)

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Many of these project their own versions of the facts or actually hide the truth. One of these stories is asserted by the portrait of the butcher, Anton Immers, posing in a World War I officer’s uniform. Deformed by an accident and bent to one side, Immers actually did not qualify for service. Yet the portrait tells another story, showing him dressed in a uniform and standing as erect as he can. When Immers looks at the portrait, he imagines having “fought in the war” and being “highly decorated.” As time passes, he comes to believe the “fabrication,” and the following generation is “fed that illusion as history.” The story Hedwig Weiler tells about her husband’s death is also a rewriting of events. She tells people Franz was en route to mass when he fell into the river and drowned. Eyewitnesses know that the inebriated Franz fell because he was entertaining his drinking buddies by doing handstands on the dyke. Yet “no one contradicted Frau Weiler.” Rather, townspeople perpetuated “the façade.” This “complicity of silence . . . had served the town for centuries.” Hegi writes that only a few individuals “would preserve the texture of the truth” and not let “its fibers slip beneath the web of silence and collusion.” It is this nexus of story-making and truth-withholding that is part of the novel’s focus.

One old wives’ tale or fairytale is used as a metaphor for human reproduction. To prepare Trudi for the advent of a sibling, Gertrude tells her daughter that storks are persuaded to deliver babies if sugar cubes are left for them on windowsills. Fearful that a normal baby would garner more parental love than she receives, Trudi secretly eats the sugar. Then when baby Horst is born prematurely and dies, Trudi believes she caused his death. Her mother had told her on another occasion that “people die if you don’t love them enough”; Trudi did not “love” enough: she ate the sugar, and thus she killed her brother. Years afterward, and even when Trudi fully understands the stork story as myth, sugar continues to gag her with guilt. When Gertrude dies shortly after Horst and four-year-old Trudi is not permitted to feel for the gravel in her dead mother’s knee (to prove the corpse’s identity), Trudi fantasizes that the body in the coffin is not her mother’s, that Gertrude is hiding and will come back as soon as Trudi grows taller. In these and other instances, a story is invented to work out a more acceptable vision of past or future events.

An important illustration of how story connects with self-concept and can affect outcomes occurs when as a young adult Trudi is arrested and then interrogated by a Nazi officer. To manipulate the situation to her advantage, Trudi uses her intuitive understanding of people’s beliefs and destinies. She senses that this officer does not believe in what he is doing and that he is destined to be a suicide within the year. When he asks her what it is like to be a “Zwerg” (dwarf), she knows it is a game and that she must play the dwarf and draw him into a story about being different. Trudi tells the officer a story of a man born with his heart on the outside of his chest cavity. She tells how the man had his suits designed to hide this abnormality, yet the heart pushed out visibly against the jacket. She tells the officer that in the man’s dreams, “his chest was smooth, his heart safely anchored within his body.” Trudi feels empowered, knowing that this story may save her life. She says she understands how the man felt because in her dreams she is tall. She tells the officer how as a child she hung from doorframes hoping to lengthen her body to conform to normal height, just like the man longed to be like other children when he was a little boy.

Using her intuition that the Nazi officer is hiding something about himself that makes him different from his fellow soldiers, Trudi draws him out by sympathetically telling a story about how difference makes one vulnerable to rejection and degradation. The story strikes such an immediate chord of sympathy with the officer that he begins feeding details into the story himself. Trudi has made a connection with him, linking her outward difference to his inner difference via the story. He knows the story she tells because it is as much his story as it is hers. During the Third Reich, a dwarf, even a blue-eyed, blond one, was destined to become “a medical experiment” and eventually be exterminated. By telling this particular story to this particular listener, Trudi penetrates the officer’s outer conformity to a military identity in order to connect to his inner sense of his own separateness. He connects with the dwarf storyteller because he identifies with the man in her story. This connection causes him to release her. In this scene, as in many others, Hegi explores how storytelling can shape events and transform people’s beliefs about themselves and about their culture and past.

Many other stories in the novel shape people’s perception of the world. These include Eva Rosen’s story about the cat in her father’s bedroom window, Erna Neimann’s story about the rich girl who takes Konrad’s cat, Trudi’s story about Hans-Jürgen’s not being loved by any woman, Hanna’s portrait of the swirling couple, and even Max Rudnick’s watercolors of buildings transformed into red and yellow flowers. On the national scale, the propaganda machinery of the Third Reich produces films and newsreels, like those Ingrid Baum and Trudi see in Düsseldorf, that use stories to fuel a general atmosphere of hate, which in turn serves the anti-Semitic policies designed to achieve Hitler’s Final Solution.

