At the end of World War II, a German teenager escapes the Red Army and seeks to reunite his family in this historical novel.
In the final year of World War II, 17-year-old Walter Heinrich’s life in Konigsberg is increasingly imperiled. Germany is certain to lose the war, and the Red Army is rapidly advancing from the east, leaving a trail of destruction behind its relentless march. Adolf, Walter’s father, who was conscripted into the German army and then disappeared, is now presumed dead. Then, Carl Forsythe, a British pilot, is downed nearby and seeks refuge in the Heinrich household, which Walter’s mother, Lena, eventually provides. Carl and Lena develop romantic feelings for each other—a connection born out of fear and despair beautifully depicted by Tosoff (Point of Return, 2018, etc.). Walter discovers their relationship and is enraged by her act of disloyalty, especially when he learns Adolf is actually alive and being held in a French work camp for prisoners of war. Carl finally sets out on his own, but not before his presence is reported by a meddling neighbor; when a German soldier comes to inspect the Heinrich home, Lena is brutally raped and murdered by him. Walter flees with his two sisters—6-year-old Mila and 10-year-old Brigitte—to Berlin, where his paternal aunt lives, but the three of them are intercepted by German authorities and sent to an orphanage. The author memorably portrays Walter’s relentlessness—he escapes the orphanage and sets off for France in order to find his father and, despite finding love in a small French town near Luxembourg, refuses to surrender his quest.
Tosoff’s research is admirably meticulous—his mastery of the geopolitical currents of the day, including the details of European geography, is indisputable. He captures the impossible predicament of so many Germans at the time—loyal to their native land but also left at the mercy of an insanely criminal regime. Walter experiences the moral degradation of his own people, made mean by their abuse, but he also understands their loss of esteem before the world: “Everywhere Walter went there were stories about beatings and even random murders perpetrated against innocent people just because of their Germanic ancestry. He wanted to get out from under the stigma foisted upon him and his countrymen because of Hitler’s evil deeds.” Tosoff’s prose is lucid and crisp—the entire novel is narrated in the third-person—but lacks any poetical quality. It reads like a combination of personal anecdotes and professional history, as if the author is unsure of which to assume and unable to seamlessly combine the two. The power of the story is its quiet lack of sentimentality—Tosoff unflinchingly describes the darkest depravities without either bowdlerizing the grim details or laboriously trying to shock readers. The moral record, so to speak, is read out loud without maudlin embellishment, and readers are trusted to understand its meaning or devise their own. One could argue that descriptive restraint is itself a species of poetical accomplishment.
A realistic rendering of a horrific period in German history.