As hard as it is to admit, aren't we all drawn with hideous curiosity to those who are different - strange - weird? We want to look away, we know that staring is rude but we can't help it, and yet, we won't dare get too close just in case we could "catch" their affliction?
Stones from the River could be described as a fascinating book about characters plagued with circus-freak misfortunes, set in the middle of Germany during the Holocaust. Not quite light reading. The stories of the boy who is raised as a girl and the son who gains the weight his parents eat, as well as other outsiders in the fictionalized town of Burgdorf are collected and spun and re-told by a Zwerg - a dwarf, a Little Person - who suffers great pains simultaneously ignoring and celebrating her uniqueness and the uniqueness of others.
Great writers are said to paint pictures with their words. Ursula Hegi paints in 3D. With her exceptional style, I feel like I could not only walk through Burgdorf without getting lost, but that I would know each inhabitant by sight and understand them completely.
Page 154: "For weeks it kept raining, and the river kept rising... Trudi helped her father carry the books from the pay-library. The flood covered the two lowest shelves throughout the library, soaked the legs of the wicker table, and stained the underside of the sofa, even though Trudi's father, with the help of Herr Abramowitz, had lifted its legs onto bricks. They wound the ends of the long drapes around the curtain rods, creating an odd rococo effect that made the living room look far more elegant than before.
The third week of the flood the rain ceased, but the surfaces of St. Martin's Church were half under water, and the people took boats to the chapel which stood on a hill near the Sternburg. It looked as if all the pigeons of Burgdorf had sought sanctuary on top of the bell tower, and it was impossible to see the slate roof tiles among the swarms of gray and iridescent birds."
It's in the little details that we comprehend the town as a whole, the persons in it, and the ability of the author to coax beauty from the everyday.
Unfortunately, it takes a long time to read this kind of detail.
With 525 pages, littered with "Frau's" and "Herr's," and a litany of other German phrases I was not accustomed to, I became acutely aware that in 2010, I have a short attention span that fights against the character-novel in a way that doesn't happen with the plot-novels that are experiencing greater popularity these days. In the last few weeks, I felt like the slowest reader on earth, but I am glad I stuck with it. The character development was amazing, the German perspective on the atrocities of WWII was something I had never engaged with before, and I really enjoyed the bait-and-switch paragraph structure used by the Spokane, Washington-based author. Take Page 291: "After six years of polite engagement to the elegant and accomplished Fraulein Raudschuss, the dentist, Klaus Malter, fell in love one hot June afternoon of 1941 - fell in love recklessly and irreversibly - shocking the town two months before his long-scheduled wedding day. His bride had her gown hanging in her closet , and every detail of the dinner had been planned, right up to the lemon and parsley fans that would decorate the cheese trays."
It's two pages before we ever get back to Klaus and the bombshell that was dropped at the beginning of the section. Almost - but not quite - long enough to forget about him and his new love entirely. I loved the gorgeous water-river-based metaphors, and the mythical and mystical stories designed to help us and the people of the small town make sense of their circumstances.
Part One Hundred Years of Solitude, part Big Fish, Stones from the River was ultimately a forced and welcome reprieve from the burden that this Year of 100 Books could become, if I let it.