In TODAY’S media-saturated culture, wars are often presented in short capsules on the nightly news, offering reaction over analysis, and little in the way of context. Literature, fiction in particular, may be better suited to giving a more nuanced view, one in which the costs and consequences of war can be reckoned, the horrors and heroics intertwined into a coherent whole. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” among other classic war novels, benefited from the passage of time, allowing writers and readers to make sense of events that ravaged countries and people.
The spark for Chris Bohjalian’s 12th novel, “Skeletons at the Feast,” set during the last days of World War II in German-occupied Poland, came from diary entries written by a young German woman from 1920 to 1945, which were shared by the woman’s grandson. Bohjalian’s subsequent research into the period and interviews with German refugees and Holocaust survivors convinced him that a compelling story could be told.
His novel reflects varied points of view in the last, hellish months as the Third Reich is crumbling under attacks by Soviet forces from the east and Allied forces from the west. There is 18-year-old Anna, daughter of a well-heeled Prussian farmer and his pro-Reich wife. Her family supported Hitler in the early days, when the Fuehrer promised to reclaim German lands given to Poland after World War I; the family continues to fight for the Reich even when it seems hopeless.
With troubling news about Nazi atrocities in the air and battle sounds in the distance, her father and older brother decide to send Anna, her mother and youngest brother to join the thousands fleeing west while father and son join in a last-ditch effort to stop the Soviets. Accompanying Anna is Callum Finella, a Scottish prisoner of war who’d been sent to work on the family’s farm.
The prisoner of war’s viewpoint, clouded by his love affair with Anna, provides a moral counterbalance to the family’s German patriotism. Although he loves Anna, Callum questions her ignorance about the fate of her Jewish neighbors and household help, and wonders what retribution such moral apathy might bring, concluding: "[W]hat in the name of heaven was she supposed to do about it -- about any of it?. . . . She had led a life that was at once sheltered and isolated. . . . It was more like naivete, wasn’t it? . . . Naivete, indifference. What did that really mean?” It’s a question that could be asked of everyone who watches evil being done in their name.
Another counterpoint to such Aryan loyalties is Uri Singer, a factory worker who escapes from a freight train full of Auschwitz-bound Jews. Uri’s harrowing journey and ingenious escape, as well as his desperate methods to survive and find the sister and parents he believes were sent to the death camp, make the novel as compelling as it is sickening at times to read. Particularly wrenching are Uri’s reflections about two Nazi soldiers he has killed: “For all he knew, they had wives or girlfriends. . . . In addition to snuffing out the lives of these men, he had brought sadness and despair to their mothers.”
Long after he has given up hope of finding his sister and parents, Uri is driven, not to kill his enemies but to live so he can tell the world what the Nazis have done to his people. Bohjalian makes clear the importance of bearing witness with another viewpoint, that of Cecile, a French Jew among more than 100 starving Jewish women being marched across Poland to work in a war-related factory. One is tempted to judge Uri harshly, but you need only read one of the many gut-wrenching passages involving the Nazis’ extermination of these innocent victims to empathize with his motives and with his, and Cecile’s, dogged need to survive.
Judging who’s right or wrong is difficult in “Skeletons at the Feast,” and one senses that’s just the way Bohjalian wants it. Although the novel’s structure makes the various plot threads and time shifts hard to follow, when they do come together, they form a tightly woven, moving story for anyone who thinks there’s nothing left to learn, or feel, about the Second World War. That Bohjalian can extract greater truths about faith, hope and compassion from something as mundane as a diary is testament not only to his skill as a writer but also to the enduring ability of well-written war fiction to stir our deepest emotions.
Paula L. Woods, a member of the National Book Critics Circle, is the author of the Charlotte Justice mystery series.