Saturday, November 29, 2008

Skeletons at the Feast; Chris Bohjalian

Image found on Random House

Published by Random House this year, Skeletons at the Feast is the first novel by Chris Bohjalian that I've read. This is a fictionalized account of the Nemmersdorf massacre of October 1944, among other events. Primarily this is an account of how the Emmerich family, either German or Polish depending on which year you ask them, views the war and attendant atrocities perpetuated on both military members and the civilian population. Skeletons at the Feast is also the story of a group of slave laborers. Mr. Bohjalian tries to illuminate the outer limits of humanity. Just how thick is the veneer of civilization, anyway?

Mr. Bohjalian raises numerous questions in the reader's mind- and leaves you to mull over what your choices would be if you were in similar situations. It's very easy to sit in the midst of our comfortable lives and pass judgement on what you'd do if you were them. Or what the "right" choice/option/behavior should be. But when the rubber hits the road, where real life intersects idealization, no one really knows. Would you be willing to be one of the few in your community to speak out, to be honest about your thoughts and feelings, if you knew your children would be the ones to suffer for your honesty and outspokenness? If you depend on the government for your livelihood but you disagree with their actions, would you follow your conscience even if the possibility you'd lose your livelihood or be imprisoned or worse? This is not to mention the effects of what I would call "hive mentality" or mindless conformity has on those persons who don't or can't fit the desired mold.

The Emmerich family, no matter which way the boundaries are drawn, consider themselves loyal Germans. They own and run a large and prosperous farm near the Vistula River. Both the father, Rolf, and the older son, Werner, serve in the army in various capacities. Mother Irmgard, twins Anna and Helmut and little Theo have to run the farm with only one 'farmhand'- aka a Scottish POW laborer named Callum Finella. The awful, evil, uncivilized Soviets are advancing & eventually it's obvious everyone needs to flee ahead of Ivan. Rolf and Helmut stay behind at the village near the farm to try and defend it. Irmgard, Anna and Callum flee West toward the Allies. Callum, they hope, will be their insurance policy to get them across the lines. There's also the relationship developing between Anna and Callum. Along the way they hook up with a resourceful guy named Manfred. Manfred reminded me of a darker, more rounded version of Radar or Klinger on the tv show MASH: a person who is able to come up with whatever anyone needs to survive their shared ordeal. He hooks up with Calum and the Emmerichs, and together the little party begins the arduous trek West. Meanwhile, we also follow a group of slave laborers from many nations, but two from France in particular: Cecile and Jeanne. Bohjalian does not dig deeply into the gruesome events related to their captivity. Rather he explores small events and interactions between the inmates that reveal each woman's capicity to rise or sink like bubbles in the breeze.

I found Skeletons at the Feast to be profoundly thought provoking. It reminds the reader that we often hold unexamined assumptions and beliefs about people and historical events. Stress and danger and life threatening situations bring out both the best and the worst behavior in people. It's impossible to predict which person will react in which way. I thought Calum and Anna's story reminds readers that there is often an elemental desire to connect with another person on a deep level, a need to express hope and joy and faith in each other even in the face of our darkest hours. I really enjoyed this example of Mr. Bohjalian's work, and I plan to borrow more from the library.

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