Christine had never been to the opera, but she imagined that this was how the tragedies would be played out. She looked around to examine the faces of those around her, wondering if anyone else could see Hitler’s malevolent soul coming through in his authoritarian words and exaggerated movements. Red and black shadows danced over the sea of upturned faces, making facial features indistinguishable. She had the unsettling image of a horde of lost souls standing at the gates of hell.
(from The Plum Tree)
My mother was born in Germany almost a decade after World War II ended, and she moved to the United States in 1956 when she was only 3 years old. She didn’t know what a Nazi was when swastikas were spray painted on the door of her family’s home in Pennsylvania, and she didn’t understand why one of her teachers kept commenting on her lack of blonde hair and blue eyes. From the Q&A in the back of The Plum Tree, it sounds like author Ellen Marie Wiseman had a similar experience growing up as the daughter of a German immigrant, whose wartime experiences served as the basis for the novel.
The Plum Tree follows the Bolz family in Hessental from the fall of 1938, when the Nazis were passing laws restricting the freedom of the Jews, and into the post-war years, when the German people were held accountable for horrific crimes against humanity. In the blink of an eye, 17-year-old Christine Bolz’s dreams of a happily ever after with Isaac Bauerman are shattered. Yet their love grows even as they are forced to hide their feelings for one another and meet secretly — first once a week, then once a month, and then not at all. As the years pass and Christine’s family struggles to survive the hunger and cold that accompany the war, she has no idea how the Bauermans are faring — whether they were able to flee Germany, or went into hiding, or were taken away by the Nazis — but she knows her love for Isaac remains as strong as it did on that last carefree day before the Nazis declared their love illegal.
In beautiful and vivid prose, Wiseman paints a portrait of an ordinary German family during the darkest days of their lives. This is a family that wants to live in peace, does not approve of Hitler’s policies, and worries about the path their country is on, yet they face imprisonment or worse if they even make a careless comment to a neighbor who either supports the Nazis or wouldn’t think twice about reporting them in exchange for food. Wiseman shows how Christine’s mother must get creative and abandon sentimentality in order to keep her two teenage daughters, her two young sons, and her aging parents fed. She brings to life the hopelessness of the German soldiers fighting in Stalingrad when Christine’s father is drafted into the army, the craziness of a Nazi rally when Hitler visits Hessental, the terror of the villagers running from the Allied bombs, the horrors of Dachau, and the unwillingness of some people to believe the truth about what happened to the Jews.
Wiseman also emphasizes how some Germans risked their lives to help in seemingly small but still important ways. More importantly, she touches on the issue of collective guilt and whether civilians were responsible for the actions of their government, as evidenced by villagers being forced to tour the concentration camps and bury the dead. It is easy to point fingers and assign blame, but Wiseman underscores how there are no easy answers when it comes to war and how there are good and bad people on both sides.
The Plum Tree is unique among the Holocaust novels I’ve read so far in its focus on the everyday struggles of non-Nazi Germans and in its treatment of Christine and Isaac’s relationship. One might think the forbidden love between a German and a Jew is a theme that’s been overdone, but Wiseman infused their relationship with beauty and hope, and she didn’t need a single sex scene for readers to understand the depth of their love. Wiseman’s writing blew me away, and I was captivated by the characters, especially their resilience and their heart. Every character, even the villain, felt real, and I wasn’t ready to let them go when the story came to an end.
I’m sure you’ve all figured out by now that The Plum Tree is my favorite book of the year. Despite the darkness and sadness inherent in such a novel, it’s one I can see myself reading again for the beautiful writing and Wiseman’s ability to pull readers into the scene from the first page. It’s rare that a novel makes me lose myself as completely as this one did. My heart would race when the bombs started to fall, and at times I was so overcome with emotion that I had to put the book down and sit for a bit in silence. This is definitely a novel to press into the hands of people who mistakenly believe all Germans were Nazis or supported Hitler, and it’s a must-read if you’re as obsessed with World War II novels as I am.
Disclosure: I received The Plum Tree from the author for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.