A Harvest of Secrets: A Novel by Roland Merullo

A Harvest of Secrets: A Novel
by Roland Merullo

A Harvest of Secrets is a slow burner, then halfway it ignites like gunpowder and the end is an emotional and deeply satisfying explosion, uniting all the storylines of the novel together in a kind of literary bonfire.

The novel is set in WWII, fascist Italy when much of the country has fallen under the control of the Nazi regime. The story unfolds primarily in a rural northern village where an old, aristocratic family grows grapes and produces wine. The San Antonio family and their estate have been lords over the land and the people for generations. There are tensions between the family who own the winery and its workers, age old class-based tensions that threaten to erupt under the additional strain of wartime food shortages and unpredictable Nazi raids. The war has also brought about new factions and exacerbated pre-existing enmities: resistance fighters and saboteurs against Hitler’s Nazis and Mussolini’s Blackshirts, deserters from the Italian and German armies, Il Duce’s spies, and Nazi collaborators. Caught in the cross hairs between these conflicting factions are two young lovers: Vittoria, the daughter of the proud noble family and Carlo, the orphaned peasant boy she grew up playing with. There are also others who find themselves trapped on one side or the other of the war: Old Paolo, the foreman at the winery, Umberto San Antonio, the noble man who owns the land, Enrico San Antonio, his son and Vittoria’s brother, Eleonora, the Jewish woman in their midst. They each have their obligations to family, country, and to those who have sheltered, raised, and loved them. These obligations tear the lovers and their community apart — and bring everyone together in other ways.

Merullo’s novel is not only about the lovers; it also about the many individuals whose lives intertwine with theirs. Indeed, the novel is more of a broad panoramic view of Italian society in this fraught period of the twentieth century. Some of the people Carlo meets are sympathetic to Mussolini, others seek freedom from the politics that engulfs them all, others are victims of Il Duce’s ill-conceived plans and ambitions. Vittoria is likewise surrounded by those who would do her harm and protect her from it. There are resistance fighters, Nazi soldiers and officers, Nazi collaborators, and Mussolini’s spies lurking and active all over the countryside, waiting to strike or entrap her and other innocent Italians who simply want to do what is right for themselves and their families, and by their conscience. As a woman of this period, Vittoria’s options are limited. Italian patriarchy places shackles on her that are made for women alone. She is meant to be a good daughter, a good woman, a quiet woman — but in the chaos of the war Vittoria cannot remain silent.

Woven into this larger cultural, social, and political vista of Italian wartime life is a domestic drama and mystery. Vittoria’s dilemma is at the center of this. She must bargain her silence for her freedom, sacrifice her morals to be a good daughter. But she is also a product of a longer history of women like herself.

Secrets held for decades, the kind begotten by forbidden love, are as much a part of the estate and the fabric of life in the vineyards as the vines themselves. These unraveling mysteries push and pull Vittoria, Paolo, Umberto, and Carlo in all directions. The emotional and real famine of war force these long buried secrets to emerge on the surface. As the Americans and Allies bomb Italy in order to free it, Vittoria, Carlo, Paolo, Umberto San Antonio, and others scramble for safety and try, hard as they can, to keep these secrets under cover.

Overall, a good read, especially for readers who enjoy themes of class conflict, gender histories, and ensemble casts of characters, and domestic mysteries.

Lost Souls of Leningrad: A Novel by Suzanne Parry

Lost Souls of Leningrad: A Novel
by Suzanne Parry

Lost Souls of Leningrad is a rare novel about the Russian civilian experience of World War II. Even rarer, its primary protagonist — and the character through whose eyes this experience is filtered — is a late-middle aged woman, a widow. (I am not a fan of romantic WWII novels that involve beautiful young women who all wear red lipstick, have perfectly coiffed hair, and fabulous clothes in the middle of wartime. Hello? Rations? I mean, COME ON.)

