The Great Escape

Reviewed by Margot Livesey
Sunday, June 15, 2008


By Chris Bohjalian

Shaye Areheart. 372 pp. $25

Perhaps our tumultuous times have something to do with the enduring popularity of World War II as subject matter for both books and films. In recent years, novelists such as Richard Bausch, Louis Begley, A.L. Kennedy, Ian McEwan and Michael Ondaatje have approached this tragic period from different perspectives, each seeking to make new the terrible history. Now Chris Bohjalian, author of the hugely popular The Double Bind and Midwives, has entered this arena at his own very particular angle.

Skeletons at the Feast, his 11th novel, depicts two journeys in the winter and spring of 1945. The larger part of the narrative follows the Emmerich family as they leave Prussia and flee westward before the advancing Russian army. Also on the move, painfully slowly, is a group of Jewish women, mostly French, who are being driven by their Nazi guards, perhaps toward death, perhaps toward another camp.

From this harrowing premise, Bohjalian spins a suspenseful tale that examines several not unfamiliar questions: How much did civilians know about what was going on in Germany? How are people changed by war and violence? Who is responsible for what? But these questions take on a new imperative in his hands.

At the heart of the novel is its romantic and moral heroine, 18-year-old golden-haired Anna Emmerich. Anna has grown up on an estate in East Prussia, her family home for generations, where until late 1944 the main impact of the war has been the loss of all able-bodied young men. Her father continues to farm using POWs, and Anna falls in love with one of the prisoners: Callum Finella. A 20-year-old Scottish paratrooper, Callum was captured in France before he fired a shot. But now, as the Russians approach amid rumors of violence and torture, the family reluctantly decides to leave the farm and to take Callum with them, hoping that he will buy them safe conduct from the Allied armies.

Bohjalian is very good at scenes of mass chaos, and he paints a vivid picture of the Emmerichs and their two wagons crossing the frozen Vistula River. Only when they are on the far side does the father announce that he and Anna's twin brother are returning to join a last-ditch attempt to halt the Russians. Anna, her mother, her little brother and Callum are left to continue their march westward.

The account of the Emmerichs' journey is geographically precise; the journey of the French prisoners is harder to map because these women have no idea where they are. Bohjalian focuses mainly on a prisoner named Cecile. Like Anna, Cecile comes from a privileged background and, like Anna, she proves surprisingly resilient. Three things sustain her during the unbelievable hardships of the work camp where she is held at the beginning of the novel: her optimism, her friendship with another inmate and her fiancé's hiking boots. As the fighting moves closer, the routine horrors of the camp undergo a change: "Almost without exception, those survivors who could still stand found themselves less likely to avert their eyes when they saw the guards. It wasn't that they had suddenly grown bold; it was that watching the transformation of each of the guards was irresistible. . . . Most of the guards seemed less likely to fire a shot into the back of anyone's skull. . . . Three days passed without a single woman being hanged by the camp gate because her sewing at the clothing works had been deemed sub par." The women dare to imagine that salvation may be at hand, but soon Cecile and the other prisoners are marched from the camp, in bitter winter weather, to an unknown destination.

The third element of Bohjalian's plot is Uri. Or should we call him Henrik? Or Manfred? Since he escaped from a transport train on the way to Auschwitz, Uri has survived by borrowing the uniforms and names of various German soldiers. He has become an avenging angel, killing Germans, especially those who claim to have murdered Jews, and sabotaging trains. Wherever he goes, Uri asks about his lost sister. He ends up joining the Emmerichs on their journey and, while still keeping secret his identity, begins to find solace in this other family.

These three narratives, and the several points of view he employs, allow Bohjalian to write a novel in which the plot triumphs over any single sorrow. There are many moments of loss and violence -- some heartbreaking -- but the reader quickly moves on. This swift pace and the resulting eschewal of sentimentality are part of the pleasure of Skeletons at the Feast, but I wish we could have paused a little longer at one or two of these moments. My other quibble -- and I blame my Scottish childhood for this -- is that occasionally Callum's speech does not ring entirely true. He seems, for a Scotsman of that period, a little too ready to talk about emotions.

But Bohjalian's sense of character and place, his skillful plotting and his clear grasp of this confusing period of history make for a deeply satisfying novel, one that asks readers to consider, and reconsider, how they would rise to the challenge of terrible deprivation and agonizing moral choices. ·

Margot Livesey's most recent novel, "The House on Fortune Street," was published in May.

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