Stones from the River

by Ursula Hegi

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Themes

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The power of secrets is a prevalent theme in Stones from the River. Trudi is a secret stealer—she barters for and uncovers people's secrets, which she then weaves into stories and spreads around the town. Some secrets are good secrets, like the identity of the "Unknown Benefactor"; even Trudi does not know who he is. Some secrets are known to all but not spoken about out of respect for the family, such as the drinking problems of Frau Weiler's husband. Trudi's introduction to the power of secrets comes at a very early age when her unbalanced mother unburdens her feelings of guilt by sharing her secret sin. It is at her mother's knee, literally, that she learns that secrets are "unspoken stories that lay beneath people's skins."

Trudi develops a knack for getting people to reveal their secrets to her, and by collecting the stories of the townspeople, she has power over them. She can perceive the secret sadness and shame beneath each person's facade. She chooses which secrets to keep and which to divulge—while keeping her own secrets to herself. She uses what she learns to exact revenge on those who hurt or exclude her. She reveals Eva's hidden birthmark after Eva hurts her feelings by shunning her at school. As Trudi begins to accept herself, she learns to use secrets more kindly.

With the rise of Nazism, secrecy becomes an essential way of life. The people of Burgdorf learn to hide their true feelings if they do not conform to Nazi thinking. Even the family circle is not safe: schoolchildren are encouraged to report their parents. Helmut Eberhart turns in his mother without a trace of remorse. Comments have to be guarded because something overheard can cause you to lose your job or worse. An idle remark lands Trudi in jail. She uses her talent for extracting secrets to talk her way out of jail after perceiving her jailer's secret emotional pain. Hiding Jews and helping them escape to freedom demands perfect secrecy.

Because this book centers on Trudi, being "other" becomes a main theme. As a dwarf, Trudi is truly one of a kind in Burgdorf. She meets only one other dwarf when the circus comes to town. What Trudi eventually discovers is that all people have differences—it is just that when you are a dwarf, your secret is on the outside. Georg becomes Trudi's first friend because his difference is also on the outside. Because of Georg's mother's secret pain, she forces her only son to dress as a girl. One day Trudi liberates him by cutting off his curls, knowing that when Georg is accepted by the other boys he will no longer need her company. Trudi wishes that the remedy to her "otherness" could be as simple as Georg's. Trudi's difference is the motivating force for everything she does. After the war she develops her own code of honor toward anyone who is considered "other."

Loss is a constant theme throughout the book. Germany loses two world wars. The close-knit community of Burgdorf is forever altered by its losses. Nobody escapes without some sort of wartime loss. Women lose their men in war. Jews lose their rights, possessions, and lives. Everyone loses peace of mind as they cope with air-raids. Trudi in particular suffers many losses during her lifetime. Her first and most enduring loss is her physical stature. She loses her faith when her prayers do not make her taller. Her mother and a baby brother die by the time she is four. She loses her dignity during a rape attempt. Her best...

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friend, who is Jewish, is taken to a concentration camp; her lover goes to Dresden on the day it is bombed and she never sees him again. Her father dies. And finally she loses the feeling of pride in being German.

Themes

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Difference
The story of the dwarf Trudi Montag directs attention to the experience of being different, both its discomforts and its power. The novel explores definitions of human deviation and what causes people to hide their own abnormalities and conform outwardly to communities based on apparent sameness. Trudi; her exhibitionistic manic mother, Gertrude; Georg Weiler next door whose mother dresses him like a girl; Rainer Bilder, the morbidly obese schoolboy; Eva Rosen with the birthmark across her nipples; drooling Gerda, and many others, all diverge in various ways from normal body type and/or a range of normal function, and they are treated in ways that convey their inferior status: they are ignored, rejected, ridiculed, shunned, or abused. They suffer low self-esteem, ostracism, loneliness.

These German townspeople value order, comeliness, obedience, and conformity. Aberrant individuals, even if they are tolerated, get aligned with what is to be avoided, with what is believed to be bad. The townspeople are united in their resistance to German refugees who move in after World War I. Newcomers, such as the Baums, who are very like long-time Burgdorf residents, are still viewed as outsiders, as is Fräulein Simon, the Jewish milliner. Women depend on her fashion sense and good taste but exclude her socially. Moreover, some abnormalities are more suggested than apparent; for example, some parents’ sexual and physical abuse of their own children may go undetected, the parents treated as upstanding members of the community while the deviance is hidden (as in Ingrid’s being sexually abused) or ignored (as in Hans-Jürgen’s broken arm and bruises that no one inquires about).