Parry’s novel possesses a more realistic portrayal of wartime. Its setting is Russia, a nation besieged by Nazis. There is a tightrope tension, drawn even tauter by dwindling supplies of food and medicine. Lost Souls of Leningrad does not romanticize war; events and experiences that other novels paint in sepia tone, Parry swathes in a more authentic grey. The sense of loss, a grieving for the world that was, is palpable in Lost Souls of Leningrad in a way that makes it refreshing as a novel of WWII.

The story revolves around an aging, widowed violinist and her teenaged granddaughter. But the novel is not about them alone. Lost Souls of Leningrad is a landscape of a European city at war. Parry reveals to the reader the swift and terrible death and decay of an urban place and its people when the trappings of civilization are ripped off by war. Food and the lack of it, water and the lack of it, the stench and the unavoidable abundance of it. Fear from all the dark corners, lives cast into darkness in the absence of street lights, electricity, law and order. The other characters are Russian soldiers, mothers, wives, and orphaned children. All of them are the lost souls of the title, each of them has lost something, whether a loved one or a parent, or simply their sense of security in ordered society that they once had, even if imperfect. Loss and grief, not only as a result of war, but through political upheaval, are themes that imbue the book. The novel draws a line between the time before and the time after, the time of war, and afterwards, even when war is over, there remains a division of before and after.

While the novel does not romanticize war, there are romantic threads in its storylines. There is love in this novel in various forms: nurturing and mothering love, parental love, innocent and childish love, romantic love, the kind of love that is weathered by life. While a defeating hopelessness pervades the novel (it is war, after all), there is also an uplift via its characters’ resilience. This strength manifests in many forms but most prominently through love and kindness.

As a historical fiction, it portrays a more social version of history than a military or political one. Readers should not expect dates or events, but an overall texture of life in wartime Russia. This is not a historical fiction that relies heavily on the facts of history, though the timeline of events does follow authentically in line with actual history; this is a novel about the human experience of war, lived and sensed through the skin, the eyes, the nose, the tongue.

This a beautifully written novel about surviving loss of different kinds and the love we need to do so.

Berliners: A Novel by Vesper Stamper

Berliners: A Novel by Vesper Stamper

In 2019, before the madness of the Covid-19 pandemic, I got the chance to visit Berlin for a conference. I wasn’t there for long, but it was magical. I got to walk the bridges, stand under the Brandenburg gate, see some castles, and eat currywurst (all kinds of wursts!)

So when I saw this novel, I was immediately intrigued. The contents did not disappoint. But, first, a caveat: This is a Young Adult novel. The primary characters around which the story revolves, the brothers, Rudi and Peter, are in their early-mid teens and the story does not progress far into their adulthood. The prose, language, structure and so on are clearly written for a YA reader, but the historical and emotional content is potent and will suit a more mature reader.

The story is told from the two brothers’ perspectives; it is the tale of their parents and their lives after WWII has ended and German society — Berlin society — has settled into a kind of uncomfortable holding pattern, caught between the two ideologies and cultures of the American West and the Russian-controlled East. Vesper focuses on the interior perplexity in the boys’ minds: in a period of their lives when they are already grappling with puberty and teenage crises of identity, they are forced to also wrangle with the localized manifestations of external pressures of international politics, Cold War propaganda, and collective post-WWII German angst. They struggle with what anti-semitism means in this age, what Nazism had been and is now (Vesper makes this point clear: the end of the Second World War was now the end of Nazism or the hate that that regime promulgated. It lives on and remains as insidious as was), what socialism is and truly is, what the Russian and American regimes represent.

One brother awakens to an understanding that the Russians are selling them a false promise. The other brother believes the Americans are doing the same. One brother seeks the freedom of the West, the other seeks the stability and order of the East.

In the mean time, they are struggling against one another as well; competing as siblings for the attentions of their parents, for a kind of childish glory, for a sense of belonging within their own world.

They wrangle with the more mundane things of teenage life as well: understanding love in all its conflicting forms. Their parents are products of the war as much as they are; their relationship is fraught with tension, not unlike the kind of tension between the East and West: irreconcilable, ideological, built on a history that was not of their own making and borne out of the War. The brothers are also young men, their minds and bodies are tangled in novel feelings of love and sexuality. They are on the edge of adulthood and are testing out how they might victorious in this new domain; they experience losses, betrayals, and grief as the story unfolds — and failure, that first, very painful sting of rejection that is inevitably accompanied by new experience.

