Father held the chicken feather in one hand and the candle in the other. By the light of the small candles flame, Henriette and Eva followed him through the house now that the day was done. They searched for bread or anything resembling it—cookies, cakes, biscuits, noodles, Evas favorite things. Father dusted corners with the feather, while holding light to the darkest places to make sure each crumb was caught and placed inside the sack. As they gathered crumbs, Mother practiced the piano.
During the winter months Mother remained at home, but she more or less constantly played music, or else she withdrew to her rooms. When the season began at Karlsbad (where Mother took endless baths meant to have restorative healing powers), she brightened briefly before packing her things and leaving. And, as Mothers exodus was fast approaching, Father—made plainly cross by her eminent departure—became impassioned with religious fervor, which, no matter how often it was asserted, always seemed sudden. During the weeks leading up to the Passover holiday, he roamed the hallways after his workday and vigorously recalled his own dear departed parents with increasing de- votion and righteousness. Father came from devout people and Mother did not and Passover was always the years turning point, a time when Father and Mother displayed themselves just as they did now: Father focusing on the ritual task while Mother played a Mozart sonata. The music floated gently (if a bit unsteadily) through the house. Mother had already shared her love of the healing waters—the Kur—with her daughters and despite enjoying the pine-needle baths and the climbing tours (which ended with a delicious cherry tart), Eva could not imagine what could possibly be in Karlsbad that reassured Mother so deeply.
Father must have wondered, too. Eva knew, if nothing else, he longed for a more orderly home. The chaos of the kitchen usually sent him into a furious state (it wasnt unusual for Father to inspect the kitchen and find something amiss: a milk plate mixed in with the meat plates, a box of chocolates that Mother claimed she hadnt realized was there), but Eva preferred the fury to what increasingly looked like hopelessness. It was too much to bear Fathers bald head in his broad hands; Father asking Mother—gently at first and then not so gently—why it was so difficult for her to organize the help who were for heavens sake hired because they were Galician Jews and werent they meant to know a thing or two about keeping a kitchen?
Eva imagined the servants downstairs quarters, where she knew theyd be taking their supper now, probably too exhausted to converse. This morning Eva had helped Rahel and the others hang Passover linens out to dry with special wooden pins kept exclusively for the day. She thought of them now, all finishing their supper, and she couldnt help but wonder—if they werent too tired—what they might have to say. A few years before, Father had insisted on hiring extra servants for Passover but Mother had refused, claiming she could only trust Rahel. But when Father prevailed and Mother compromised (agreeing to hire extra servants but only Rahels relations), unflappable Rahel—having already told Eva that she had only brothers—produced several sisters, one after the other, all of whom looked nothing like her. Mother didnt seem to like Rahel very much but she always wanted her nearby, always called out for Rahel from the depths of her bedroom, where the curtains were usually drawn.
And—after years of refusing to eat in the Frank home because they didnt trust the kitchen—Fathers devout relations were coming to the seder. Father had evidently said something quite miraculous to convince them. “Promise me that you girls will do your duty this year,” he asked them solemnly over a month ago. “Your mother . . .” he said, shaking his head, and while Eva simply stared at him with nothing useful to say, Henriette took his hand and said: “Dear Father, of course.” Henriette was four years older than Eva, and sometimes Henriette taught Eva fine needlework, discussing at length her favorite colors, which were subject to change any day, and when Eva didnt pay her proper attention, Henriette would accidentally poke Eva with a sewing needle.
Father didnt stop Mother from making her preparations for Karlsbad and Mother didnt argue about the kitchen. She said, “Im sorry darling,” to Father in the very same way she said it to Eva and Henriette when they questioned if she might not like to stay home. Mother gave dry kisses to her daughters—kisses that landed more on the air and less on their expectant cheeks—and Henriette had taken on the household responsibilities as if shed only been waiting to be asked all these years. Eva was amazed to see how she didnt seem daunted at all. Her older sister actually seemed far more comfortable being in charge than Mother ever had been—discussing a schedule with Rahel and the “sisters,” choosing not only her own elaborate Passover ensemble in advance but Evas new clothing as well. And Mother hardly seemed to mind this loss of authority; her mood actually improved as Henriette ordered the appropriate crates out from the storeroom, dispatched servants to purchase matzot from the special bakery, the meat from the special butcher, the scalding cream for the pots and pans, and the kindling—stacks of it—for hearth fires as well as for this nights ritual burning of the chometz.
Fathers footfalls were hypnotic in their placement on the stone steps, the wood floors. Eva had always enjoyed this ritual—the hunting, the quiet, the crumbs—but this year she realized her mind was wandering and the wandering came from boredom. Her sister was wearing a corset and her cheeks were flushed; she looked as energized as she had when, last month, her first suitor came to call. Eva wasnt sure why but she felt herself on the precipice of absurd laughter (her very favorite kind) and she was gratified to see that her smile was still contagious; Eva could see that, even in her most officious state, Henriette was smiling, too.
“Evie!” her sister whispered. “Why are you smiling?”
“Why are you?”
“Because you are!”
“Ill stop then,” Eva promised. But it was too late.
