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Desert Storm is in the headlines when Wolfgang Kallick comes from Erfurt to Moosehead Lake, Maine, to find out what happened to his brother Dieter in that other war 45 years ago. The official story is that Dieter, a POW who'd been shipped to the Sheshuncook logging camp, drowned following an escape attempt two months before V-E Day. But Wolfgang has heard rumors that his brother's body had unexplained head wounds, and now he wants to put the case to rest. In upstate Maine, whose denizens hardly talk to neighbors they've known for years, everyone gives Wolfgang the cold shoulder—even old Libby Pelletier, the Country Kitchen owner who'd be more sympathetic if she weren't preoccupied with problems of her own. Libby's been the matriarch of her family since her mother ran off back in 1943, leaving behind her brusquely unsympathetic husband Ambroise and two scared teenagers, Libby and her kid brother Leon. Now Leon, exhausted from his latest bout of d.t.'s, is home from the hospital, and Libby has her hands full, especially when he tells her not to have anything to do with the Kraut. Shortly after, though, Leon himself is found frozen to death, and Libby, frazzled by the obligatory threatening phone calls, the attack on her dog, and the repeated flashbacks to 1945 that engulf her, finally agrees to talk to Wolfgang Kallick—only to find him too another accident victim soon after. With her own brother's blood as well as Wolfgang's crying out for revenge, Libby goes on the offensive, though the revelation she flushes out will surprise only newcomers to the Buried Secret subgenre.
The mystery plot is tired and slack, but White's lovely way with Libby's cracked voice may well win his share of crossover readers.
2 July 44: In camp two weeks already but so exhausted have not been much inclined to record thoughts. At night, crawl into bed and sleep like a rock. Close my eyes and next thing they are herding us into trucks and taking us into the woods again. All in all, should not complain. Must remind myself of horrid conditions in Mateur. Poor sanitation, cramped quarters, the freezing nights and blistering hot days. Not to mention the scorpions and sand storms. And that, of course, nothing compared to what it must be like for my dear old friend Bruno Ruppe, taken with von Paulus. We hear the most terrible rumors of what goes on in the East.
Arrived here after a long train ride from Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A., where our ship put in. Last seventy-five kilometers rode by army truck over logging roads to what must be the most remote spot on earth. America! A place as vast as the deserts of North Africa. But instead of sand and camelthorn, endless mountains and lakes and forests stretch to the horizon. Skies the most delicate blue, perfect as Dresden china, and no planes fly overhead. Before leaving camp in Africa, some Luftwaffe fellows said States had been heavily bombed and only a matter of time before the Amis sued for peace. Utter nonsense! Quiet and peaceful here as if there were no war going on at all. Reminds one of the Oberhof, only mountains are more wooded and desolate. Nights quiet, like they could be in the desert. Hear mosquitoes buzzing over our heads and the metallic drumming of crickets in the night. Men snoring or talking in their sleep, or relieving their loneliness in the close, stuffy darkness of our barracks.
5 July 44: Last night heardexplosions. Sounded like small arms fire coming from just beyond fence. Several men hit the deck, and a rumor (we live by rumors here!) quickly spread through camp the Amis were executing some of us. Supposedly in retaliation for something that had happened in the war. Only later did we learn it was their Freedom Day—just the fireworks of the village children.
Amis treat us firmly but fairly, not at all as we had feared. In fact, some are quite friendly. One guard shared a box of homemade cookies sent to him from his family. CO a Major Ryker. Slight man with large ears and wire-rim spectacles. Looks more like a bookkeeper than an officer. First day in camp gave us a lecture on hygiene. Seemed more concerned about an outbreak of lice than an outbreak of men. As camp showers are not in working order yet, has allowed us to bathe in nearby lake. A Strandbad only three hundred meters down the road where we go for a swim. Water frigid. Five minutes in and your body turns numb. But good to bathe after the many weeks it took getting here.
Camp an old logging supply farm. A large barn has been converted into barracks which house about 200 of us, as well as a few Czechs. Can still smell the sharp animal odor, though not really unpleasant. Makes me think of Grandfather's, where Wolfie and I used to visit as children. Next door is the kitchen and mess hall. Beyond that the maintenance shop and garage, the infirmary, then double rows of barbed wire. In each corner are guard towers manned by soldiers with submachine guns. Most of the time, however, they are sitting with their noses in magazines and couldn't care less about us. Ami enlisted men housed in barracks near canteen, while officers live in separate building towards the lake. At night we sometimes hear their Victrolas playing music. American Negro music, this fast, brassy sort that shakes the night. Makes me think of the Blue Swan, that cabaret Mariam and I used to go to in Leipzig before the war.
Food trucked in each day and not bad at all. Several times a week we have meat—real meat, not the Alter Mann beef tins we had in Africa. Lagerfhrer Heydt and Obergefreiter Badsteubner, a cook before the war, went to CO to ask if we could prepare our own meals and were granted request. Young Gunter Schessl, a gunner from my tank crew, helps Badsteubner over in the kitchen. Now we have Bauernseufzer and Kl”sse and Pfannkuchen. Even fatback sandwiches on dark bread for lunch in the woods.
Lights in our barracks have gone off again, fourth time tonight. Camp generator still not working correctly. So am finishing this by candlelight. Have just heard the sad cry of a bird somewhere out on the lake. Like a human voice really. Poor thing sounds as lonely as I feel. Makes me think of lines from Goethe:
Who never spent the darksome hours
Weeping and watching for the morrow . . .