The novel follows Rudi and Peter as they navigate their parents’ and the city’s divergence. They eventually find themselves on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, erected one night in secret.

This is a powerful YA novel that is also fulfilling for an older, more experienced reader. The moral and ethical dilemmas embedded in the politics and social interactions in this novel are ones that might be introduced to us at the YW stage of life, but they remain tangled in later adulthood too, so much of the conflict will be recognizable and moving for a maturer reader.

The White Hare: A Novel by Jane Johnson

The White Hare: A Novel by Jane Johnson

It would be hard not to fall in love with this magic-tinged historical fiction. I loved this book so much I stayed up several nights to read it, refusing to bookmark it until I absolutely could not hold my eyes open any longer. The loss of sleep was worth it!

The White Hare is set in post-WWII England. The narrator, Mila, her daughter Janeska (Janey), and her mother Magdalena have left London and bought a large house in Cornwall, which Magda and Mila hope to refurbish and turn into a hotel. Mila also hopes the change of location will allow her to move on from a toxic relationship. Magda too has lost her husband of many years to the War and is seeking to rebuild a life for herself in a new place. The two women are Polish evacuees/refugees of the war; England is their home now.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear that it will not be so easy to shed the past for the three of them; it comes back to haunt them in real and imagined ways. The house and land too that they see as their revival brings its own hauntings and histories into the present. This magic interacts with Mila, Janey, and Magda in positive and less-pleasant ways; it becomes clear there is something afoot at the house at White Cove.

The White Hare is not only a tale of magic and myth; what drew me back to its pages night after night was the deep, terrible past between Mila and Magda, the angry relationship between Janey and her grandmother, and the wedge and glue that comes into their lives, causing friction and connection all at the same time, in the form of another character, Jack. In many ways, this is a novel of intergenerational histories; the ways in which understandings of the self and our place in the world are inherited. That said, Johnson does not suggest that the past dictates the characters’ present or future; there is hope for change.

And there is plenty of change in this story. (The plot revolves around the revival of a place and its new denizens after all.) The novel is not a vehicle to retell history; it is much more subjective than that. This is a novel about how a group of people who have individually suffered ordinary and terrible events struggle to reconcile their pasts with their futures. Every one of the characters’ actions and choices are imbued with a history, sometimes a good one, often a tragic one. As the novel progresses, the reader witnesses how the characters’ histories and their knowledge of another’s helps them shed those ghostly pasts and create a new future for themselves and each other.

The White Hare immerses the reader in a poignant lesson of how the past and present are ever intertwined. Lingering in the latent, vibrating background is the White Hare herself, a spirit that inhabits the land and the haunted history that comes alive in her presence. The novel suggests that there is a world beyond our own mundane one, in which we are embedded. In The White Hare this is the magical, historical world, a state of being in which the past and present are not constrained by the physics of time.

What was also very satisfying for me was the way in which the novel resolves. Not only do the characters come to their own organic conclusions, but history also is validated and finds a place of belonging in the present in a very real, tangible way. It emphasizes Johnson’s narrative: that the past is never as far away as it might seem, it is really buried — sometimes literally — in our contemporary moment. For readers who love long, nuanced resolutions and endings, The White Hare delivers in abundance; nothing is left hanging.

This is a novel that takes the reader on a rollercoaster of emotions, from sadness to anger to pity to redemptive hope. It is inspiring. It is queasy in some parts. Reader, be warned, there are mentions of abuse, gendered and sexual violence, violence and murder. Ultimately, for me, this was an inspiring tale of vindication and hope.

The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel by Olivier Guez

The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel by Olivier Guez

Like many people I have a deep personal fascination with World War II (much influenced by my professional interests in this time period), but I was unsure if I wanted to read a book — fiction or otherwise — centered on so evil a person, a human being capable of having inflicted so much suffering on others. Indeed, the first third of the novel made me rather queasy: Should I be more detached from this historical material? Should I be reading this with a massive grain of salt? Should I be enjoying this read?

