The wounds of the past
This may be a first novel, but Jenna Blum certainly knows how to hook a reader. The opening chapter of Those Who Save Us ends with a woman shunned by her nice Minnesota neighbors following the funeral of her husband, Jack. What did Anna do to deserve this? And why is her daughter Trudy not more surprised?Trudy was only three when Anna married an American soldier at the end of World War II, and he brought them home to his Minnesota farm. Neither Jack nor Anna ever told Trudy about her real father; there was a wall of silence "she could neither penetrate or scale."Trudy grows up to be a professor of German history and becomes immersed in a project taking testimony from German Minnesotans about the war. These scenes provide context for the wartime story of Anna and Trudy. Blum's juggling of scenes as she goes back and forth in time interrupts the action and paces dramatic revelations. She uses well-chosen, unexpected details to flesh out characters and events and to make it all real. For example, readers learn that the Nazi officer whose mistress Anna became had certain sexual preoccupations. But we're also told that he was the son of a woman who left her husband to run off with a traveling salesman of wigs.
A larger question what exactly did ordinary German women such as Anna do during the Holocaust? lies behind the personal ones. As the daughter of a German mother and a Jewish father, Blum finds herself drawn to such issues. She spent four years interviewing Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. A teacher at Boston University, Blum's first fiction success dates to 1986, when she won a Seventeen magazine writing contest.
Dealing as it does with ill-fated romance, Nazi cruelty and mother/daughter guilt, Those Who Save Us could have been a terribly melodramatic book. Instead, it's sensitive and artful. In the end, this historically specific novel tells a universal story of guilt, forgiveness and love. Anne Morris is a writer in Austin, Texas.