Review: ‘Those Who Save Us’ by Jenna Blum

those who save us_book coverWhen I finished my second book of Thanksgiving weekend — “Brooklyn” — I silently cursed myself for not bringing my Kindle with a couple more reading options. Then I rolled my eyes — I was in a house full of reading options. I got my love of books somewhere, right? I scoured my parents’ (really my mom’s) bookshelves for reading options. One of those was “The Children’s Blizzard” and right next to it on the shelf was “Those Who Save Us.” Pulling the book out, I saw the old photo of a girl in a pink coat and flipped the book over to read the back:

“For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer. Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life. Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.”

A historical fiction book about Germans during World War II and part of the book is set in Minnesota? I was sold. So on the early early (like, 5 a.m.) flight back to Chicago, I cracked open the book and barely put it down until I took at nap later that morning (3 hours of sleep only gives me so much energy). Four days later finishing the last page, I’m sitting in my living room trying to write this review. There’s so much I want to say about this book, but for some reason my mind isn’t putting words in the right order.

As I read this book about a mother protecting and caring for her daughter, I remembered a film I watched in my final semester of German in college. It was called “Deutschland bleiche Mutter (Germany Pale Mother),” and it told the story of a couple who marry just before the outbreak of World War II. While her husband fights on the Eastern front, Anna must care for their daughter, moving to Berlin to live with family after their home is destroyed in the bombing. Reading this “Those Who Save Us” reminded me of that movie and just how much mothers went to protect their children during the war. Anna Schlemmer in “Those Who Save Us” was no different.

The book opens at the funeral of Anna’s husband and Trudy’s stepdad, Jack, in 1993. You can feel the distance between mother and daughter throughout the chapter as Trudy brings her mother back to the farmhouse to prepare for the wake, which no one comes to. Then the book begins with Anna’s story, jumping back in time to 1939. As the story progresses, the book jumps forward in time to Trudy in 1996. Because of Anna’s silence about the past and Trudy’s growing curiosity, this is the only way to tell this tale. By the end of the book, the reader knows Anna’s entire story and Trudy is only beginning to see just how much her mother did for her and for the Resistance in Weimar, Germany.

Blum’s writing is beautiful and carries the reader effortlessly through each woman’s tale. Though the entire book is written in third person, you can easily tell when you’re reading Trudy’s section and when you’re reading Anna’s section. Blum’s use of German words is not overwhelming and can be easily understood within the text. Though I did study German for nearly eight years, it was a little bit rusty and I was able understand the words without having to stop and search for a definition within the narrative. My only qualm is the lack of quote marks with the dialogue. By the end of the book, I had gotten used to it, but it was difficult to differentiate the dialogue from the narrative.

I haven’t read many adult fiction books about Germany during World War II, so I can’t say this book is the best of all of them. The fact that I read the entire book in less than a day says something, though. “Those Who Save Us” is a book I would recommend to those who might not know much about German history and/or enjoy reading World War II historical fiction.

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