Book Review: Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

4 Dec

A book review has been long overdue! I’m about to jump back into my book club books, but before I do I have this book, a suggestion from a friend that I found on sale at the Library.

Cover from Goodreads.com

Cover from Goodreads.com

Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi

This book was recommended to me by my friend MBK. She told me it was her favorite book of all time. As a fellow John Irving fan, I had faith and picked it up off of the $1 shelf at the library. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Irving and I can see the connection.

Stones from the River tells the story of Trudi Montag, a dwarf woman living in the small town of Burgdorf, Germany. She comes of age during the Nazi rule so that on top of figuring out what clothes to wear and which boys she likes, Trudi is also figuring out the moral minefield of Nazi Germany.

Trudi’s mother had mental health problems that led to her early death so that Trudi is raised by her silent and beloved father, Leo. The two run the pay-library in a town small enough that everyone knows each other and Trudi makes a point to know everything about everyone. As the Nazi party’s power grows, Trudi is struck by its brutality and confused by the hatred for Jews that it totes. She and her father struggle to stay out of the party while supporting it enough to remain alive.

It took me a while to get into this book. The beginning seemed really slow to me. I realize upon finishing it that the lengthy exposition was to introduce the characters whose lives were a focus of the later part of the book and to set up the feeling of a small community which was so strongly divided. I still found the first half hard to get through, but I flew through the second half.

Having a main character with a physical characteristic as strong as dwarfism made for a very memorable book.  Trudi’s unique struggles struck a very personal chord. As someone with low self-esteem, it was powerful to see someone else who struggled with this so much and felt so right in assuming no one liked her or wanted to spend time with her. Ultimately, she was very wrong. That’s very reassuring.

Most of Hegi’s messages were about love and guilt. Because of the brutality of the time, guilt came from those who had sinned and those who had to live with those sins. A soldier who goes off to war reports his mother for her lack of allegiance and the soldier’s wife loses her mother-in-law and roommate. Many of the soldiers don’t experience guilt until they come back and have to face what they’ve done in light of the opening of concentration camps.

Love is more complicated. In Hegi’s book, love tends to mean loss and that one is hurt more by those one loves when they leave. Death and leaving are common in this time period and many characters are affected by one or the other. The loss of Trudi’s mother is almost too much for her father to handle. The losses the come with the war rip the small town apart and fill up the cemetery too quickly. I can’t think of a character who came through the book unscathed.

Is there such thing as a happy ending? In the books Trudi and her father lend to the people of Burgdorf, there are heroines who find their heroes, mysteries that are solved. But in real life, the story ends differently. What started to seem like a happy ending results in heartbreak. The boys who go off to be heroes come back disgraced. Hegi’s book isn’t a story to cheer you up, its real life and it ends much as life does.

This book did remind me of John Irving and I liked that about it. The life-spaning story of Trudi allowed her to develop as a character in may dimensions. The terrible loss was also reminiscent of Irving. I wish the story had started with as much action as it ended with.

Writer’s Takeaway: As a writer, it’s always dangerous to have too many characters. A whole town-full of characters is a dangerous road to turn down. Hegi knocked the ball out of the park. Her town was full of dynamic characters with distinctive personalities who made the reader care about them. For those attempting to write a long list of characters, Hegi provides a wonderful example.

Overall, I enjoyed the book but it was difficult to get in to so I can’t justify a high rating. Three out of five stars.

Until next time, Reader, write on.

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3 Responses to “Book Review: Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Goodreads Challenge: Complete! | Taking on a World of Words - December 20, 2013

    […] Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi (3) […]

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  2. The Last Enchantments by Charles Finch (4/5) | Taking on a World of Words - January 23, 2014

    […] recall another book that this reminds me of, but it makes me think of author Ursula Hegi who wrote Stones from the River. She had lived in Germany for so long that she felt German instead of American. I think her books […]

    Like

  3. Book Review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (3/5). The only proper way to give your book 20 endings | Taking on a World of Words - April 21, 2014

    […] WWII books written from a German point of view tend to focus on suffering (like The Book Thief or Stones from the River) but this one focused on the luxury and affluence that Hitler allowed himself. Eva and Ursula were […]

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