Synopses & Reviews
The fourth novel in the Burgdorf Cycle.
Though more than fifteen years have passed since Ursula Hegi's Stones from the River captivated critics and readers alike, it retains its popularity, is on academic reading lists, and continues to be adopted by book groups.
Also set in Burgdorf, Germany, Hegi's Children and Fire tells the story of a single day that will forever transform the lives of the townspeople. At the core of this remarkable novel is the question of how one teacher — gifted and joyful, passionate and inventive — can become seduced by propaganda during the early months of Hitlers regime and encourage her ten-year-old students to join the “Hitler-Jugend” with its hikes and songs and bonfires. Membership, she believes, will be a step toward better schools, better apprenticeships.
How can a woman we admire choose a direction we don't admire? So much has changed for the teacher, Thekla Jansen, and the people of Burgdorf in the year since the parliament building burned. Thekla's lover, Emil Hesping, is sure the Nazis did it to frame the communists. But Thekla believes what she hears on the radio, that the communists set the fire, and shes willing to relinquish some of her freedoms to keep her teaching position. She has always taken her moral courage for granted, but when each silent agreement chips away at that courage, she knows she must reclaim it.
Hegi funnels pivotal moments in history through the experiences of individual characters: Thekla's mother, who works as a housekeeper for a Jewish family; her employers, Michel and Ilse Abramowitz; Thekla's mentally ill father; Trudi Montag and her father, Leo Montag; Fräulein Siderova, midwife to the dying; and the students who adore their young teacher. As Ursula Hegi writes along that edge where sorrow and bliss meet, she shows us how one society — educated, cultural, compassionate — can slip into a reality that's fabricated by propaganda and controlled by fear, how a surge of national unity can be manipulated into the dehumanization of a perceived enemy and the justification of torture and murder.
Gorgeously rendered and emotionally taut, Children and Fire confirms Ursula Hegi's position as one of the most distinguished writers of her generation.
"Hegi returns in her languid latest to the fictional village of Burgdorf, Germany, from Stones from the River and The Vision of Emma Blau, focusing this time on Thekla Jansen, a teacher during the early days of the third Reich. It's 1934, and the burning of the Reichstag the year before still haunts many minds, particularly those of the boys in Thekla's fourth grade class. Convinced that Hitler cannot last forever as leader of Germany and believing the path of least resistance to be the surest way of protecting her boys from harm, Thekla accedes to the government's increasing interference in daily life, such as the banning of certain books and interrupting class time for the Fuhrer's radio speeches. But the encircling political danger and her own moral compromises are not her only worries, as a secret from Thekla's past may jeopardize everything she has worked to preserve. Hegi captures the passions, curiosities, and cruelties of boyhood with uncanny precision, and she smoothly injects German culture to create an authentic atmosphere, but the narrative feels too loose as it meanders across time, and its reliance on a tired family secret amounts to a finished product that doesn't live up to the dramatic potential of its historical moment. (May)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Ursula Hegi is the author of The Worst Thing I've Done, Sacred Time, Hotel of the Saints, The Vision of Emma Blau, Tearing the Silence, Salt Dancers, Stones from the River, Floating in My Mother's Palm, Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories, Intrusions, and Trudi & Pia. She teaches writing at Stonybrook's Southhampton Campus and she is the recipient of more than thirty grants and awards.