By: Malve S. Burns
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Publication Date: September 1, 2023
Review Date: June 26, 2023
Stone Mother is based on a question that few of us—especially Americans—have ever paused to consider: What was it like in Germany after World War II?
The evil ones who started the war—Hitler and his Nazis—were gone, but thanks to them, the cities had been bombed to rubble, the economy destroyed, families shattered, and thousands of people dead or maimed for life. We know now that the country was rebuilt, and unified after a period of division between East and West, but how did the ordinary citizens survive the postwar devastation to recover at all?
We get a glimpse of that era through the eyes of young Marie, who was born during an air raid but grew up after Germany’s defeat. Her narrative starts at age five and covers the next decade, during which the war shadows everything, but she’s never informed why. In her own voice, we share her struggle to reconcile reality from the viewpoint of innocence.
When she finally learns about her heritage, it’s almost as shocking to the reader as it is for her.
And it’s made worse by exposure to the wicked things people do to each other without a war, and the distortion of souls that can be caused by extreme religion. Poor Marie! She’s subjected to it all: child abuse in several forms at home and school, crazy and cruel relatives and authority figures, separation from the few who are willing or able to love her, and loss of her beloved castle home: the Stone Mother of title.
Yet she never loses her inner core, making her an inspiring heroine—even at such a young age.
Nonetheless, she’s twisted in different directions by family, friends, institutions, and travel. An interval in Alaska immerses her in the stark contrasts between European and American cultures. With her only true passion being education (and her treasure-filled castle), she ultimately absorbs and grows in response to her passage through different worlds. But she never stops yearning for home, and all the good things Germany brought to her life while its war survivors were silent in shame.
The truth is finally revealed to her in a special seminar at her school, and it nearly destroys her. The rest of her journey involves learning how to live with the horror and carry on, to find meaning and do whatever she can to prevent history from repeating itself.
The story is literary in tone with excellent writing and depth of character. The places and events of the period are well-researched and presented. But it’s a grim tale and takes some strength to read all the way through. The effort is worth it, though, because it answers a question many people have asked themselves and each other: Why, and how, did the Nazis gain a hold in the country in the first place, and keep it, to everyone’s loss?
The answers aren’t discussed much in today’s schools, so the author brings them to us through historical fiction. Now, more than seventy years after World War II ended, the majority of readers will be as ignorant about the reality as Marie, with the advantage of knowing what came afterward. Since our reality arose from the consequences of that one, it helps to gain understanding through a compelling character’s experience.
Quill says: Stone Mother is a beautifully written, compassionate, but disturbing story about growing up in postwar Germany that will leave you thinking a long time afterward.