Across the community, people seek group identity and conform to certain social modes of behavior. By so doing, they align themselves with the acceptable and detach themselves from what is believed to be unacceptable. One example of this tendency is shown in Anton Immers, the butcher, and the portrait he displays of himself in a World War I officer’s uniform. The pretense of military service mitigates his shame in being found unfit to serve, and in time the pretense eclipses the fact that he did not serve. A different example is given in the story of the chess champion, Bruno Stosick, the boy who yearns to be like other seemingly ordinary children. Bruno secretly joins the Hitler-Jugend, seeking peer approval and club membership, but his anti-Nazi parents force him to withdraw from it. Without this group validation, the child plunges into depression and hangs himself. When the Nazis come to power, Bruno’s father is forced out of the chess club, and no one sits near him and his wife during Catholic mass. By this time, explicit disapproval of the Nazis is dangerous, and others want to pass for having party loyalty or indeed are loyal to it. Former friends and neighbors shun Bruno’s parents as if they are to blame for his suicide. In the butcher’s case, the difference is a physical handicap; in the boy’s case, the difference is an exceptional talent. In both cases, the person seeks group identity, the appearance of sameness in order to mask individual difference and gain group validation.

Anti-Semitism and the Catholic Church

In a well-crafted novel, themes are closely interrelated: one idea builds on another. Anti-Semitism as it is dramatized in this novel is closely connected to the theme of difference. Hegi’s novel implicates those in the Catholic Church who complied with the Third Reich, Christians whose beliefs about Jews seemed to justify their being cast out of the community. The novel faults the Church for conditioning its members into blind obedience, for persuading people to follow authoritarian dictates rather than to think for themselves. The parish priest sermonizes against the romance novels on loan at the pay-library but never denounces novels that celebrate war. Then, too, the church service changes, with prayers for the fatherland taking an increasingly prominent part.

At the same time that this visible compliance by the Catholic Church is criticized by Trudi and her father, reports surface about what happens when clergy resist the totalitarian state. The fugitive priest named Adolf who hides for a while in the pay-library reports being arrested while celebrating mass and escaping into a forest right before deportation to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Hiding in a cemetery, the priest experiences an all-consuming hunger that eclipses his faith in God. He looks around at the grave markers, which have been left standing for the Christian dead but which have been broken up if marking the graves of Jews. He says: “I thought I’d go insane. I could not understand how some people’s graves could be marked while others were obliterated without evidence. It felt more horrible than any other injustice I’d ever known.” After Emil Hesping is killed and he is revealed to have been the unknown benefactor, his brother the bishop talks with Leo about Emil’s courage. The bishop admits that many bishops who openly resisted have been “pulled out of high positions.” He notes only the bishop of Münster spoke out without being harmed. Emil’s brother has been covertly instrumental in helping Jews move on from the pay-library, yet he resents having to work secretly, in what he calls “furious silence.” Darkly, he and Leo agree that the extermination of Jews was the plan of the Third Reich from the very beginning.

The apparently compliant position of the Catholic Church regarding anti-Semitic policies is taken as justification by some Catholics for their feelings of resentment regarding Jewish prosperity after World War I. Jews in Burgdorf are prosperous and envied by others who struggle economically. Michel Abramowitz is able to buy a used Mercedes; Fräulein Simon owns her own thriving hat shop, Doktor Rosen has a successful medical practice. Outside town, the Jewish pianist, Fräulein Birnsteig lives in a sumptuous estate. Hegi’s novel helps readers understand how it came to be that ordinary, church-going small-town people were swept along with a nationalistic political machine set on mobilizing the latent hatred of Jews in order to eradicate them.

Hegi does not idealize Jews. Some are commendable, some not so; each one is a complex human being, like those who persecute or protect them. The generosity and loyalty of the Abramowitzs is dramatized side-by-side with the failure of Erna Neimann, in hiding at the pay-library, to acknowledge the risk the Montags take on her behalf and the theft of silverware by another Jew in hiding there. Regarding those who either participated in the abuses of Jews or did nothing to stop them, the fact is that as the Third Reich gained power, the survival instinct of ordinary people took over. Persecuted or not, people found themselves fearing for their lives. It is perhaps easy to condemn people who cannot be kind to one another in civil times, but when each fears for his own life, kindness is for many the first social grace to go.

In sum, the novel invites readers to reflect on the role of the Catholic Church with regard to anti-Semitic policy and to acknowledge the importance of independent thinking and moral behavior, even when it contradicts the homily from the pulpit. Leo Montag makes it clear: kindness matters most. It is a precept that can be very hard to follow in life-threatening conditions.

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