Threaten to Undo Us (review)

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Threaten to Undo UsThreaten to Undo Us by Rose Seiler Scott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin meet in Yalta in 1945 to carve up the WWII German-conquered lands, someone suggests that German-occupied Prussia and Pomerania should be part of the new Poland. While Churchill demurs, fearing that this will lead to more bloodshed, Stalin’s cavalier “Most have fled the region” wins the day. This scene in the Introduction sets the stage for what happens to the main character Liesel Hoffman and her five children in Rose Seilor Scott’s WW II historical, Threaten to Undo Us.

In the book, Scott tells the story of WWII through a German point of view. Liesel and her husband Ernst live peacefully alongside their Polish-speaking neighbors in a village near Lodz, Poland until Hitler begins flexing his muscles. Ernst’s brother Gunter is the first family member to be lured by the spell of Third Reich. He pressures Ernst to join the army, even though Ernst and Liesel are uncomfortable with the expulsion of their Jewish neighbors and the expropriation of Polish properties for the resettlement of German people.

As Scott takes us through the war, we experience the long separations of the family as Ernst goes to the front while Liesel is left to care for their young family of five and her aging parents. After the brutal Russian winter of the German siege when the German army is defeated and forced to retreat, the tide also turns in the village. Poles seeking revenge and retribution for what the Germans have done to them force Liesel and her little ones to flee the family farm. Brutalized by drunken Russian soldiers, Liesel is eventually separated from her children and forced into hard labor in a prison camp. After five years of not hearing from Ernst she fears he too has perished. Is her life even worth living any more?

The telling is not strictly chronological but jumps around in time. However the time shifts are mentioned in the chapter titles so one is never lost. I enjoyed the factual historical touches that head some chapters, like quoted excerpts from treaties, giving a sense of what is happening on the world scene that relates to this area of Europe.

This is a grueling story, realistically yet tastefully told. Though often dark and difficult, it illustrates the strength of the human spirit, the tenacity of a mother’s love, and how faith in God can be an anchor even in the worst situations.

I think this is the first WWII story told from a German point-of-view that I’ve read. Though after the war ended the world vilified Germany and the German people en masse, this tale points to a subtler reality. Thousands, perhaps millions of Germans were victims of Hitler too, conscripted into his army, brainwashed with lies about racial superiority, forced to go along with his treatment of the Jews, and pressured to enroll their children into his youth movement. When the war ended, the tables were turned when Germans outside of Germany were arrested, accused of being war criminals, spies etc., and tortured in the same way the Nazis had tortured them.

I found this a thoroughly engrossing and well-plotted read with my interest high until the last page. I’d recommend it to all lovers of historical fiction and especially those interested in the story of World War II.

I received Threaten to Undo Us as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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Prelude for a Lord (review)

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Prelude for a LordPrelude for a Lord by Camille Elliot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lady Alethea Sutherton, main character in Camille Elliot’s regency romance Prelude for a Lord, is a social misfit, not only because of her suitorless old maid status, but because of her musical interest in the violin which is thought entirely unladylike.

For her part, Alethea has long since ceased to care, much to the chagrin of Aunt Ebena. Alethea has come to Bath to stay with her aunt after cousin Will kicked her out of the family home. Now she is living for the day she reaches her majority, gains her inheritance, and can flee England to the musically rich continent.

But the appearance in Bath of Baron Dommick, a musician she admired from her own disastrous season in London eleven years ago, and society’s demands soon have her attending balls and hobnobbing with members of a male string ensemble. Meanwhile she senses she is being watched, followed, and then is approached by a succession of sinister men who demand she sell her violin.

Main male character Baron Dommick’s reputation has been compromised by the effects of war. Despite that, he feels driven to ensure that his sister Clare’s upcoming season in London will be a success. This means making the right social moves in all departments. He is attracted to Alethea but could her strong personality impede his goal? And what if she should discover the real self he hides under that handsome exterior?

Elliot has combined compelling characters (including a list of who the various characters are, their many names and how they’re related to each other) with a circuitous plot that includes solving the mystery of Alethea’s violin.

As is characteristic of the genre, there is lots of wit and dialogue that sparkles. The writing is wonderful throughout:

“Then another crash, something heavy and wooden dropping to the floor accompanied by a tinkling descant of shattering pottery” – Kindle Location 2613.

“…the chapel lay empty and forgotten much of the time, an abandoned mother longing for her grown-up children” – Kindle location 5265.t:

Compelling themes include an exploration of how women in the regency era are treated and whether God cares for individuals—an issue especially for Alethea who feels as if God dislikes her, seeing as how He never came to her aid when her father, brother, and cousin abused her. Questions at the end of the book encourage readers to discuss, personalize, and apply what they’ve read.

Prelude for a Lord is a combination I found irresistible. It’s a tale I would hazard even Jane Austen would love.

I received Prelude for a Lord as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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East of Eden (review)

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East of Eden - 1962 Edition

East of Eden – 1962 Edition

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This isn’t a proper review, just a list of things I noticed / liked / disliked about the Salinas Valley California family saga East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

The book started out like books written in the middle of last century do—slowly, with lots of description. But I didn’t mind as it was all grand, large-stroke painting. Though I do remember thinking, somewhere around page 50, I wonder when he’ll have all the furniture in place.

At the beginning I was confused over who was who. Steinbeck embarks on telling several family histories which, at the start, have no connection with each other. A family tree or a who’s who section would have helped.

There are some pretty dark characters. Kate / Cathy is incredibly evil and though her activities are mostly only hinted at, there was a point at which I wondered if I should / wanted to read on. I persevered and I’m glad I did.

I really enjoyed the way Steinbeck explored the theme of good and evil, whether we’re born pre-determined to be evil (with evil genes, so to speak) or whether we have choice. He riffed on the bad-brother, good-brother archetypes Cain and Abel, creating two sets of C&A brothers (Charles and Adam Trask; later Adam begets twins Caleb and Aron).

His character Liza Hamilton, wife of Samuel Hamilton is the most recognizably Christian of the characters. Steinbeck first portrays her in an almost Dickensian way:

“She had a dour Presbyterian mind and a code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that was pleasant to do” – p. 7 (1962, or thereabouts, edition).

However, by the end of the book she comes across as Samuel’s anchor, his true north. Steinbeck’s softening portrayal of her sheds a much more serious and sympathetic light on the faith aspect of the book than I expected when I read the beginning.

In closing, here are a couple of my favorite passages from this incredibly well-written book. The first is Samuel Harrison, talking to Adam’s servant Lee just before they name the twins. He is referring to Liza’s mother’s Bible and Bible use in general:

“’This one has been scraped and gnawed at,’ he said. ‘I wonder what agonies have settled here. Give me a used Bible and I will, I think, be able to tell you about a man by the places they are edged with the dirt of seeking fingers. Liza wears a Bible down evenly’” p. 237.

The last quote sums up, in my mind, the book’s theme. It’s a passage in which the author stands back momentarily from telling his story and reflects:

“I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one that has frightened and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder. Humans are caught … in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence …. There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have only the hard clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?” p. 366.

If you want to know more about East of Eden’s plot and characters, check the East of Eden entry in Wikipedia.

Oh, and here’s a gem from the yellowed old book I read. It’s in the forematter, on the right-hand page facing the copyright and printing editions information.

Note in East of Eden

Note from John Steinbeck to Pascal Covici

Thanks B., my son, for pressing me to read this grand classic novel!

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