Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

skeletons-at-the-feastFiction — print. Shaye Areheart, 2008. 372 pgs. Library copy.

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.

Skeletons at the Feast explored an area of Nazi Germany few books I’ve read have explored — the people living in Germany, or those who considered themselves Germans, who were not intimately involved in the Nazi’s crimes against humanity.

“When this war was over, he and his family — all Germans — were going to have to live with the black mark of this (whatever this was) for a long, long time.” (pg. 192)

Anna, Mutti, and Theo are well-to-do Prussian beet farmers — who have always considered themselves German, and celebrated the return of their estate in Poland to Germany — fleeing the onslaught of Russian soldiers as World War II comes to a close. None of them had anything to do with the Holocaust, although Anna’s twin, Helmut,  and older brother, Werner, all serve in Germany’s army. In fact, Anna, much to the amusement of Callum, had no idea what the Nazis were really doing to the Jews when they “relocated” them.

“The Jews were being herded into the first three cars — far too many for each one, it was clear; dozens and dozens were going to be forced to stand — and their luggage was being loaded onto the fourth car. A freight car. And then, as Uri watched, that fourth car was uncoupled, and the fist three pulled away. The luggage, he saw, wasn’t going with them. Luggage, he realized, never went with them.” (pg. 16)

In their trip across Poland and Germany to the western side and, therefore, the safety of the Brits and Americans, the family is accompanied by Callum — a Scottish POW who falls in love with Anna and a character so stilted, it’s unbearable — and, occasionally, Uri — a Jew who escaped a train bound for Auschwitz and posses as a German military officer to escape capture by the very people he pretends to be. Uri is a interesting character, but I had a hard time believing he could have gotten away with possing as a German officer and, later, Russian for so long.

“But there was still a part of him that craved the specifics: where and when and who was responsible. Who held the angry, barking dogs on their leashes? Who raised high the truncheons, who march them into the pits? Who fired the machine guns? Or, perhaps, switched on the gas? These were Germans and Poles and Ukrainians with faces and names, men adn women who before the war had had families and ran streetcares and bars and butcher shops — people he and his sister and his parents migh have seen on any sidewalk and hardly given a second look.” (pg. 330)

The other character, who in the beginning doesn’t seem to make sense, is Cecile — a Jewish woman being marched from a concentration camp on the east side of German to the heart of the Third Reich. Cecile’s account is heartwrenching, but very little attention is given to her throughout the book.

“Hours later they heard explosions that were louder than the distant rumbling they’d bee aware of for days, and Cecile told everyone that she wouldn’t be surprised if their rckety wooden barracks now were gone, if the piles of smoldering ashes — as well as the blackened but not obliterated bones that lay among the cinders at the perimeter of the camp — were buried beneath the churned-up dirt from the center commons. The idea gave her pause, and she wasn’t precisely sure how she felt about this: Though she didn’t want such unmbiguous testiony to cruelty and babarism to remain on the planet, she wondered if people would ever believe what she’d seen if there wasn’t concrete proof.” (pg. 104)

One of the things I disliked about Skeletons at the Feast was the placement of the prologue. The prologue actually occurs in the middle portion of the book and would have just been better served if it was correctly placed chronologically. Putting it at the beginning as a prologue gave the story absolutely nothing, and frustrated me when the story jumped backwards a few years with the first chapter.

On that note, my greatest frustration stemmed from the abundance of holes in this novel; it could have used at least 100 more pages of narrative to cover the big chunks of time that went missing with each chapter. I find it incredibly frustrating to read a good book, and then read the last couple and pages and suddenly weeks and months worth of time are passed over in an effort to keep the book at a certain length.

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