In Stones from the River, Hegi demonstrates how stories serve different purposes, how they come out of guilt and engender it (Gertrude’s story of the bike accident), how they come out of rage and effect revenge (Trudi’s stories about her assailants), how they satisfy certain kinds of longing (Trudi’s sexual fantasies), how they seek to obscure physical inferiority within the costume of conformity (Immers’ military portrait). Stories arise from fear or from a sense of the unknown, and they create connection or prove wrongdoing (the old women’s explanation of why the pear tree’s fruit is spoiled after Renate is betrayed by her son and sent to the death camps).

Pia’s story of a glorious island initially gives thirteen-year-old Trudi the hope that dwarfs can live altogether in a place. She asks Pia, “‘Why can’t we all be in one place?’” Pia responds, “‘We are. It’s called earth.’” Pia understands what many people have yet to learn: that all humans live together in one place, here on the Earth, and being different is what each and every one of them has in common with all the rest. Pia tells Trudi to know that she is never alone and when she feels alone to give herself a big hug, to literally embrace her uniqueness. Out of this self-acceptance can come the courage to create community despite differences.

Some stories in the novel are designed to hide the truth or to revise historical record. The danger of historical revision is that it may allow evil to grow undercover. This danger is dramatized in the story of the hidden sexual abuse of Ingrid Baum by her father; Ingrid’s existence is denied by her family, and her daughter, Karin, is at thirteen impregnated by her grandfather. Had the family faced the original abuse, Ingrid’s life would have been different and that difference would have created a better life for Karin and Ingrid’s other daughter, Rita. In this case and in other ways, the novel seems to suggest that, ultimately, the stones thrown in the river must be pulled to the surface and examined. Against a tide of interpretations and the perpetuation of chosen stories, one must seek the truth. Trudi recalls her father’s insistence that “being kind is the most important thing.” Stones from the River, which tells the stories that defined a small town in Germany, conveys this message: seek truth, act kindly. Doing so is possible in so far as one strives for and achieves some level of self-acceptance. The stories that matter are the ones that help people cherish their uniqueness and empower them to create community by acting kindly toward one another. Ultimately, Trudi realizes that for her the ongoing engagement with story-making seeks discernment about “what to enhance . . . what to relinquish. And what to embrace.”

Source: Melodie Monahan, Critical Essay on Stones from the River, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

The Outsider Protagonist

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At the end of Margarethe von Trotta’s film “The Leaden Time” (1981), the young son of a murdered terrorist turns to his aunt. “Tell me about my mother,” he says. For the viewer, the mother’s story seems to have ended; but for the boy the story is the beginning. As viewers leave the theater, they wonder: what version of the past will his aunt give him? Whether she tells the truth or lies, he will have to struggle to weave what he learns of the past into the meaning of his own existence.

Most of us want to understand the links between our own identities and those of our families, communities and countries. In Germany, this process is burdened by the legacy of Nazism. Asking questions about the past imposes moral responsibilities upon both the narrator and the listener.

Germans’ deeply emotional debates about the past are not so much about facts as about meaning, about moral interpretation. In the “historians’ debate” during the 1980s, for example, revisionist Ernst Nolte did not deny that millions of Jews were murdered. Nolte’s argument was that mass murders came about almost accidentally: they were a lamentable step that the Nazi regime, under wartime pressures and dangerously threatened by the Soviet Union, found “necessary.” In revisionist history, the death camps were just one more tragic cost of a war that included the bombings of European cities, the deaths of millions of soldiers, and the forced flight of millions of ethnic Germans from eastern Europe at the end of the war.

U.S. historian Charles Maier has called this “Bitburg history”—an attempt to put all the “victims of fascism” under the same historical label, thereby avoiding the problematic issue of who was morally responsible for this bloodshed. The historians’ debate is really about identity, not history. Like the boy in von Trotta’s film, Germans were asking who they are, where they came from, and whether the past offers them a foundation upon which to live.