And that’s the thing: The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel is a captivating, enjoyable read. Guez’s prose is irrepressibly smooth, the plot is compelling and thrusts the reader forward, his characterization of Mengele is fascinating, successful, human. I did not want to like him — and here I think is Guez’s brilliance — I did not end up liking this horrendous human being, in fact, my distaste for him was confirmed, but Guez prevailed on me to acknowledge Mengele as a member of my own species. By the end of the book, I could not deny that Mengele and I shared a common sense of existence, a common biology, that he and I were human. And I therefore must confront the real horror of Nazi eugnenics and racism: humanity is cruelest to its own and any study of our inherent nature must accept our own cruelty.

Josef Mengele — in all his aliases (Pedro, Peter, Helmut, Wolfgang, so many others) — was not the only character in Guez’s meticulously researched historical novel who brought me to this uncomfortable realization. Mengele’s first wife, Irene; his second wife and ex-sister-in-law, Martha; his unwanted lover, Gitta; his father, Karl; and his mother, Walburga are those who inflict cruelties — justified or not, minor or abusive — on Mengele. This does not excuse Mengele, but in terms of a fictionalized view, Guez gives us a window into his psyche,

This novel is not about Mengele per se, it is a layered dissection of the interaction of individuals, their subjective desires, and their collective obligations as these factors intersect with history and its unavoidable tides. Guez writes without pretending any unique insight into Mengele’s interiority. That which Guez assumes and invents is well within the parameters of fiction; his characterization of Mengele is plausible, the world Guez constructs is recognizable as our own. I want to note that Guez’s deep research into the topic is visible, appreciated, exemplary. If only most writers of historical fiction did this. For historians, professional, hobby, and emergent, Guez’s brief but detailed note on sources is a fantastic bonus. But, I digress, the book isn’t about Mengele; it is about all that made the disappearance possible.

Therefore, added to the above cast is the vast network of enablers that made Mengele’s escape and assimilation possible. These friends, politicians, extended family members, and indeed all the clerks, secretaries, and supporting unnamed persons make the horror even more palpable — as tangible as the sense of the person sitting in the office next to me, the odor of my fellow-commuters on public transports, the sound of a door closing elsewhere in my apartment building. These people are not the cowardly or indifferent Germans who made the Third Reich and its genocide of Jews, Roma, and so many others possible, no, what Guez forces the reader to recognize is that there are people who are willingly complicit in promoting and preserving the genocidal, racist ideologies of the Nazis — and others like it. Juan and Evita Perón and their institutionalized obsession with Nazism and Fascism, Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, officials in Germany from the highest levels of the state down to the municipality of Günzberg, where the Mengele family was headquartered and ran their multinational corporation from, and so many others were thrilled to be part of the Nazi machine, during and after WWII. Some were motivated by their own ambitions, others by a sense of loyalty, others by fanatical belief in Mengele’s work and Nazism. Guez brings this massive conspiracy to life, peoples it with individuals we recognize in our own lives.

There are also those individuals who were completely hoodwinked by Mengele, and therein lies the other side of this story. I hesitate to say this is the “redeeming” aspect of Guez’s novel; no, it is better described as a more recognizable payoff. Their stories are those which we expect to see in a novel like this; these are the characters whose snubs and betrayals serve as rewards for sitting through the horrors I have described above. When Mengele’s son, Rolf; his dog, Heinrich Lyons; his landlords, Geza and Gitta; and later, Elsa abandon Mengele, the reader is bound to exclaim, “Yes! Finally!” and feel a rush of tingly righteousness.

Still, mingled with this happier sensation is a sadness: it is not enough that Rolf Mengele refused his name, freezes out his father, it is bittersweet that Heinrich Lyons dies (no spoiler here, what dog outlives a man who lives into his late 60s?). I will not spoil what happens with Elsa, Geza, or Gitta. The reader cannot forget that an exhausted and geopolitically influenced Mossad had to redirect its efforts away from Mengele’s capture and lose the opportunity to deliver some closure and justice to the millions affected by the Shoah. The fact that Mengele’s story rolls on to the novels end is an unhappy reminder that the cruelties Mengele experienced were in no way comparable to that which he inflicted on others.

