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The Aftermath

The Aftermath
Rhidian Brook

In the aftermath of World War 2, victorious allied forces occupied Germany. They were simultaneously trying to rebuild a shattered country and prosecute Nazi war criminals. The British housed their officers in the homes of wealthy Germans, evicting the occupants to shoddy camp housing. This is the historically true framework for this novel.

Captain Lewis Morgan is relieved that the war is over. When he finds out his housing will displace an upper-class German named Herr Lubert and his daughter Freda, Captain Morgan proposes an unorthodox solution: he and his family could share the house, moving the Luberts into the servant quarters. This descision will have an unexpected impact on all of them.
Captain Morgan dreams of a happy reunion with his wife Rachael and son Edmund, having not seen them since the funeral for his older son, Michael, who was killed in the bombings. He badly underestimates his wife’s depression and son’s lonliness. He does his best to care for them, but official duties keep him busy, and Rachael and Edmund are left largely to their own devices.
Herr Lubert and Freda are dealing with their own grief;  Mrs. Lubert was also killed in the bombings. Now their country has been defeated and their home taken over.
At first, the two families hardly speak to one another. Their communication is complicated and difficult, with each person taking their own approach to the situation. In time the inevitable happens, and they begin to see one another not as enemies or occupiers, but as people. For Herr Lubert and Rachael, left together in the house, that turns out to be a more dangerous thing.
While the Morgan and Lubert families live in relative comfort, thousands of Germans live on the street, literally starving and freezing to death. Ozi is a young boy, leading a band of even younger feral children. He meets Edmund and convinces him to share some of the cigarettes which Captain Morgan recieves as part of his stipend, and which can be spent like cash on the streets.

In The Aftermath, Brooks does an excellent job of telling a big story on a small scale. He is able to portray a wide variety of experiences and responses in wartime through the eyes of just a few characters. He also accurately shows many different ways that people grieve.
One of the central issues of the book is the question of how the Germans, post-war, should be viewed. Many of Captain Morgan’s fellow officers still see them as an enemy, and as complicit with the Nazi regime. Captain Morgan feels that feeding the German people is more important that judging them, and that rebulding the nation will take more understanding. Edmund might have the best perspective of all: he arrives in Germany hating the Germans, with the “us vs them” mindset that war engenders. But he finds that, once you get to know people and speak their language, they are not so different.
I do feel, though, that the author glossed over German support for the Nazis. For example, Herr Lubert says that he only participated in things like sending Freda to join the Hitler Youth because it was mandatory. To me, that sounds like the concentration camp guards who said they were only following orders.
None of the history  or issues in The Aftermath are easy. Against that background, Brooks brings his characters to life. He has woven together a story that will stay with you long after you turn the last page

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A Girl Like You /Requiem

A Girl Like You
Maureen Lindley

Requiem
Frances Itani

I’m going to try something new and review two books at once, since they both deal with the same topic: the forced relocation of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians to internment camps during WW2.

A Girl Like You is written from the perspective of Satomi, the young teenage daughter of a white American father and Japanese American mother. Although her father is killed serving in the Navy at Pearl Harbor, Satomi and her mother Tamura are ostracized at home and at school even before they are forced to leave. Once in the camp, however, Satomi is still an outcast because of her mixed racial heritage and because she rebels against traditional Japanese expectations of how girls should behave.  Satomi struggles to navigate the ordinary challenges of growing up, family obligation, and young love against a background of constant privation and hardship. She gains an unexpected ally in the camp’s white doctor,  Dr Harper.
Time and the guidance of older, wiser women help smooth some of Satomi’s rough edges. She also grows less selfish as she cares for her sick mother and a group of orphans, including a little girl named Cora.
After the war ends and Satomi leaves, she continues to struggle to find love and her own place in the world. The ending is as happy as can be allowed given how few of the characters remain alive.
One thing I immediately disliked about this book is that the third person narration would jump suddenly from Satomi’s perspective to another character’s and back with no page break or anything.

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Requiem is written from the perspective of Bin, a grown man in modern day Canada. Grieving the recent death of his beloved wife Lena, and seeking inspiration to complete the work for his latest art installment, he undertakes a cross-country road trip with his dog Basil, back to the camp where he was iterned with his family as a boy. Scenes of camp life are retold in vivid flashback chapters.
I don’t want to spoil the plot, but events happen so that Bin does not leave the camp with his family (altho they remain alive) but as part of another family. What happened in the camp shapes the rest of Bin’s life, his relationship with his son Greg, and his art.

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Now for the “compare and contrast” (as this was called in middle school book reports.) I almost want to apologize to A Girl Like You, because its a decent novel; but compared to Requiem, it comew up short. Girl is notable mostly for its subject matter, while the superb writing in Requiem is what has drawn me to reread it not once but twice.
Girl focuses on the physical hardships of the camp: the cold, sickness, wind, blood, piss, and hunger (its no accident the most helpful character is a doctor.) The conditions were horrible and no human should have ever been subjected to them by another human. But Requiem, while not ignoring these ugly facts, focuses more on the deprivation of the soul- and the strength of the human spirit in spite of it. When I picture Satomi’s camp, I picture the smelly awful latrines with cold dusty wind blowing thru the cracks in the walls. When I picture Bin’s camp, I picture a man playing piano sonatas on a piece of painted wood until his fingers ache, while a boy draws with charcoal on endpapers torn from treasured books.
Finally, Girl lacks a cohesive narrative. It starts at a point in time, wanders on for a few years, and then ends. I don’t feel like Satomi reaches her full potential as a character, and her selfishness grew annoying. She has no epiphany. There is no visual symbol to which the author returns. In the end, its just a story.
The narrative structure of Requiem, however, is excellent. The author’s choice of a roadtrip is an excellent parallel for Bin, not only to journey into his past, but also to find his way home. All the characters are exceptionally well-drawn, even the ones that seem unsympathetic.
Bin’s art exhibition, the one he needs to finish, focuses on rivers. Of course there is more than one river along the way. There is a river in the camp. And in the end when his past and present finally come together, of course he on the banks of a river.

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The Storyteller

The Storyteller, Jodi Picoult

 

I have been a big fan of Jodi Picoult for years now. I have read all of her books and recommended them many times. Most of her books are in a similar vein: she approaches a controversial issue (like euthanasia, abortion, stigmata, gay parents rights, etc) in the context of a story, and narrates it from the viewpoints of different people involved. Her multi-voice narration is her greatest strength; you empathize with even her disagreeable characters. Almost always, she writes a twist into the last few pages of the book. The first of Jodi Picoult’s books I encountered hit my like a sucker-punch; I could hardly breathe when I finished it (My Sister’s Keeper.) But its all too easy for a format to become formulaic, and her last few books haven’t impressed me that much.
The Storyteller is far better than Jodi Picoult’s last two books, and may be my second favorite of her books. Among other things, it deals with issues of faith, assisted suicide and guilt/vengeance. Unusually for this author, the narrative voices range from present to past (during the Holocaust.) Sage is a loner who finds solace in baking, with occasional side trips to a Catholic shrine. Over time, one of her regulars approaches her with an unusual request. When she refuses, he tells her his past as an SS camp guard. In the end, you could say that Sage gives him what he asked for – but you are left wondering if it was what either of them really wanted.


You will like: other books by Jodi Piccoult, Night by Elie Wiesel