“Please,” insisted Henriette, but Eva could tell she too was about to break into laughter, and Henriettes was the best in the world; her sister went from perfectly proper to literally snorting with giggles. “Please, please, please,” Henriette mouthed, as Father turned around and Henriette pinched Evas arm.
“Girls,” said Father, before turning down the guest wing hallway, continuing with the search.
“Evie,” Henriette hissed.
When she saw that Henriette was truly upset, she vowed to pay closer attention; she swore that when the small sack was close to full of all of the remnants of bread in the household, she would be the one who volunteered to fetch the matches and Mother. “Ill be helpful tomorrow,” Eva promised. She took her sisters hand.
“I know you will.”
“You have such faith in me, Monsieur.” Eva fluttered her lashes. Her sister had promised—she had sworn on the Torah—that Eva had nice eyes.
“Mademoiselle,” said her sister, “I have no choice.”
The family stood outside in the garden. The seder table had been laid for the following evening, and Eva missed the linens hanging on the clotheslines like sails against the sky. Father struck a match, the kindling caught fire, and he poured on the bag of chometz. The crumbs and bits of cookie, the starchy odds and ends—they all burned away, and soon the Franks were faced with an extravagant flame.
When Henriette found Eva in the middle of the night, sitting at the piano in the music room, she gave an elaborate sigh before sitting down beside her.
“I cant sleep,” said Eva.
Henriette nodded and patted Evas back. “Neither can I.”
Eva suddenly realized how lonely shed felt, sitting in the dark by herself. It was often that way with her; the loneliness arrived only after she settled comfortably into another persons presence.
Her sister rambled on and it was a cadence as familiar as wind through the trees. “. . . I imagine its because of the holiday, you know. I want everything to be perfect.”
“It wont be,” said Eva, and Henriette didnt bother responding. “Nothing ever is,” Eva insisted, more or less cheerfully.
“Youre a funny girl,” her sister said.
“So youve said, Monsieur, oh so many times.”
Henriette didnt smile and held out her hand. “What are you hiding?”
“What am I . . . ? Nothing,” said Eva. “Nothing.”
“What is in your mouth?”
Eva shook her head. She swallowed.
Eva produced the half-eaten cookie from her pocket. She had hidden it, over a week ago, in a box of sheet music and had taken it from the box only minutes ago. It had been her plan to savor it slowly.
“Why?” asked Henriette, and Eva couldnt tell if her sister was more curious or appalled.
“Im not sure,” said Eva, and it was true. When she hid the cookie, shed been filled with a kind of glee, as if by breaking these sacred laws in secret she might have her own kind of revelry. Suddenly the taste of illicit cookie in her mouth was not moist with brown sugar and almond paste as she had so keenly anticipated, but instead it was chalky and bitter.
“Come,” said Henriette. “Well go outside in the garden and throw it onto the fire.”
“Its too late,” said Eva, but Henriette shook her head.
“Listen to me,” she said, and Eva could imagine her years from now, presiding over a busy household. Her sister would have her own little monsters soon enough—a cluster of naughty boys and girls, all with romantic names. “Those embers are still burning outside,” Henriette explained. “Dont you see? We have time.” And they walked out into the garden to watch Evas cookie burn away to an inconsequential mistake.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. Eva blames herself throughout the novel for the death of her sister Henriette and Henriettes newborn son. Do you think that Eva is, in fact, to blame? Do you think in a similar situation today, a woman would suffer a comparable amount of guilt and shame?
2. Eva has relationships with three different men in this novel—Heinrich, Abraham, and Levi. What issues do you think Hershon was trying to explore through each one? Do you think Eva was in love with any, or all, of these men?
3. Abraham is a maddening husband, brother, business partner, and friend. Even so, there is something compelling about him. Did you find yourself rooting for him despite his terrible behavior, or did you feel that he got only what he deserved?
4. Why do you think Hershon chose “The self forms on the edge of desire,” a quote from an Anne Carson poem, as her epigraph?
5. What role does Judaism play in The German Bride? What about the role of Jewish identity? Is there a difference between the two?
6. There is a drastic difference in environment between Berlin and Santa Fe, and the landscape of the American southwest is evoked both harshly and sublimely. What role do you think “place” plays in the development of The German Bride?
7. Do you identify more with Evas sister-in-law, Beatrice Speigelman or with Eva herself? Why?
8. How big a part does God and faith play in this novel?
9. Eva and Levi form their friendship while in a sickroom. How does his weakness play a part in their relations? Is his weakness eroticized? How?
10. Abraham and Meyer have a strained and ultimately tragic relationship. Do you think Meyer should have cut him off long before he did? Which of the two brothers is more “American”?
11. This is a historical novel, in that it takes place in the past. But do you think this story would hold up in a contemporary setting? Is there a difference between a historical novel and a literary novel that happens to take place in the past?
12. How would you characterize Hershons prose style? Are there any sentences that stayed with you after youd finished reading? Pick a striking scene and read it aloud. Is there music in the language? Variation? Is anything excessive?
13. The ending of The German Bride leaves so much in question. Were you satisfied by Hershons decision to end mid-journey? What role does Pauline, her fellow stagecoach passenger, play in this story? Do you think she is important to the novel? How? Why do you think Hershon ended the book with the line: “The other is me”?