Many of Ursula Hegi’s novels deal with Germans or German Americans. The stories often share characters and places. For her German settings, she created the imaginary town Bergdorf, located on the Rhine River near Düsseldorf (the city in which she grew up). The Blau family, the Montag family, and many individual characters come out of that town and emerge in several different novels. Trudi Montag (the Zwerg, or dwarf) is certainly the most prominent of these movable characters, appearing first in Floating in My Mother’s Palm, set in Bergdorf in the 1950’s, where she is the town librarian and holder of many of the town’s secrets. She is the central character in Stones from the River as well, tracing her life from the time of World War I through the rise of the Third Reich and World War II and through 1952. She reappears in The Vision of Emma Blau, in which she is the aunt of one of the major characters, Helene Montag, who marries Stefan Blau and moves from Bergdorf to Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. She also figures prominently in Trudi and Pia, a children’s story in which she meets and befriends Pia, a circus dwarf.
Hegi’s fiction is not focused solely on Germans and German Americans. In Sacred Time, for instance, she tells a story of Italian immigrants; Salt Dancers is set in Washington State and depicts a struggle to reconcile oneself with the past; and The Worst Thing I’ve Done deals with guilt and recrimination among three friends. Nevertheless, what the novels share is the sense of struggle between the self and the forces that swirl out of place, community, and family—all set against the inexorable passage of time. This sense of struggle perhaps accounts for Hegi’s frequent use of water images in the novels. These images are often literal, as with the currents and eddies of the Rhine or the wide expanse of Lake Winnipesaukee, but they also are figurative, as in the movement of time that catches characters or drags them under, or both. In virtually every novel, Hegi provides a flow of events with their own momentum, carrying the characters into situations they had never expected.
Hegi likes a broad canvas for her novel’s backdrops, broad enough to cover a wide sweep of time and include a broad community. In the case of Stones from the River, readers come to know many residents of Bergdorf over a span of more than four decades. The Vision of Emma Blau covers an even longer time span, 1894 to 1990, during which time readers meet three generations of the Blau family.
Hegi features one stand-out character in each of her fictional works. In the early novels, she uses the device of first-person narrative to give sustained focus to this character. She makes unusual use of the device in her first novel, Intrusions. Here, Megan Stone is the central character of a novel in the process of being written, through many interruptions, by the author, who is also central. In Floating in My Mother’s Palm, Hanna Malter tells her own story of growing up in Bergdorf in the 1950’s. Hegi employs a particular technique that helps the reader sustain focus on one character: The character’s inner thoughts, dreams, and observations appear in italics in text. This technique is particularly effective in the case of Trudi Montag, who is at the very core of the story in Stones from the River. In the novels that follow, Hegi virtually abandoned first-person narrative. The stories are told in the omniscient voice.
Another characteristic of these novels is the gradual isolation of the central character despite all efforts to belong. Community is important in these narratives. It has a force of its own, it dictates terms, it welcomes or rebuffs members, and it can validate one’s sense of personal worth. Frequently, community comes in the form of family; even so, the larger world imposes demands and conditions. More often than not, the central character becomes progressively more estranged until she or he is virtually alone. There is a brief exchange between Megan Stone and her friend near the end of Intrusions that reflects this progressive isolation of the main character: “You know what’s overrated?” “What, Megan?” “Solitude.” “How can you say that?” “Because I am up to my neck in solitude. I feel smothered by solitude.”
Isolation is not always negative, though. Trudi Montag ends up isolated but at peace with her past. Hanna Malter hopes to save a life in the Rhine and ends up saving her own. The pattern has the individual set in the middle of family, family in the middle of community, and community in the middle of a national culture. The narratives trace the crosscurrents between them, forcing the characters to exert their energy to control these crosscurrents.
The novels are rich in a language that engages the imagination, not only by conjuring the distinct fictional world but also in reflecting the real world through metaphor and analogy. The result is often compelling and engaging for the reader.
Hegi’s earliest novel Intrusions is in many ways unique among her other works. One might call it metafiction, or a novel about a...
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