All God's Children
The saying goes “All is fair in love and war”. Of course, most don’t agree with this. Society as a whole condemned what happened in Nazi Germany during the years of the Second World War. This author ambitiously tackles the subjects of love and war during that turbulent time in that extremely turbulent place.
Beth Bridgewater is in a precarious position. In the early 1930s she moved to Germany to help her aunt and uncle with their infant daughter. It was to be a short stay, just enough to get her aunt back on her feet after childbirth. But the short stay turns into eight long years as her aunt suffers from a nervous condition and Liesl, the young daughter, proves to be quite a handful. Beth is aware that Germany has changed during the time she has been there but she still loves the country whose rich history and charming culture have enraptured her. And for many years she felt safe in the cocoon of her Quaker community and protected by the fact that she is an American citizen. All that changes when Beth rashly hands her papers to a young Jewish girl trying to escape the growing threat of Nazism. Now Beth is in a country at war with America and with no paperwork to help her move home. The house is on eggshells, fearing what will happen when the government finds out a “fugitive” is there.
It is a great surprise to Beth therefore to come home from the market and find that her uncle, a professor of natural sciences at Ludwig-Maximilians Universität München, has let the family’s attic room to Josef Buch. It is true that money is tight and Josef’s extra rations will mean a great deal to them but he presents a great danger to them as well. Not only does Beth not have papers to be there but the family is Quaker. Their refusal to support the war has made that particular group’s relations with the current regime less than cordial. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that Josef is the son of a high-ranking Gestapo agent. Supposedly, he has returned from the front to finish his medical studies. That doesn’t explain however why he came to his former teacher for lodging. Could he be a spy, sent to find out just what is happening within the Quaker community?
For his part Josef is happy to be away from his family. He is a loyal German but he feels increasingly uncomfortable with the current policies in place in his country. His leanings agree with those of The White Rose, the student group which has been publishing pamphlets encouraging Germans to rise up and take their country back.
His loyalties are put to the test when he discovers Beth using his apartment to harbor a Jewish family while her family is out of town. At first, Josef is angered by what she is doing, putting them all in danger as she gives in to her whims of mercy. But her sweet ways and lovely face – along with his own convictions – find him working alongside her to save the young family. Will their increasing attraction to rebellious behavior in a fascist regime be the making or breaking of them?
This book teetered between doing things brilliantly and foolishly. On the brilliant side is the incorporation of the workings of the White Rose resistance group and the uprising of the Sobibor concentration camp. Rather than going the route of wallpaper history the author weaves these events deep into the fabric of her tale, providing historical detail to lend authenticity to her story. She also does an excellent job of showing us Germany during the war, letting us see a bit of both the complacent citizenry and then that same citizenry’s growing unease. She shows a people loyal to their country but increasingly disturbed by their government. She also shows that there were equal numbers of those enjoying the opportunity to be brutal and those fighting that brutality. And that many, many more were simply trapped somewhere in the middle.
But there were aspects of the story I grappled with even while I was reading. I couldn’t understand Beth’s American family and why they didn’t work harder on their end to get Beth out of Germany. I know she couldn’t write and simply tell them she had lost her papers but I still would have expected them to make more of an effort to bring her home. I also didn’t sympathize with Beth’s uncle, who seemed determined to stay in Germany whenever an opportunity presented itself to leave. Beth’s impetuous help bothered me as well; she seemed almost incapable of planning how to be useful rather than just plunging in. These “plunges” forced the author to use convenient coincidences far too often for my taste.
Towards the end of the novel there is also a moment that struck me as ludicrous. At one point it is believed a character betrayed the family. Yet it is the help of that character that had enabled them to escape in the first place. In other words, the character was the source of their liberation and they repay that with an accusation of betrayal. It made no sense.
The family also seemed to use no discretion or commonsense in their rebellious work. Only the aunt seemed to truly understand the danger they were in and her concerns were dismissed as being due to a nervous condition. Had I lived in Nazi Germany I think I would have been a bit nervous as well.
If I seem to be concentrating on the history over the romance it is because the book did as well. I never quite understood why Beth and Josef fell in love aside from their unity in their work. Since I was more concerned with their lives than their HEA I couldn’t quite bring myself to really care about the love story either.
For inspirational readers I should advise you that on the spirituality level I would place this book at the very low end of the scale. The Quaker faith is presented more in a manner in keeping with Unitarians belief rather than the typical Christian faith of most Inspirationals. Not an issue for me but I know it might be for some readers.
It is difficult to know whether or not to recommend a novel which is such a mixed bag of good and bad. On the one hand, I found the history fascinating and the book was certainly an interesting read if not an enjoyable one. On the other hand, the subject matter is so dark and the mistakes made so glaring I know not every reader would appreciate it. You will have to use what I’ve said above to determine if the novel will be worth your time or not.