The resulting tension—between the young and old, between those who seek to remember and those who would rather forget—has been a theme in German films, television programs and novels since the 1950s. It is the subject, for example, of the film “The Nasty Girl” (1990), based upon the true story of Anna Rosmus, a student in Passau. When she combed town archives to write a paper on Passau during the Nazi era, Rosmus uncovered disagreeable truths about some of the town’s leading citizens. In the film the “nasty girl,” originally the darling of her school and town, is ostracized and threatened by the townspeople once it becomes clear that she is after the truth, not pleasant fictions.

Her persistence makes her an outsider. In Germany after Nazism, outsiders refuse to keep silent. They collect secrets, they tell stories. Their lives no longer fit the patterns of a society that would rather forget. Postwar German fiction is populated with such characters. Often some physical or psychological attribute distinguishes them visibly from those around them. This raises echoes of the outsider status that the Nazis forced upon all those who did not fit “Aryan” ideals.

A recent addition to this group is Trudi Montag, the central character in Ursula Hegi’s new novel. Trudi is a dwarf—which, of course, immediately brings to mind the other dwarf in postwar German literature, Oskar Matzerath in Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. Although the two books are very different, each chronicles the life of an outsider who comes of age during the Nazi era.

Trudi is born an outsider. As opposed to Oskar (who decides to stop growing), Trudi desperately wants to grow, even hanging upside down in a futile attempt to stretch her short torso. But despite her longing for acceptance and friendship, Trudi recognizes early the morally stifling consequences of belonging. When she starts school, the nuns scold her for “pushiness,” pointing out that other girls “kept silent even if they knew the answers.” Throughout her life, Trudi’s difference liberates her from expectations about women, and she evades the rules that constrain those who belong. Adults ignore her and say “things they would never say around other children. If she didn’t remind people that she was there, she got to listen to all kinds of secrets.” Stealthily, she begins to gather the stories people would rather conceal.

After Trudi is nearly raped by four village boys, she furiously throws stones for each boy into the river. Later, more methodically, she begins to gather stones and stories for all the people in her life. She piles by the river one stone for each story she knows: stories of anger, revenge, longing and love. Her stories are her power, for Trudi knows secrets about the villagers that they themselves do not know. Beneath the surface of normal life in Nazi Germany, Trudi sees madness and moral emptiness.

Because of their physical stature, Oskar and Trudi are treated as children, as powerless and irrelevant. Actually, both rapidly leave childlike innocence behind. Oskar’s recognition of the world’s absurdity and Trudi’s vision of its secrets give each character a form of power.

With the beginning of the Third Reich, Trudi is no longer the only outsider in her village. In a selection process that begins long before the death camps, people either scuttle to become part of the Nazi mainstream or—because they think differently or are Jewish—they become outsiders. Those who become part of Nazi society lose their sense of who they and their neighbors are. Only those who remain outside retain the ability to see what is really happening. One of the most shocking incidents in Hegi’s book comes long after Trudi’s size has ceased to be in the forefront of her or the reader’s mind. Arrested and interrogated by a Gestapo officer, she realizes that he sees her not as an opponent of the regime (she has been hiding Jews) but as a potential victim—as a dwarf who could easily fall under the euthanasia guidelines.

For both authors, the Third Reich is part of a continuum (for Hegi, of silence; for Grass, of moral chaos) that begins long before 1933 and is not broken after 1945. Further, they contend that the failure to deal honestly with the past ensures the continuance of moral corruption. This belief marked much of the literature that emerged from Gruppe 47, a collection of postwar writers that included Ingeborg Bachmann, Uwe Johnson, Heinrich Boll and Gunter Grass. Much of their work concerns not only the past but lingering moral questions: What consequences does this confrontation with the Nazi past have for our own identity as moral beings? Was Nazism a moral aberration, or did it prove how easily moral values are weakened and corrupted?

For people of faith, of course, these are religious and spiritual questions as well. Yet the alienation of many of these writers and their fictional protagonists from the church is striking. Part of the reason is the poor record of the Protestant and Catholic churches under Nazism. In Stones from the River, the Catholic parish is a picture of conformity and hypocrisy. Though one of the priests and the bishop help the village’s resistance group, they are alienated from “the Church,” and their resistance takes place outside it. Everyone—from simple old farmers to Nazi informers—goes through the old rituals of the mass as though nothing were amiss. Through silence the villagers maintain the illusion of a heile Welt (“an intact world”); in its silence the church is part of that illusory world. “The silence of the war was in direct contradiction to [Trudi’s] storytelling. It was much closer to the silence of the church—fostering belief instead of knowledge, smothering mystery, muffling truth.”

