When Chris Bohjalian's family friends first shared with him the diary of their Prussian grandmother, with its day-to-day accounts from 1920 through 1945 of the blossoming and then scourge of World War II in a rural corner of Germany/Poland, the Vermont author was fascinated -- but didn't dream that he'd be drawing a novel from these bones.
But in 2006, he read Armageddon, by Max Hastings, a book he describes as a "remarkable history of the last year of the war in Germany." Reading this nonfiction account sent him back to a second reading of the diary of Eva Henatsch. And then his novel took root.
Due for release in May 2008, SKELETONS AT THE FEAST braids Bohjalian's gift for story and romance with his skill in painting suspense, terror, and tragedy. Though the tale unfolds far from his familiar New England landscapes, Bohjalian is a master in evoking the hearts and minds of young people who struggle with outer and inner conflict.
Eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich has grown up in relative luxury, daughter of a wealthy landowner whose "farm" is actually proof of his aristocratic ability to care for the people around him. Anna loves the horses, does her share of dreaming for the estate, and expects a mix of work and comfort in her life. The imminent arrival of brutal Russian troops in January 1945, as Germany slides into its devastating loss of the long war, drives Anna and her family from this golden reverie into panicked escape. Traveling with them is Callum, the Scottish prisoner of war who's been practically slave labor on the estate -- and who now may be the family's best chance of persuading the Allies to allow them to cross out of the war zone and into safety to the West.
But confusing everyone, especially Callum and sometimes Anna herself, is a 26-year-old German corporal who's jointed them on the journey. "Manfred" is actually a Jewish refugee in desperate disguise, seeking his lost sister Rebekah and struggling to survive among all the forces of violent death around him. What will he do to ensure his own survival? Will he betray the Emmerichs? Or Callum? Will Anna's heart sway toward this darker rival? What are the chances that any of them will be alive the next morning?
In parallel to this frightening adventure is the terrible life of Cecile, a Frenchwoman captured and living in a concentration camp, dodging evil-tempered, all-powerful guards and struggling to find enough food and warmth from day to day -- an effort so often fruitless that her teeth drop from her jaw "like acorns" from malnutrition, and only her determined clinging to a good pair of boots and her determination to save a friend keep her going. Cecile has no opportunity for the snippets of sweetness and comfort that trail Anna. Yet the courage that drives her forward is not so different from Anna's own. She hopes that the Russian troops, the ones whose brutality has chased the Emmerichs from their farming estate, will be her salvation.
Bohjalian's constant focus on the lives of these two women and the people around them makes the book a gripping page-turner. And when at last the journeys of Anna and Cecile come to a climax, there is further satisfaction in knowing that what has been salvaged is in fact a mirror of the lives of people with whom the author has connected -- by diary, by tremendous research, by an enthralling story, and by the pounding of hearts across the world and across the years.
Readers of Bohjalian's earlier work, such as MIDWIVES and WATER WITCHES, may be startled at his movement across the ocean and into the genre of historical fiction. But those who embraced his 2004 novel BEFORE YOU KNOW KINDNESS and then the 2007 novel THE DOUBLE BIND will recognize that his determination to have his characters ask and struggle with the questions, of truth, evil, guilt, and salvation have fitted him for this remarkable effort. Here is a sample of the book, from the thoughts of Anna's young and sweet brother Theo:
Theo watched Manfred seem to take this in. He thought the soldier was seething inside and working hard to maintain an even facade. And his sister? He could see anger on her face as well, but something else, too, and when he understood what is was he grew scared: It was guilt. Shame, as if she were responsible. He felt a small chill in the room, despite the heat from the stove, and for the first time he began to wonder: Was this -- those prisoners -- why the whole world seemed mad at his country?
Mark your calendar for early May, to watch for a copy as soon as SKELETONS OF THE FEAST is available as a Crown Publishing hardcover.