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This page-turning novel focuses on the Kappus family: Frank is a reconstructive surgeon who lost his beloved wife in childbirth and two months later married a young woman who must look after the baby and his two grieving sons when he is drafted into medical military service. Alone in the house, Liesl must attempt to keep the children fed with dwindling food supplies, safe from the constant Allied air attacks, and protected against the swell of desperate refugees flooding their town. When one child begins to mentally unravel, Liesl must discover the source of the boy's infirmity or lose him forever to Hadamar, the infamous hospital for "unfit" children. The novel bears witness to the shame and courage of Third Reich families during the devastating last days of the war, as each family member's fateful choices lead them deeper into questions of complicity and innocence, to the novel's heartbreaking and unforgettable conclusion.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-10-21
- Reviewer: Staff
Fear, grief, and the will to survive fuse in this beautiful novel about the inner life of a German family in the final months of World War II. Inspired by letters written by Hummel’s (House and Fire) paternal grandparents and her father’s childhood in a war-torn Germany, Motherland occupies a relatively unexplored space in World War II literature, in which political sympathies and oppositions are vastly less important than finding enough tinder to keep the children warm or figuring out when to take an ailing child to the doctor. When Dr. Frank Kappus, a widower, is drafted into medical military service, he leaves behind his three sons with their brand new stepmother, Liesl. She does everything within her power to nurture the two grieving boys and the infant now in her care, including stretching their meager rations into filling meals and assuaging their fears of Allied bombings. The job becomes drastically more difficult when two refugee families are moved into the family’s house and six-year-old Ani’s constant stomachaches turn into something far more serious. Frank, working as a reconstructive surgeon 250 km away, is confronted daily with horrific battlefield injuries. The humiliations and guilt that each family member endures for the others are described with grace and humanity in this absorbing story. While stunningly intimate, Motherland is expansive in feeling and scope. Extending beyond a simple historical drama, this book is a reminder of the reach of love, how it can blind, and how it can heal. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman Literary. (Jan.)
What to do about the German burden
Sometimes life presents you with a slate of bad choices—though some are braver than others. In Motherland, Maria Hummel, author of several novels and a former Stegner Fellow in poetry, enters relatively unfamiliar literary territory to tell the story of one so-called Mitläufer family: German citizens who would never have personally countenanced the terrible abuses that Jews suffered, but nonetheless went along with the Nazi regime. They paid for it in the end—if not as heavily as their Jewish counterparts.
The Kappus family has already gone through heartbreak: Liesl and Frank are recently married after the death of Frank’s first wife (in childbirth with their third son). When Frank is drafted into medical military service, Liesl is left alone to care for his three sons during the last months of WWII, with the front growing ever closer and food and resources becoming more scarce.
Hummel gathered her raw material from the life of her grandfather, reflected in letters written during the war and discovered in an attic wall. Just as Londoners suffered under the Blitz, German citizens spent the last year of the war living as no human being should, amid the horrors of daily air raids and the loss of those they loved. Hummel somehow manages, without sensationalism, to drive home the humanity and suffering of the people who are frequently considered only as the enemy.
Like its characters, Motherland displays little awareness of the Jewish experience, a fact that may trouble some readers. In her afterword, Hummel argues that omission was necessary in order to present her characters’ lives authentically, asking “What did [German citizens] know and when did they know it?” Perhaps only now is the world ready to offer understanding. Without canceling out our sympathy for those targeted by the Nazis, this humane and compelling story may extend it to those who (often unwittingly) assisted in some of humanity’s worst crimes—and who themselves got flicked by the tail of the beast.