Children and Fire: A Novel by Ursula Hegi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Goodreads: Though more than fifteen years have passed since Ursula Hegi’s Stones from the River captivated critics and readers alike, it retains its popularity, is on academic reading lists, and continues to be adopted by book groups.
Also set in Burgdorf, Germany, Hegi’s Children and Fire tells the story of a single day that will forever transform the lives of the townspeople. At the core of this remarkable novel is the question of how one teacher—gifted and joyful, passionate and inventive—can become seduced by propaganda during the early months of Hitler’s regime and encourage her ten-year-old students to join the “Hitler-Jugend” with its hikes and songs and bonfires. Membership, she believes, will be a step toward better schools, better apprenticeships.
How can a woman we admire choose a direction we don’t admire? So much has changed for the teacher, Thekla Jansen, and the people of Burgdorf in the year since the parliament building burned. Thekla’s lover, Emil Hesping, is sure the Nazis did it to frame the communists. But Thekla believes what she hears on the radio, that the communists set the fire, and she’s willing to relinquish some of her freedoms to keep her teaching position. She has always taken her moral courage for granted, but when each silent agreement chips away at that courage, she knows she must reclaim it.
Hegi funnels pivotal moments in history through the experiences of individual characters: Thekla’s mother, who works as a housekeeper for a Jewish family; her employers, Michel and Ilse Abramowitz; Thekla’s mentally ill father; Trudi Montag and her father, Leo Montag; Fräulein Siderova, midwife to the dying; and the students who adore their young teacher. As Ursula Hegi writes along that edge where sorrow and bliss meet, she shows us how one society—educated, cultural, compassionate—can slip into a reality that’s fabricated by propaganda and controlled by fear, how a surge of national unity can be manipulated into the dehumanization of a perceived enemy and the justification of torture and murder.
Gorgeously rendered and emotionally taut, Children and Fire confirms Ursula Hegi’s position as one of the most distinguished writers of her generation.
My take: This is my first experience with this author and it was incredible. She paints pictures with her words, one brush stroke at a time. Concisely and clearly, she reveals the conflict and the shocking resolution, which - as a reader, you know that shortly after this day World War II will begin.
The book is many stories twisting together and introducing different characters. The main protagonist is Thekla, a German teacher who has finally secured a position in a Catholic school. The day is in 1934. Thekla is teaching the boys in her class through example, first hand experience, and redirecting their attention so the children will not tell on each other or turn in their own parents for not being patriotic.
Thekla's day progresses while we flash on her memories, her ideas, and her made-up conversation with Sonja Siderova, the converted Christian from Jewish teacher who was put on administrative leave once her Jewishness was uncovered.
The book flashes a lot on different times which is not confusing. There are actually 2 distinct times that alternate. The book starts with Thekla teaching her boys then flashes back to 1899 when Thekla was but an illegitimate fetus in her mother's womb at a Catholic home for unwed girls. It is here that we come to understand her mother, her father, and her biological father who plays a part in Thekla's upbringing without her knowing his true role.
Foreshadowing is beautifully weaved through the pages as the reader understands that the burning of the Reichstag, one year earlier, is only the beginning of the many fires. The most moving is a quote by Heinrich Heine: "That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also."
The book is beautifully written, drawing upon symbolism while Thekla grapples with her stance. She believes she can continue to sit on the fence. She can believe what she chooses and enjoy her moral standing while enforcing the new laws of the land that continue to constrict the freedoms of individuals. Thekla eventually discovers that those who get too close to the fire, will get burned. Even the fence sitters.