Book Review- Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast is a novel by Vermont Author Chris Bohjalian (2008). I purchased several  of his books while I was in one of my favourite bookstores: Rivendell in Montpelier, Vt this autumn. I read his Night Strangers (2011) first as it was an ebook from our library (Rochester) and reviewed that earlier. I was intrigued enough to continue through his repertoire, and delighted I did.
This well written historical novel is absolutely fascinating, extremely well researched and based on a WWII Prussian diary (1920-1945). Both the diary and the novel detail the brutal last days of the war when many Poles, Germans fled through the Nazi Germany they barely knew ahead of the Russian Army, hoping to reach Allied lines.
The characters include 18 year old Anna Emmerich a sheltered daughter of Prussian aristocrats and her younger innocent brother Theo. There is also 20 year old Scottish POW Callum Finella, who was forced labor on their remote sugar beet farm.  Another important character is Wehrmacht corporal (of many names, many taken from German officers whom he killed, assuming their identities), who is in reality Uri Singer, a jew who escaped his fate in Auschwitz and is hiding in plain sight.  In a parallel storyline, Jeanne and Cecille are French Jewish prisoners on a forced death march to another concentration camp.
These descriptions are unforegttably haunting, depicting harrowing treacherous times of man’s inhumanity to man. Very clearly no one wins in war, yet we are all susceptible to the hope that lies in the novel.  Plan ahead – I don’t know how you will put this book down at night; I read straight through. I am still asking questions about personal responsibility, moral questions and justice vs revenge.

This is a beautiful, moving tribute to his friends and neighbours, their lives and ours interwined. There are so many aspects of history we never learn, so  many personal stories that give you the realism you can’t (hope to never) repeat. Another fascinating read on this theme is by Sparrow Author Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace about the flight out of France into Italy, where 43,000 Jews were hidden during the war.
“There’s a saying in Hebrew… ‘No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there’s always a thread of grace.’ ”   Both novels are more than ‘holocaust literature’ and deserve a wide audience. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself.
HWM Nov 2011

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