Many writers were disillusioned by the churches’ behavior both under Nazism and after the war, when organized religion accommodated to the new circumstances in East and West. Beneath this disillusionment, however, is the more fundamental problem of defining morality and asking what kind of ethical society might have been possible after the Nazi experience. This attitude is expressed by Trudi’s father, Leo, who “never felt the division within the town as acutely as he did in the chapel. Once, the parish had felt like something whole, one body of people connected in one belief and many shared values . . . but now that belief had become tainted by those who used it to proclaim their superiority.”

Nazism’s corruption of people’s values is so powerful that it shakes the very heart of Leo Montag’s faith. The moral and religious values that before 1933 had seemed so strongly woven into all levels of society had unraveled so quickly under Nazism that it became difficult for many to believe in them at all. The surreal, chaotic world of Grass’s Tin Drum and the stony hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in Heinrich Boll’s The Clown (1963) are defiant postwar assertions that Germany can never return to “normal.” When morality within religious or political institutions no longer seems possible, the only beings who can act as the voice of conscience are outsiders, symbolized in these novels by a dwarf and a clown.

What happens to these outsiders? Here, Grass and Hegi’s novels have different outcomes. Against his will, Oskar Matzerath begins to grow after the war, and becomes symbolically entrapped by the guilt of the postwar world. In contrast, Trudi Montag finds ways to liberate others. She had initially gathered her stories and stones to gain power and revenge against those who had hurt her. But her purpose changes: “In the telling, she found, you reached a point where you could not go back, where—as the story changed—it transformed you, too. What mattered was to let each story flow through you.”

Trudi comes to understand that her gift is not to make these stories happen, but to understand life itself. Through her stories, she has gained compassion. She uses her prophetic powers in a new way, to help herself and her listeners learn “what to enhance and what to relinquish. And what to embrace.” This hopeful ending may be the product of the author’s own distance from her native land. Born in Germany in 1946, Hegi has lived in the U.S. since 1965. But it may also be a product of the passage of time and of the process of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung, or mastering the past, which has gone on now for 50 years.

This process has been more successful in the arts than in politics or history. Perhaps this is because fiction can better reveal the intersection between explicable human history and the deeper, irrational psychological currents that move individuals. How else can we explain Hitler’s charisma, and the bizarre mixture of mythology and racism that suddenly became the governing principle of an entire society? How else can one explain the behavior of people raised in a highly developed, religious culture who, in the name of the “Aryan ideal,” murdered millions of people in unspeakably barbaric ways?

The task of Vergangenheitsbewaltigung is to use its insights to alter human circumstances, just as the river in Hegi’s book eventually shows Trudi the purpose of her stories: “. . . it would always be the nature of the river to remember the dead who lay buried beneath its surface. What the river was showing her now was that she could flow beyond the brokenness, redeem herself, and fuse once more.”

The stories of the dead and the living in Trudi’s river join the myriad stories—of dwarfs, terrorists’ sons, “nasty girls” and others—that have been told since 1945 to fill a void. Had Germans, confronted by their children’s questions during the 1950s and 1960s, responded with tears, anguish and remorse— with anything but explanations, self-justification and silence—they would have laid an entirely different foundation from which to look at the past and the future. If there is a single message that recurs in the work of postwar German writers and filmmakers, it is the destruction wrought, both during and after the Third Reich, by silence.

Source: Victoria J. Barnett, “Stones from the River,” in the Christian Century, Vol. 111, No. 23, August 10, 1994, pp. 755–57.

Ursula Hegi Interview

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In the years after Ursula Hegi’s arrival in the U.S. at the age of 18, she intentionally turned her back on Germany, the country of her birth. She married an American, became an American citizen and chose America as the setting for her first two books. Now in her late 40s, Hegi finds that it’s not possible to reject one’s origins, especially in the ease of 20th-eentury Germany. “The older I get,” she says, “the more I realize that I am inescapably encumbered by the heritage of my country’s history.”

Hegi began revisiting that heritage in Floating in My Mother’s Palm, a highly praised novel published by Poseidon in 1990. In it Hegi introduces various inhabitants of a fictional German town called Burgdorf. Like Hanna, the narrator of Floating, Hegi grew up in a small town near Dusseldorf in the 1950s, observing the foibles and flashes of generosity of people within a tight, small community. Now, with Poseidon’s publication of Stones from the River (Fiction Forecasts, Jan. 17), Hegi extends her portrayal of Burgdorf’s characters and the exploration of her own heritage to include the several decades preceding her birth: the years leading up to World War II, the war itself and its immediate aftermath. The stories in the two books are interwoven with such seamless ease that readers will find it difficult to believe that the new book was not written first.

