A woman chronicles political events and her diverse relationships in 19th-century Germany.
In this historical novel, Maynard (co-author: A Photographer’s Guide to Colorado’s National Parks and Monuments, 2015) uses stories passed down as family history to imagine the life of her great-great-grandmother Anastasia Burkart. Anastasia, born in 1796, grows up as the daughter of a tailor in a small German town and eventually becomes her father’s apprentice and takes over his shop. She never marries but gives birth to three children, two of whom survive to adulthood, and observes and comments on Germany’s role in European politics, from the Napoleonic Wars through the 1848 unrest and eventual unification. The overall narrative is a quiet one, focused closely on Anastasia’s relationships and what it takes for her to survive. She is a compelling narrator, alert, practical, and shrewd. When she becomes pregnant with her last child, she hides her condition with her sister’s help (“Francisca took care of shopping, cooking, gardening, and the housework, as she had always done. I had no need to be seen in the market or at the bakery, at the festivals, or out on the streets”). After Francisca leaves the newborn baby on the steps of a church, Anastasia offers to adopt him, allowing her to find praise rather than censure in parenthood. The small dramas—convincing her father to take on a female apprentice, losing a childhood sweetheart to war, being abandoned by a fiance—that make up Anastasia’s world provide the book’s action and conflict. Maynard touches on many relevant topics—religious divisions, smallpox inoculation, the guild system—within the context of the narrative, revealing substantial research and knowledge without burying readers in an excess of information. She also provides sufficient context (“Although the birth of children to couples who intended to marry but were not yet able to do so was decried as sinful by the priests, the young couple was not usually shunned by the community if it was understood that they would be married at the first opportunity”) to make it clear that Anastasia’s unconventional life was nevertheless not outside the norms of her time and place. Although the story is neither fast-paced nor high-stakes, Maynard delivers an engrossing and well-developed narrative that should appeal to fans of domestic fiction.
An engaging historical novel starring one of the author’s ancestors.