Character-driven rather than plot driven (the plot often moves slowly), there are many things to like in this novel of pre-and-during-WW2 England.
The main character, Franz Heiden, has a dilemma. Half English, half German, throughout this book he tries to reconcile his belief system between what he has been taught from the country of his birth, and what he experiences for himself.
The book starts out with his stay in England over the course of a year. Franz has decided, with the support of his Nazi-officer father (who hopes that Franz will dig up information for him while Franz vacations in England), to visit his English mother’s country. Franz is staying with friends of his mother’s family and finds it very difficult to adjust to English humor and lifestyles at first. He tells his English host family what it was like to be in the Hitler Youth:
“It all sounded very idyllic, and Franz was vaguely aware that he was making it sound a great deal more idyllic than it was. He was giving a slightly distorted impression of the Wandervogel Outings, an impression seen through rose-colored spectacles. He had said nothing of the sordid side, of the intrigues, and jealousies and promiscuous love affairs which flourished like weeds in the hotbed of Nazi Youth. Franz had enjoyed the Outings until he began to discover what lay beneath the surface, but before he left home he had grown tired of them and faintly disgusted, and on several occasions he had made excuses to remain behind. He had grown a little tired of the youth songs, too, and had sometimes wished that they could sing some of the songs which had been loved and prized long before the Youth Songs were invented – the songs that Tant’ Anna sang when she thought that nobody was listening – songs by Schubert and Brahms and Strauss, lovely melodies and words which touched the heart…”
Franz was a great character and I thought very realistically done, as he is pulled in his loyalties from one country to the other. How he surmounts his difficulties and becomes stronger through them makes for a very interesting story.
However there were some quibbles that really bothered me. One of them was Sophie, Franz’s mother’s best friend. She was so wishy-washy I almost threw the book across the room! I realize the author was trying to portray why Sophie gets along with everyone and why she is so well-liked in the neighborhood, but her personality just, for me, didn’t ring true.
Wynne, Sophie’s daughter, unfortunately is cut from the same cloth. Very little to like or dislike here (I prefer my characters to be more realistically portrayed), and I just never came to know Wynne as a person with tangible, original motives or feelings.
But!!! There was *so* much pathos in Franz’s aunt Anna. I simply could not get her out of my head, and the scene of her looking out the window, wishing for better days, living her life in a ‘shadow’, in fear that she will be turned in for expressing an opinion that was not in sync with the Third Reich, was so sympathetically drawn that I could not help but wonder what life was like for those German women with sons and husbands caught up in a war they did not want…
“The only thing that Tant’ Anna could give Franz was these memories, and perhaps a little of her hard-bought wisdom which might be of service to him in the dark days that lay ahead.
“Life goes on,” she told him. “Life never stands still. We are blind creatures, Franz, and we do not know where we are going. There are long dark tunnels and then we come out of them suddenly when we are not expecting it, and there is light all round us again. Remember this, Franz, the darkness is only a tunnel after all… Sometimes we hate and suffer, as we did in the war, and then we find that this was a tunnel too, and that the hatred was based on falseness and the suffering arose from mistakes. It is hatred that is the matter with the poor world today. Remember that, Franz. Hatred is deadly and kills all good things. Hatred blinds us to all that is beautiful…and so it is with the Fatherland which was full of so much goodness and beauty. People are being taught to hate. Jesus Christ taught us to love… to love even our enemies. It is for our own sakes we must do this, Franz, because hatred is bad for ourselves…”
Franz (who later changes his name to Frank as his identity becomes more sympathetic to England), goes through some wartime escapades and very nearly loses his life.
Not my favorite of D.E. Stevenson’s novels, this was still a very thought-provoking read!