Stones from the River 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. “When I came to this country,” Hegi says, “I found that Americans of my generation knew more about the Holocaust than I did. When I was growing up you could not ask about it; it was absolutely taboo. We grew up with the silence. It was normal and familiar; these are terrible words considering the circumstances.” Like the narrator in Floating, Hegi wryly recounts how history lessons in school started with the classic Greeks and Romans, ended with World War I and began all over again with ancient Greece and Rome. “We knew a lot about those old Greeks and Romans,” she says.

Hegi weighs her words carefully and often asks if there isn’t a better term to describe this or that emotion, as if entreating her interviewer to respect her words and not give them nuances she doesn’t mean them to have. She speaks English flawlessly but with a pronounced accent, and her long blonde hair and rosy complexion reveal her Teutonic ancestry. Hegi says that sometimes she dreads it when people ask her where she’s from. “I wish I could say some other country, not Germany. As a German, I feel implicated by what happened.”

Still, Hegi had no intention of digging up the unspeakable parts of her country’s past in her third novel. In fact, she recalls emphatically denying, in an interview with National Public Radio’s Bob Edwards, that she would be revisiting the inhabitants of Burgdorf in her next book. But, she recalls, as soon as she left the studio, the voice of Trudi, a character in Floating, began speaking inside her head, demanding her “own book.” This almost mystical connection with Trudi continued: not long afterward, Hegi and her companion, Gordon Gagllano, were driving from Portland to home near Spokane, Washington, listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, when she got the urge to jot down some notes. Soon she had filled half a legal pad, often with complete passages that appear unchanged in Stones. “Trudi was in that car with us—even Gordon felt her presence,” she says.

Trudi is a Zwerg, a dwarf whose handicap sets her apart from the community. This “otherness” mirrors her refusal to take part in the complicity of silence and enables her neighbors to confide in her. She collects their stories and uses them to barter for information, divulging or withholding or changing details as needed and thus developing her own power in the community. Hegi says that Trudi did not become the protagonist of Stones because of her physical deformity, but because she was already a fully developed character in Floating whose voice cried out to be heard.

When asked about the inevitable comparisons with The Tin Drum, Hegi shrugs. “Yes, I know, ‘another novel about a dwarf in Germany during the war.’ It worried me in the beginning—well, it stopped me for about five minutes. But the character was so strong in her insistence to be heard that to stop writing wasn’t possible.”

A faculty research grant in 1986 enabled Hegi to return to Germany for the first time in 15 years to research background material for Floating. This was immeasurably helpful, she says. “It added a whole layer of sensuousness—the sounds, the smells, the tastes—that you can only get from being there.” When she visited her hometown, she looked around for the Zwerg she remembered from her childhood, a woman whom she had barely known but who, she says, “obviously must have made a big impression on me.” Having failed to find her, Hegi was sitting in a cafe when the object of her search appeared at her table, having heard that Hegi was looking for her. Instead of replying to Hegi’s tentative questions about some of her relatives, the woman shot back, “I hear you’ve been divorced.” Only after Hegi had shared the details of her marital breakup would the gossipy Zwerg tell her about her grandparents. It was this bartering for information that contributed to the development of Trudi’s character.

Although Trudi’s voice presented itself to Hegi “whole and complete, like a gift,” the process of fleshing out the narrative was much more difficult. Hegi took a second trip to Germany before finishing Stones, visiting the concentration camp at Buchenwald and other similar sites. This time, research was not the purpose. Hegi was compelled to make what she feels was a pilgrimage. “I was afraid to go [to the camp],” she says, “but as a German-born woman I felt I had to. Writing the book was what gave me the courage.”

To provide details of the period, Hegi immersed herself in historical material on the Holocaust, reading dozens of books and collections of journals written by concentration camp inmates. “There were many, many times when I wished I could leave the research alone, but I couldn’t. It was an important part of my own journey, of integrating the past within myself.”

