Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Last Daughter of Prussia, Marina Gottlieb Sarles (2013)

Source: Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

I've been reading books on the Holocaust and the Jews since I was in 4th grade, it has always been a topic of extreme interest and horror, but always from the Jewish or Gypsy point of view, never from the German.  

Marina Goettlieb Sarles reminds us that although the German government committed atrocities during that point of time, they didn't necessarily have the backup of all their citizens, however they still dearly paid with their lives and that of their loved ones during the Russian invasion.

Synopsis: Manya von Falken is an East Prussian aristocrat, a twenty year old young woman whose family breeds the famous Trakhener horses.  They live in an idyllic setting in the middle of the Prussian forests, even though it is 1944 and the Russians are on the verge of destroying their home.

Manya is in love with Joshi Karas (and he with her), a Romani whose family has lived most their lives near Manya's home, maintaining a friendly, almost family-like relationship with them.  Joshi, despite his family's beliefs, decided to become a doctor and embracing the 'gadje' (non-Romani) life.  He returns to Guja (their town) to lead his clan to safety.  Unfortunately, it doesn't result according to plan and he and his sisters become imprisoned in a concentration camp.  Meanwhile, Manya is trying to convince her parents to leave, but being set in their ways, they decide to wait as they believe the Russians will not reach them.  However, Manya witnesses accidentally horrific rapes of the wife and daughter of the family's blacksmith by the Russians, and Manya is more than ever determined to save her family, her beloved horses, and herself.  She finally convinces her parents and 'The Great Trek' begins.

Not so positive aspects:
First of all the cover: horrible. Aztec (the horse) was supposed to be black; why do they always get these details so wrong? Not to mention that there's a 'Seabiscuit' vibe going on.

(Edit: It has been brought to my attention by the editor, Joy Stocke, that it was not Aztec on the cover, but Shambhala, a mare who was also on the Great Trek with Manya and Aztec. Thanks a lot for correcting me!)

Also, it was the middle of winter when they had to leave on their trek, so why is there a sunny, blue sky in the cover?  Where are the blizzards they faced? The ice crossing? This looks like a nice run on the beach.
Finally, what's up with the woman? I get she's supposed to be Manya, but couldn't the designers see how horrible it looks? This is not a Hallmark movie, it's a novel about death, rape, hunger, and massacre!
  • It has stilted, late 20th century writing in a WWII setting.  "Oh man, what a lump."  For some reason I can't picture the Russians speaking with this American terminology.
  • Undramatic, lukewarm expressions of supposed horrific scenes.
  • Bland descriptions, the reader is never convinced how the protagonists are suffering. "They may not be here today, but we've seen tracks. The massacres occur after dark. Has Joshi told you that we are leaving?" All in the same breath. As if massacres are normal. No emotions: dread, fear, helplessness... nothing.
  • The protagonist's father had just been taken by the Gestapo. They might all be killed at any moment. The servant is hysterical. The protagonist's answer: "make some tea."  We get it that the author is trying to depict Manya as being strong and practical during a crisis, but I think it just came off as if she didn't care much.  I mean it is her father.  And he was just imprisoned by the Gestapo, right? I would be pretty desperate and screaming and crying, but maybe that's just me.
Positive aspects:
About halfway through the novel, it seemed as if the author really picked it up and managed to salvage it.  Although the feeling of standoff-ness on behalf of the main characters never went completely away, it did get better, we had some tears or two. :) The concentration camp scenes could have been a bit more heart wrenching, but maybe that wasn't the intent? But if one takes the time to include those scenes at all, what else could be the purpose?  To be honest, I still don't understand why Joshi was so upset with the things he had to do whilst there, I mean, it wasn't the greatest situation, but at least he survived, he wasn't raped nor tortured (at least not more than the others).  Again, this was a weakness on behalf of the author who couldn't make the readers relate to what was happening.
Nonetheless, I did get caught up in their stories, but what was really the high point of the novel was the historical accuracy, the research the author obviously went through to write this. I had no idea the Germans also escaped with the help of civilian boats, just like the allies did in Dunkirk.  The parallelism can be viewed as ironic, if it weren't clothed in tragedy.  The fact that many ran away from their homeland because they no longer felt identified with it is also a misfortune, one that many Germans had to deal with at the end of the War.  
The historic nature of this book is its forte, the writing style, its Achilles' heel.  


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