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Though more than 15 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 Hitler's regime and encourage her 10-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 she's 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; Frulein 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 thats 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.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Ruth Green on 10-10-11
Thoughtful and moving literary fiction
The publisher's summary more than adequately explains the setting of the novel. I simply want to recommend this novel and its narration, done by the author herself. It is warm, intimate, and deliberate. The German accent is not difficult, but rather gives a flavor to the reading that enhances the experience of listening. As a teacher, I found the relationship of the protagonist to her students to be remarkably insightful. The canvas of the novel is brush-stroked with the complexities of human relationships, whether it be parents to children, one teacher to another, among the villagers, or among the children themselves, and the author explores the ambiguous question of when compromise is a virtuous sacrifice, and when it becomes a moral failing. We see this village through a mist of melancholy, as we know what is around the corner for these schoolboys with the rise of Nazism, and yet the experience of listening to this book is ultimately affirming of the preciousness of human life and relationships, at the same time it gives an appreciation for the precariousness of identity and belonging.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful
By Jennifer Nieboer on 12-14-14
Listen to sample before buying audio version
I downloaded this book on the recommendation of someone who had read the printed version and loved it. I wish I had listened to a sample of it before I bought it or I would have gotten the printed version as well.
The book is a fascinating look at the lives of ordinary citizens of a small German town during Hitler's rise to power, and explores reasons for why good, moral people could be seduced by the promises of the Nazi regime, or more often, refused to believe that it would go any further down the road toward genocide and therefore did nothing until it was too late. Told mostly through the eyes of a young teacher, flashbacks reveal much about her past and the consequences she faces if she doesn't go along with the regime and all it entails.
The problem that I had with the book was the narrator, who happens to be the author herself. I realize that English is not her native language, and I admire her for wanting to have the book read the way she probably heard it in her mind, but she was not a good choice for an audio version of the book. She reads in a languid, slow, almost sometimes halting fashion that I could have tolerated except for her pronounced lisp. And I don't mean a German accent, which was quite easy to listen to, but her chronic inability to pronounce the Rs and Ls in words, instead substituting Ws. This is not a side effect of a German accent, and I found it to be incredibly distracting. I am sympathetic to people with speech difficulties (I've had problems with an occasional stammer throughout my life) but I in no way think they should be narrating audio books. I finally had to put the playback speed on my iPod to Faster play, to help minimize the lisp, and it also neatly solved the very slow pace of the narration. I think this audio version would have been much better served with someone such as Diane Kruger or Elisabeth Rohm reading it. Both are actresses with good speaking voices who are German born or raised, and could have easily handled the German passages throughout the novel.
So, I would recommend the book, but consider carefully if the audio version is acceptable to you by listening to a sample first.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful