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Skeletons at the Feast (2008)

by Chris Bohjalian

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1,503708,743 (3.97)96
As Hitler's Third Reich crumbles, an aristocratic Prussian woman and her child flee west away from the approaching Russian army. Eventually they form an unlikely alliance with a Jewish man escaping from the concentration camps.
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I picked up this book because I had read Midwives and was impressed by the author's knowledge of midwifery. I was right to think that he'd probably do a good job with this very different subject.

Near the end of World War II, a small village in Poland is threatened by a Russian invasion. The German troops are thinner and thinner on the ground and almost any male who can hold a gun is recruited. Eighteen-year-old Anna is part of a family that lives in this village, far away from the big cities and in many ways ignorant of the real causes of the war. The Germans had captured some Allied forces and eventually farmed them out to villagers to be used as unpaid labor. Callum, from Scotland, works for Anna's family. He is twenty, attractive, and friendly. Quietly, secretly, Anna and Callum become lovers.

But then worse comes to worse. The Russian troops are getting closer and the family has to evacuate. They pack up two wagons and four horses and head out into the snow.

Meanwhile, we meet Manfred, an escapee from a train headed for a concentration camp. He has been on the run for a while when he meets up with the family, and he is dressed in a German uniform stolen from a soldier he killed. The group travels together.

The family meets with some difficult challenges, some worse than others, as the members try to reach the western border of Germany.

I have read a number of books on this war, from different perspectives. This is the first from the standpoint of affluent German citizens living in the countryside. Many of us struggle with the fact that German citizens voted Hitler into office and then turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by that government. It is sometimes helpful to put ourselves into the position of those on the ground, not involved in politics. It can even be instructive for our own lives.

I felt that Bohjalian did the work. He created believable characters and situations that may well have happened. The fact that this is, too, a kind of love story brings us closer to the characters. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
There's a lot to like about this book. It focuses on an area of WWII (German refugees) that isn't commonly written about. Bohjalian is a terrific writer and he obviously did his research. His descriptions of war scenes are quite gruesome. The only problem I had with this book was the characters. I loved Uri and was really into his story, but I just didn't buy Anna and Callum's love story. Anna is a boring, flat character and I would have really loved this book if she was more interesting and believable. ( )
  bookishblond | Oct 24, 2018 |
Nearing the end of World War II, a group of people, each from various backgrounds, make their way west across Germany in the hope that they will meet the American/British lines and thus, safety. Included in this group: a fairly well-off Prussian family consisting of a mother, daughter, & young son (left behind while the father & two oldest brothers are off fighting in the war); a Scottish POW attempting to avoid detection; and an escaped Jewish man, hiding under the guise of various military uniforms. Also paralleling this group, who travel together, is the story of a young Jewish woman who is initially in one of the labor camps but then is frequently relocated with other Jewish women, forced to walk from destination to destination, many losing their lives along the way.

There are, of course, many novels about World War II, all a bit different. Some deal with the front lines, some center on the treatment of the Jews, some focus on the families left behind, and still others tell of a variety of other aspects of the war. This one, too, is a bit different. Perhaps it is more subtle, but ultimately, no less horrifying. The term "casualties of war" keeps coming to my mind, in all of its various forms. This is a somewhat slow-moving novel, but nonetheless well written. ( )
  indygo88 | Sep 7, 2018 |
Haunting. I was completely obsessed with the story and the characters while I was reading this. The novel captures the WWII the era -- the fear, the uncertainty, the relentless and unbelievable brutality -- and the lives of common people just...brilliantly. An incredibly written book, overall, that is worth a read for just about anyone.

That said, I had a hard time rating this, vacillating between 4 and 5 stars. I eventually choose 4.5 stars, only because I felt that the inner lives of the main characters, Anna and Callum, were not as well-developed as some of the supporting characters. This detracted from my enjoyment of the novel slightly, particularly at the ending. Still, an amazing and sad book; reading this completely broke my heart. 4.5 stars = A grade. ( )
  the_baroness | Jul 12, 2018 |
It was interesting to read a book about WWII that shows how it affected so many different people. Most books I've read about WWII usually focus only on the Jews and the Nazis (Germans), but Chris Bohjalian did very well on writing this novel. The characters of the story included a wealthy Prussian family who has left their home because they made a mistake when they believed that the war would never affect them. Included are a Scottish POW, a Jew who was fortunate to escaped from a train on the way to the concentration camp, and two Jewish women who lived, worked, and tortured in a concentration camp. The different views and backgrounds of each character gives the reader a better and well rounded perspective of the war. ( )
  Headinherbooks_27 | May 9, 2018 |
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The past is never dead. It's not even past. - William Faulkner
Dedication
For Stephen Kiernan, Adam Turteltaub, and Dana Yeaton
And for Victoria, who reads every word
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The girl - a young woman, really, eighteen, hair the color of corn silk - had been hearing the murmur of artillery fire for two days now.
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As Hitler's Third Reich crumbles, an aristocratic Prussian woman and her child flee west away from the approaching Russian army. Eventually they form an unlikely alliance with a Jewish man escaping from the concentration camps.

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In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from the Russian front to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.

Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family's farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred-who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz. As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna's and Callum's love, as well as their friendship with Manfred-assuming any of them even survive. Perhaps not since "The English Patient" has a novel so deftly captured both the power and poignancy of romance and the terror and tragedy of war. Skillfully portraying the flesh and blood of history, Chris Bohjalian has crafted a rich tapestry that puts a face on one of the twentieth centrury's greatest tragedies-while creating, perhaps, a masterpiece that will haunt readers for generations.
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