Learning To Be Saved
Jenna Blum's eloquent first novel "Those who Save Us", speaks with restraint and conviction about understanding one's past and moving ahead with life. The story combines wisdom and depth with good storytelling. In company with my fellow reviewers on this site, I couldn't put the book down.
The two primary characters in the book are are a German woman, Anna, whom we follow from early childhood through old age and her daughter, Trudy, shown to the reader from the earliest times of her life through what appears to be a reawakening to love and possibility as a middle-aged adult. The setting of the story alternates effectively between Anna's and Trudy's experiences during the Holocaust in Weimar, Germany and their subsequent life in Minnesota.
I find the Holocaust a difficult theme for fiction, but this book succeeds through its restaint, its unsparing portrayal of its characters, and its generally successful avoidance of cliches. Anna, the beautiful daughter of a Nazi sympathizer, initially takes a Jewish lover, who becomes the father of Trudy, and aids the resistance movement. She subsequently becomes, mostly through fear and necessity, the mistress of a high SS official at the concentration camp of Buchenwald. She marries an American soldier and moves to the United States. Trudy, her daughter becomes a professor of German history, tortured by her past and her ignorance of herself, and unable to enjoy life, particularly physical and emotional intimacy with men.
The characters in the book, from Anna and Trudy, through Anna's Jewish lover, the Nazi Obersturmfuherer, and Jack, Anna's American husband, are well-portrayed. Blum shows the dilemmas that Anna faced and that led her to accept a relationship with the Obersturmfuherer. Most of the minor characters are realistically portrayed as well. As the book moved to its conclusion, I found some of the plotting contrived. But the characterizations in the book and the struggles of Trudy and Anna were so compelling that I was not overly bothered by the machinery of the plot. I found the author conveyed a sense of life, acceptance, and of salvation in a secular context following terrible tragedy. There is a voice of hope in the book and an absence of religious or ideological preaching. Both the hope and the absence are welcome. "Those who Save us" is a moving novel.