On Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi – Santa Fe, NM
This is a truly magnificent book, one that stays with you and disturbs your sense of stability as I imagine an earthquake would as it trembles and shifts the ground beneath your feet. It was written in 1994, and takes place in a small fictitious town outside Dusseldorf between WWI and WWII. However, it struck me as a warning that the events of today – a global financial crisis, hatred between ethnic and religious groups, North Korean and Iranian ceaseless quests for nuclear weapons, and a general unease about the future – could lead us into the same type of chaos as Adolf Hitler brought to Germany during the second World War.
As many other reviewers have mentioned, the first chapters drag. The events in the life of the protagonist, a dwarf named Trudi, prior to the war seem somehow gratuitous – a mother who suffers from mental illness and dies before Trudi’s fourth birthday and a semi-rape in a barn by the local boys. In another book, these events may have formed the character but in this one they become insignificant when compared to how the unfolding of the Nazi regime and subsequent atrocities and hardships of the war brought to light the daily inner battles that are synonymous with the human condition: love vs. hate, good vs. evil, guilt vs. instinct, religious hypocrisy vs. healing…you will find it all in this extraordinary novel.
Once the true historical events that lead up to the war enter the story, this book is impossible to put down. I stayed up nearly all night reading it and slept fitfully after. I woke up with the story and the characters gripping my heart and mind. Hegi’s characters are masterfully drawn. Her characters are well-rounded with both admirable and despicable traits. Even the protagonist is, at times, hard to like.
This microcosm of humanity, the town of Burgdorf, is every community in the world, interwoven with mutually dependent people, woven together as a tightly knit sweater, one that unravels when caught on a nail of circumstances impossible to anticipate. This book is a heartbreaking testimony to both a terrible time in history and the human condition.