Serendipity had a hand in furnishing some of the most helpful details. A German-American writer named Ilse-Margret Vogel, who called Hegi to congratulate her after the publication of Floating, was able to provide much material about the Resistance movement during the war; she was the first person who talked openly to Hegi about that time. Their conversations gave Hegi the courage to write to her godmother and ask for information, despite the fact that the older woman had previously refused to talk about the war years. Her godmother complied by recording her memories on tape. To Hegi, this constituted a gift of major proportions. “One sentence would become an entire story,” she says.

She continues to be pessimistic about the interest of the German people in their tarnished past. Although she’d like Stones to be published in Germany “more than anywhere else in the world,” she expects that it would make her the target of criticism there. “I would be tearing open the silence,” she says, “something that even now many people aren’t ready to face. I’ve come a long way in the past five or six years. Three years ago, even, we couldn’t have had this conversation.” In fact, it is an approach-avoidance dynamic that fuels much of her writing. Hegi says she is drawn to write about things that she doesn’t dare look at but needs desperately to figure out—“the things that won’t leave me alone.”

Hegi’s development as a writer came in fits and starts. While growing up in Germany, she wanted to write but lacked craft and encouragement. She wrote a novel after arriving in the States but collected enough rejection letters from publishers to convince herself to destroy the manuscript and stop writing altogether for three years. At the age of 28, with two sons, aged five and one, Hegi enrolled at the University of New Hampshire for a B.A. and then an M.A. and she stayed on to lecture in the English department until her divorce in 1984. On arriving at UNH she found herself within a community of writers and impulsively wrote “writer” as her occupation on a passport application. Soon thereafter, agent Gail Hochman sold her first novel, Intrusions, for publication by Viking in 1981. The University of Idaho Press issued a decade’s collection of her stories in 1988. Hegi favored a university press because she surmised they would keep a short-story collection in print much longer, “and they did—it’s still available in hardcover after six years.”

Kathy Anderson at Poseidon was the first editor to make an offer for Floating and ironically lost her job the week the novel received a glowing review in the New York Times Book Review. Poseidon editor Ann Patty subsequently signed Hegi to a two-book contract and edited Stones. Hegi was uneasy about the transition, but when Patty called after reading the manuscript and said, “Trudi is the dwarf in all of us,” she knew they would work well together. Now that Patty, too, has left Poseidon and the imprint is closing, Hegi has been assigned to Mark Gompertz at Simon & Schuster, at Gail Hochman’s request. Hegi is approaching her 15-year anniversary with Hochman and says that the consistent connection with her agent has been invaluable while dealing with a procession of editors.

Hegi lives in Nine Mile Falls in eastern Washington with Gagliano, an architect, and a black mutt they named Moses (“as in, found by the river”). When weather permits, she kayaks on or swims across the Spokane River in front of their home. She is tenured at Eastern Washington University, where she teaches courses in fiction writing and literature in the M.F.A. program; she also serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

For someone who feels so strongly about human rights, Hegi became politically aware relatively recently. Citing one incident that spurred her activism, she recalls a demonstration against a neo-Nazi group across the border in Hayden Lake, Idaho. She had decided not to participate in the event, believing it was a mistake to attract more media attention to white supremacist agendas, and was in her car driving elsewhere when a sudden insight flooded her mind. She realized that this was “exactly what happened in Germany—the silence. In the beginning everyone considered the Nazis a bunch of thugs; no one took them seriously.” She phoned Gordon to meet her, and they joined the thousand people who had gathered in protest. “It was important that each and every one of us was there,” she says.

Hegi has finished her next novel, called Salt Dancers, which is set in the Pacific Northwest. She is currently working on two new projects, waiting to see which will take over. The Passion of Emma Blau is the third novel with origins in Burgdorf, beginning with the immigration of Helene, a character who appears in Stones, to the U.S., and tracing the stories of successive generations of German- Americans. She is also developing a nonfiction work on the experience of being German in America. When asked if she considers herself a German- American, Hegi hesitates, and it is the German side of the designation that gives her pause. “I don’t really know,” she says. “It doesn’t have to do with choice. America is my country of choice, and I feel a connection to it even though it’s not perfect. I have very little connection to my country of origin.”

And yet Hegi says that in writing Stones her relationship with her native land altered more than she expected, and it will probably continue to change. “In the early years here, I went out of my way to avoid meeting other Germans,” she says. “Now I seek them out in order to understand.”

Source: Kitty Harmon, “Ursula Hegi: The German-Born Novelist Continues to Confront Her Native Country’s Past,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 11, March 14, 1994, pp. 52–53.


Critical Overview