In December 1944, Liesl Kappus, an orphaned newlywed with three small stepsons, struggles to maintain a household on the scant provisions available in her German village. Her husband Frank married her two months after losing his first wife in childbirth and, after spending fewer than two months was Liesl, has left for the Weimar to serve as a reconstructive surgeon in a field hospital near Buchenwald.
First Liesl must contend with her oldest stepson’s hostility, the incessant needs of the newborn, unfriendly neighbors who refer to her as the “new wife,” insufficient rations, and frequent air raids. Then two refugee faimilars are quartered in her house and her middle stepson begins behaving very oddly. After a local doctor diagnosis the boy’s trouble as lead poisoning and threatens to send him to Hadaman, a hospital for the deficient from which few return, Liesl sends for Frank. Although he has transferring him to Berlin, which is disintegrating literally and figuratively from Allied bombing, Frank deserts and makes the difficult journey home through a Germany which weakens daily.
Based on events which occurred in her own family, Hummel’s novel is an intense examination of the horros and compromises faced by an ordinary German family in the last crumbling months of the Reich. Surrounded by astonishing cruelty, were they also complicit in it, if only through turning a blind eye? If they could not save even themselves from spying neighbors and vindictive betrayals, could they have been expected to save others? In an afterward to the novel, Hummel writes that in the course of writing the story, she moved from asking the question “What did they know and when did they know it?” to the question “What did they love?”
Was love, wonders Liesl, just made up of simple incidents in which you brought out the best in one another?
Incidents in which people bring out the best in one another are thin on the ground in this novel and are primarily confined to the relationships between Liesl (who is sorely tested but rarely falters) and her stepsons. Elsewhere, even under her own roof, treachery, violence and convenient ignorance abound. Motherland is a fastincating novel of complicity and complexity about “ordinary” Germans facing the end of the war, its consequences and its punishments, and the steps they must take towards their future.
Novel, Counterpoint Press, 2014
375 pages (count based on Advanced Readers’ Copy)