Book Quote:

“Until now, she had taken for granted that she had moral courage, but suddenly she didn’t know if it was possible to defer moral courage, conserve it, and if it would still be there for her, or if each moment like this would take her into another silent agreement, and another yet, until she’d find herself agreeing to what she’d never imagined, and she would have to adjust what she believed about herself.”

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe  (JUN 28, 2011)

In her new novel, Children and Fire, Ursula Hegi tells the story of Thekla Jansen, a teacher in the fictional German village of Burgdorf, familiar to readers of the author’s previous novels. Taking for the most part the perspective of her heroine, Hegi explores, from the inside out so to say, the emotional confusion and moral dilemmas that Germans were confronted with after the Nazis’ rise to power. The author sets the historical stage effectively, and while alluding to pivotal events, she focuses her attention on one specific day in February 1934, a day that, while starting off like any other, ends with the Burgdorf residents shocked, emotionally scarred and deeply divided…

Thekla, privately critical of the regime’s new politics, wavers when it comes to speaking about her views. Most of her thinking and questioning is realized through her almost continuous inner monologue: “How much must I try to find out? Once you know, it’s tricky to keep the knowing at bay, to press it back into the before-knowing[…][O]r can I decide to be satisfied with not knowing beyond what we are told?” Questions like these are vivid in her mind. She knows, for example, that she was given her teaching position only because her own former teacher and admired mentor, Fräulein Siderova, was fired because she is Jewish. Yet, Thekla refuses to dwell on any rationale and instead, in her mind, explains herself to the older teacher: she accepted the position “temporarily” until… Until when? “It can’t last. Once the regime wears itself down, I’ll get back to my own moral compass, to who I was before.”

The author effectively illustrates Thekla’s dilemma and ambivalence by taking the reader into the centre of her day’s activities: the classroom. Seeing the majority of “her boys” enthusiastically showing off the brown shirts of the “Hitler Jugend,” she wonders how she can guide the children on a path of tolerance and open-mindedness while at the same time accepting or even promoting their participation in a youth movement that preaches the opposite? She only wants what is best for the boys, she convinces herself. The effectiveness of the early Nazi propaganda exerted on the minds of the young is well exemplified by the boys’ behaviour. “Appalling, how much her boys expose about their families in all innocence. She would never turn them in, Still, others might.” Yet, to diffuse the attention to what has been revealed, she has the class recite a prayer for Hitler!

The young teacher’s indecision and willingness to conform may be rooted also in her background. Born as an illegitimate child to a teenage mother, and adopted by the man she called “Vati,” her childhood was divided between poverty at home and privilege offered by the wealthy Michel Abramowitz. Resented by her siblings and Michel’s children and their mother, she learned early on how to manoeuvre everything to her advantage. Despite persistent rumours that link her parentage to Michel, Thekla appears to be oblivious to or deliberately suppressing the truth of her half-Jewish heritage. How long can she pretend ignorance and go along with the increasingly vicious Nazi propaganda? How long can she be torn between being “repulsed” by the propaganda and “being sucked into the swirl of song and of fire, into the emotions of the mass, that passion and urgency, that longing for something beyond them, something great… ?”

Eventually, external events may force Thekla to confront who she really is: “What happens if you’re no longer who you believed you were? What do you do with the knowledge of that? And what if who you’re becoming goes against that you believed about yourself until you won’t remember who you were before?”

Children and Fire can be read at different levels. First and foremost it is the touching story of one young woman during the 1930s in Germany and her struggle to get ahead in life while staying true to her “moral centre.” At a deeper level, Hegi uses Thekla to ask complex questions of moral integrity and personal courage that were in front of more than one generation in Germany at the time, but may also have relevance for other crisis situations. For me the overall question remains whether a novel today, more than 75 years after the events, can deliver new aspects and insights that have not been addressed until now in the many books, fiction and non-fiction, written since, including Hegi’s own earlier novel Stones from the River. Readers will have different reactions to this question and, also, to the relevance of the novel in this regard. Hegi’s book is engaging and well written; with it she addresses successfully the range of moral questions that “ordinary people” might have struggled with at the time. For me the novel’s weaknesses are more on a structural level and have to do with balance between different strands of narrative, the prominence of the inner monologue over other ways of conveying the depth and drama of the story, and the ending which left me less than satisfied. Some factual details seem somewhat improbable to me, but these are minor in the overall picture.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 9 readers
PUBLISHER: Scribner (May 24, 2011)
REVIEWER: Friederike Knabe
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

Hotel of the Saints


Burgdorf Cycle:

Children’s Books:

June 28, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Germany, Reading Guide, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.