Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2159
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 novel. The author of the novel in progress faces all sorts of hurdles. She has to put up with intrusions from her children, husband, and the demands of everyday life. To make things worse, her characters, especially Megan Stone, often refuse to cooperate. They become willful and go off on their own, forcing the author to recalculate her story. It is an intriguing creation. No doubt it served as an exploration of the experience of creativity, as if Hegi had to get it out of the way in order to go after the stories so close to her life and concerns.
Floating in My Mother’s Palm
Floating in My Mother’s Palm, Hegi’s second novel, is set in the imaginary town of Bergdorf, Germany, in the 1950’s. The story traces the young life of Hanna Malter. In the course of the events that Hanna narrates, the reader becomes acquainted with many of the townspeople: Siegfried Tegern and his seven dogs; Manfred Weiler, whose father accidentally killed himself; Fräulein Mahler, who became Hanna’s stepmother; the Hansens and their bake shop; Hanna’s friend Karin Baum, who had a baby when she was in the seventh grade; Frau Talmeister, who liked to watch the world from her apartment window; and above all, Trudi Montag, who ran the local pay-library and who knew the secrets of many of the townspeople. It is a fascinating tapestry of interwoven stories, and it is apt preparation for the more ambitious, wide-ranging third novel Stones from the River.
Stones from the River
Stones from the River is probably the best known of all Hegi’s writings. Some call the novel her masterpiece. In 1986, Hegi returned to Düsseldorf on a travel grant to meet the dwarf she remembered from her childhood. From her she gathered many of the stories and characters that make up both Stones from the River and Floating in My Mother’s Palm. In Stones from the River, the dwarf Trudi Montag is the central character. The novel is both an intimate portrayal of the life of Trudi and a panoramic vision of the sweep of German history.
The story begins before the end of World War I and concludes in 1952 to encompass years in which the German nation experienced horrors, reversals, economic pain, vicious oppression, cold and calculated genocide, and finally a ruinous world war. Living through those times, as did Trudi, poses many personal challenges. She has been caught in the storm. She knows her neighbors, sees them suffer, sees some sent to the camps or to war, and sees some bombed out during the raids on the town. She herself is victimized, brought in for interrogation by the Gestapo in the years before World War II. Her own cleverness diverts the authorities from persecuting her, and she survives these horrors and the war that followed. In hindsight, she reconciles herself with the new world.
The novel is a complex, moving portrait that mixes the rush of history with the personal search for dignity and integrity. The contrast of the flowing currents of the Rhine River with the cairns of rocks Trudi assembles is symbolic of the tension so basic to the story.
The Vision of Emma Blau
As with Stones from the River, the passing of time and the search for the self are major themes in The Vision of Emma Blau, but with a difference. This story sets three generations of a family against time. Stefan Blau, the family patriarch, once had a vision. From a boat at the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, he envisioned a young girl twirling and dancing in the court of a great stone structure he built and dubbed the Wasserburg (water fortress). The building becomes a microcosm of individuals.
The six-storey apartment house—with six apartments on each floor—weighs on several generations of the Blau family and becomes a heavier and heavier burden, first to Stefan’s three wives and then to his children and grandchildren, especially Emma. Emma is the one person Stefan “loved as much as his building,” and she, too, becomes obsessed with its permanence.
Sacred Time is the story of a family’s experiences over a relatively long period of time, from the mid-1950’s to 2002. The story involves three generations of an Italian American family, the Amedeos, living in the Bronx. This is clearly new territory for Hegi and a departure from her earlier explorations of German American immigrant communities.
The structure of the novel is unusual. It is divided into three books, each with two chapters devoted to a particular family member. The story begins with young Anthony in 1953, followed by a chapter about his mother Leonora in 1955. Part two has two chapters set in the 1970’s, one dedicated to Anthony’s aunt Floria (his father’s sister) in 1975 and the other to his cousin, Floria’s daughter Belinda, in 1979. Book three focuses on Floria in 2001 and finally returns to Anthony in 2002.
One event becomes a vortex of the energy over the four decades of the story. The event comes at the end of the first chapter. Anthony’s cousin Bianca, twin sister of Belinda, has a fascination with super heroes and has a cape she likes to wear to imitate flying. Anthony tempts her to fly out the window with a vision of her long absent father on an adjacent rooftop. She jumps out the window and falls six floors to her death. The tragedy is kept very much in the background throughout the remainder of the story and yet it colors everything that follows. One curious device that Hegi adopts is to write three of the chapters in the first person: the chapters that belong to Anthony and Belinda. The other chapters are third-person accounts. It is a device that helps maintain the power of Bianca’s tragic fall over the whole Amedeo family through the years.
Hegi dedicated the book to her second husband, Gordon Gagliano, and she ends her acknowledgments with these words: “Most of all, thank you to my husband, Gordon Gagliano, who took me to the Bronx and made it magical.”
Salt Dancers and The Worst Thing I’ve Done
These two novels share an emphasis on personal relationships involving jealousy, recrimination, and guilt, as characters struggle to reconcile themselves with their past lives. Each novel also focuses on a shared struggle among a small group of people without a sweep of history behind them.
Salt Dancers is set in Washington State and tells the story of a middle-aged woman named Julia as she attempts to make peace with her past, specifically with her abusive father. She does this in the hope of restraining her own tendencies toward cruelty. In the end she discovers more about herself and her family, which makes her capable of reconciliation and recovery.
In The Worst Thing I’ve Done, Hegi provides a collage of the life shared by three characters. Theirs is in some ways a traditional triangle: Mason had married Annie despite his attraction to Jake, who himself is attracted to Annie. At the time of the wedding, Annie’s father and pregnant mother had died in an automobile crash but their unborn child was saved. The baby, named Opal, is brought up by the three friends. At the outset of the story, Mason commits suicide in Annie’s art studio. This catapults the reader into their shared past and the resultant crosscurrents of guilt and grief. Narrative voice shifts from one character to another. Other characters are called forth in the struggle with what each of them might think of as the “worst thing” he or she has ever done.