For all the nuance and complications woven into the characters interactions, the plot is straightforward: it is an account of how this sadistic individual got away with it and how he did not fully escape the consequences and punishment of a kind. There is a sense of satisfying comeuppance, though the degree to which any reader will feel vindicated will vary. I was glad that Mengele could not live in peace, but the measure of his penalties was small in comparison to the magnitude of his crimes. That too is Guez’s point: fate is not bound by any moral scale. There is no equilibrium in justice.

A note on audience: Because of the multiple meanings this novel could convey its merits could be misconstrued, its story could be twisted to serve neo-Nazi tendencies if read without some guidance or instruction for some readers. For that reason, I would not recommend this as a book for novice historians, undergraduate students, or for use in a classroom — except, perhaps, a graduate seminar. The Disappearance of Josef Mengele: A Novel requires dissection with historical guidance for readers who have less experience working with or knowledge of the histories this novel is built on.

One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and a search for a Lost World by Michael Frank

One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and a Search for a Lost World by Michael Frank

This non-fiction memoir deserves no less than 5 stars, or whatever maximum is possible in your systems of rating books. I read this as an educator, a professor of modern history who teaches a course focusing on tracing the origins of the world’s conflicts and oppressions.

The plot traces Stella’s life, from her earliest memories, growing up in the 1930s in the Juderia, a Jewish community on a tiny island in the Mediterranean, Rhodes. Each chapter is a few pages, capturing a vignette of her memory of a particular moment, woven with enough historical context to understand the relationship of this memory with world history at large.

A good third of Frank’s book focuses on Stella’s life in Rhodes during the 1930s and the early 1940s, before 1,650 Jews were rounded up, taken from the island, and sent to the concentration camps in Europe. At least 90% of them would not survive their internment.

This chronological focus is Stella’s explicit choice; the story of her life is not grounded in the Holocaust. The book seeks to excavate and exhibit the world of Rhodes that was destroyed by the Holocaust; it is not a novel of the Holocaust, though that is an ineluctable element in this conversation of Rhodes’ history. That said, the second half of the book is a raw account of Stella’s experience of the journey to and inside several camps, including Auschwitz. The final sections of the book focus on Stella’s — and others — lives afterwards: the struggle to come to terms with the loss of Rhodes, their physical and cultural home, the effects of the Holocaust on themselves and their families and children.

The book makes an ideal choice for an undergraduate history course: First, it is short as a whole, according to Good Reads, 240 pages (I read the galley e-version from NetGalley which did not have accurate page numbering). Second, being published for a non-academic audience, One Hundred Saturdays uses very accessible language. The tone, style, and format are conversational. Sometimes, the dialogue between Michael and Stella is transparent; sometimes it is Michael’s voice overlaid over Stella’s, providing the reader with necessary context; at other times, Stella’s voice is unmistakable. Third, the memories and chapters are neatly and discretely separated into digestible — assignable — chunks, making it easy for any instructor to parcel out readings and sections to fit their curriculum. (I have assigned holocaust readings, usually Elie Wiesel’s Night, but I may consider assigning One Hundred Saturdays instead, easily.)

The fourth reason is that Stella’s perspective as a woman gives us a way to understand the gendered experience more fully. This is not to say there is a dearth of female Holocaust survivors or stories by female survivors; but this one pays especial attention to women’s concerns and experiences. The final reason this is appropriate for use in the college level history classroom is the book’s focus on how the holocaust, anti-semitism, and racial laws unfolded outside of Europe proper. Students are rarely given a view of the Holocaust outside of Germany and Western Europe in general. But One Hundred Saturdays gives the reader a more holistic view of this history through its examination of Italy’s involvement and discussing the Turkish presence in the Mediterranean. I would say this is one of the most significant contributions of Levi’s story and Frank’s book.

This is a book worth reading, over and over. Like many books written of the Shoah, this book will remind you of your humanity.