Synopses & Reviews
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 Warsaw 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 century's greatest tragedies while creating, perhaps, a masterpiece that will haunt readers for generations.
"In his 12th novel, Bohjalian (The Double Bind) paints the brutal landscape of Nazi Germany as German refugees struggle westward ahead of the advancing Russian army. Inspired by the unpublished diary of a Prussian woman who fled west in 1945, the novel exhumes the ruin of spirit, flesh and faith that accompanied thousands of such desperate journeys. Prussian aristocrat Rolf Emmerich and his two elder sons are sent into battle, while his wife flees with their other children and a Scottish POW who has been working on their estate. Before long, they meet up with Uri Singer, a Jewish escapee from an Auschwitz-bound train, who becomes the group's protector. In a parallel story line, hundreds of Jewish women shuffle west on a gruesome death march from a concentration camp. Bohjalian presents the difficulties confronting both sets of travelers with carefully researched detail and an unflinching eye, but he blinks when creating the Emmerichs, painting them as untainted by either their privileged status, their indoctrination by the Nazi Party or their adoration of Hitler. Although most of the characters lack complexity, Bohjalian's well-chosen descriptions capture the anguish of a tragic era and the dehumanizing desolation wrought by war." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Bohjalian proves once again that he is a master novelist." Boston Globe
"The Double Bind is simply one of the best written, most compelling, artfully woven novels to grace bookshelves in years. Immediately after the spellbinding surprise ending, readers will want to begin again at the first page. It's THAT good." Associated Press
"Bohjalian beautifully captures those dizzying moments that follow a tragedy, when disbelief and horror give way to an attempt to understand what has happened...authentic...haunting....In Before You Know Kindness, our eyes are opened to the possibility of redemption, even in these careless times." San Francisco Chronicle
"Few writers can manipulate a plot with Bohjalian's grace and power." New York Times Book Review
"Bohjalian [is] America's answer to Joanna Trollope." Kirkus Reviews
"Bohjalian takes a fresh perspective and details the brutal realities of World War II in a novel that for once does not focus entirely on the Allies." Library Journal
About the Author
Chris Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of eleven novels, including Midwives (a Publishers Weekly Best Book and an Oprah's Book Club selection), Before You Know Kindness, and his most recent New York Times bestseller, The Double Bind. His work has been translated into nineteen languages and published in twenty-two countries. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you know-or are you yourself-a veteran of World War II? Discuss what you know of the war and any reminiscences that veterans may have shared.
2. Both of Annas parents are members of the Nazi Party-though it is clear that they are not die-hard believers. Living on their farm in rural Prussia, they are largely sheltered from the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews. As Germans, do you think they share responsibility for the Nazis actions even if they didnt know the full extent of what was happening? Why did they join the party? Did they have a choice? Consider Helmuts teacher who questions the boy about his fathers loyalty to Hitler and the consequences of resisting. If failure to join meant death for you, what would you have done?
3. A group of POWs is brought to the Emmerich familys farm to help with the harvest, including a Scot named Callum Finella. He and Anna fall in love. What brings them together? Does the kindness of the Emmerich family, and Callums love for their only daughter, change his view of the German people as a whole?
4. We meet Uri on the train to Auschwitz. What kind of man is he? How does he behave on the train? Imagine yourself in those deplorable conditions. Do you think you would seize the opportunity for freedom and jump as Uri did, leaving behind your family to an uncertain future?
5. While arguing with Anna about what is really happening to Jews, Callum says, “Suppose my government in England just decided to ‘resettle the Catholics-to take away their homes, their animals, their possessions, and just send them away?” What if this was happening where you live? What actions would you be willing to take to protect your friends and neighbors? At what point would the risks have been too great?
6. To survive, Uri impersonates a German soldier, stealing papers and uniforms from soldiers he either kills or finds dead. Discuss the events that lead up to his first killing of a Nazi. Discuss his reaction to what he has done (page 59). Do you believe his actions were warranted?
7. Although the world is essentially collapsing around them, Anna and Callum fall in love, Theo cries over leaving his beloved horse behind, and Mutti carefully drapes the furniture in sheets to protect it before they flee their home ahead of the Russians. What do these simple, ordinary actions reveal about them as people? About the human capacity for hope?
8. Theo is only a child but he feels lacking in comparison to his older brothers Werner and Helmut, both off fighting in the war. What kind of child is he? Does he fit in with his peers? Why doesnt Theo tell his mother about his foot? What does this reveal about him? Does Theo change over the course of the novel?
9. Describe Cecile. What kind of woman is she? What keeps her going in spite of the cruelty and degradation she suffers every day? How is she different from her friend Jeanne? Do you think you would act more like Cecile or Jeanne in the same circumstances?
10. In Chapter Eight, Helmut and his father, Rolf, try to convince Uncle Karl to leave his home along with the Emmerichs. He refuses, keeping his daughter, daughter-in-law, and grandson with him in spite of the danger. Why wont he evacuate? Why wont he let the women and the child leave? On page 118 he refers to them and their way of life as “skeletons at the feast.” What does he mean by this?
11. Describe the circumstances that bring Uri and the Emmerichs together. Why does he choose to stay with them after running alone for so long? How does he feel about them initially? How do his feelings for them change?
12. On page 178, Callum is thinking about bringing Anna home with him to Scotland after the war. How does he think she will be received? Why is he troubled?
13. During their long march from the prison camp to the factory, Jeanne and another prisoner find soldiers rations and eat them. They do not wake Cecile to share them with her. Why? In the same circumstances, what would you have done?
14. Given the odds of success, would you have been brave enough to attempt to escape with Cecile and her friends?
15. Describe Mutti. What was she like at the beginning of the war? At the end? What does she view as her primary responsibility? On pages 291—293, she remembers burying the young German pilot whose plane crashed in her park. Why was burying him-and the enemy Russian soldiers-important to her?
16. How does Anna change as the novel progresses? Why does she feel the need for personal forgiveness at the end? Is she right to feel guilty?
17. Discuss the importance of hope in survival. Which character is the most hopeful? Which character is the most defeated? What moments at the end of the novel symbolize hope most poignantly?
18. Discuss the legacy that Muttis generation left for Annas. As a nation, what kind of legacy are we leaving for our children?
A Note to the Reader
In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this book-as well as the ending.
If you have not finished reading Skeletons at the Feast, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.
In the chaotic months before the final collapse of the Third Reich, the Germans living in the eastern part of Hitlers empire fled their homes to escape the onslaught of the Soviet Army. If these refugees didnt know the specifics of the atrocities their people had committed on Russian soil -and, in fact, were still committing in concentration camps across Poland and Germany-they nonetheless understood that the Russians were going to be merciless.
It is this world that Chris Bohjalian brings vividly and powerfully to life in Skeletons at the Feast. A Prussian aristocrat struggles west with her beautiful daughter, her young son, and a Scottish prisoner of war. Meanwhile, a female Jewish prisoner struggles to survive first the horrors of a concentration camp and then a forced march west in the ice and snow of a German winter. And a Jewish man who has leapt from a train bound for a death camp learns to do whatever he must to survive.
This readers guide is intended as a starting point for your discussion of the novel.