8 July 44: Take our noon meal right in the woods, sitting beside the Amis. Quite a sight—captors and captives breaking bread. Sometimes hard to imagine under different circumstances they could stick a bayonet in your gut. Woods have made us brothers of sorts. One guard named Lazzari, from New York City. Friendly, always joking with prisoners and forever trying to barter cigarettes for German souvenirs. Today, Wattenberg working next to me in the woods. He's career Wehrmacht, from an old Prussian family, but not a bad egg. Been a POW since Agedabia in '41 and has had time to mellow. He pointed at Lazzari, who was urinating against a tree, and said, "Dieter, do you think the American girls like such a puny schwanz?" We laughed out loud and Lazzari asked me what was so funny. After I translated for him he said, "You know what the problem with you damn krauts is?" "No," I said, playing straight man. "You're too goddamn worried about size—big guns, big bombs, big cocks. I never had any complaints from my old lady." Without missing a beat, Wattenberg joked, "Nor I." We all had a good laugh, most especially Lazzari. Everyone, that is, except for Feldwebel K, who had overheard us. He comes around checking to make sure we only make quota, don't give the Amis a drop of sweat more than we're obliged to. Red-faced swine thinks we shouldn't have anything to do with our captors. "We are still fighting for the Fatherland, Kallick," he has told me on several occasions. He makes out the work assignments. Cross him and you'll find yourself shoveling shit in the latrines. Or worse. A bloody nose or a few broken ribs. Or like that fellow in the camp in Mateur. Found the poor bastard hanging from the rafters, his hands tied behind his back. Called it suicide! He had gotten too friendly with the Tommies and paid the price.
9 July 44: Cutting wood is very hard work. Up at six for breakfast and in woods by seven-thirty. Blisters on both hands. Aching muscles. Worst thing a tiny insect called a black fly. Gott im Himmel! As bad as the flies in Benghazi. Have tried kerosene and pine pitch—even cologne! Yet the fresh air and vigorous work have done wonders, and being busy helps pass the time.
Am keeping this record of my captivity in my Tagebuch. For posterity—if there is one. Have decided to write in English both for the practice and to deter those I'd rather not have see it. Spies everywhere, looking for traitors to the Reich.
10 July 44: They have made me an interpreter for one of the American foremen, a rough-hewn woodsman if I ever saw one. Drives prisoners hard and doesn't hide fact he doubts he can turn us into good workers. Can't tell if he hates us or just our inability to learn forestry. Uses one of our own, Oswald Grutzmacher, to get us to do his bidding. Grutzmacher had some previous logging experience on his family's farm in Bavaria. Like the American foreman, he abuses the men and treats them with contempt. Grumbling in camp about his being so cooperative with the Amis. One thing to follow orders, quite another to do it so willingly.
Have to admit, some of our men, especially those from the cities, were quite unfamiliar with axes and saws. A few were even afraid of Indians hiding in the woods. One youth, a former Jugend member with peach fuzz still on his chin, who'd been captured after only a week in the Korps, said that is what he'd learned about America from Karl May's books. Indians! Did we believe they had only horses and six-guns with which to fight our Panzers? Like those brave and foolhardy Poles who used cavalry charges against our Mark III tanks. Of course to say such a thing here is unwise. Wattenberg is always warning me, "Dieter, you have to be more careful." Even here it's the Lagergestapo, that pig K and his bunch of thugs, that's really in charge. Yet if all are too timid to speak out, what will it all have been for?
16 July 44: After breakfast went to church service this morning. Chaplain an Ami officer. Tall man with a high bony forehead. Speaks only a little German so has me translating for him. Directs all his words to me, not to the congregation. Gave a sermon on vengeance. From Judges, told the story of Samson avenging himself on the Philistines. "And he found a new jawbone of an ass and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith." Pointed his finger at me and said this was what was happening to Germany now. "You are the Philistines and the invading Allies the Samsons wielding a mighty jawbone." Said we still had a chance to repent, to cast off the sins of the Fatherland and become righteous. Right in the middle of his sermon, D, one of K's bunch, farted loudly. Everyone laughed and the chaplain became enraged. Called us—me—Satan's ministers and said God would wreak a terrible vengeance on us.
The landscape of rural Maine provided a surreal sort of shelter for these most reviled casualties during the war. While many prisoners served their time peacefully enough, some escaped and others -- like the brother of Wolfgang Kallick -- were simply reported to have died.
A Brother's Blood commences decades after the war, with Wolfgang Kallick's arrival in America to learn the details of his brother Dieter's death. When he discovers that Dieter escaped from the camp and was found dead months later, he vows to find out how his brother died. Libby, a flinty local woman who grew up during the war is drawn into the drama, only to find that her family is impli- cated. After her brother is slain, Libby undertakes her own quest for solutions to both deaths -- suspecting they are somehow related -- and exposes a darkness beyond her imagining.
Praise For A Brother's Blood
"A stark, stunningly well-written novel."
--The New York Times Book Review
" (White's) strength lies in his characters and his use of language to evoke the dark woods of rural Maine and the even darker lives of the people who spent the war years there. Reader's of Gutterson's work will probably find White's equally rewarding."
"Even without a buried crime to exhume, this novel would be fascinating...Michael White is a writer to watch."
"A Brother's Blood isa mystery novel of the highest order...White's is a frightening--and ultimately moral--vision."
--Dawn Raffel, fiction editor, Redbook
"A readable, tough, reverberating novel...The people inhabiting this story are every bit as real as the landscape...A first rate novel."
--Seymour Epstein, author of Leah
"Remarkable controlled...This novel marks White as a talented and energetic writer."
"Intelligent and believable... (A Brother's Blood) has depth and heart...A fine debut novel."
"White captures perfectly the insularity and claustrophobia of a small New England town, the gruff eccentricity of its inhabitants, the brusque pride of a lonely spinster, and the moral tragedy of war. This dazzling first novel deserves a place in all collections."
"A Brother's Blood is a dark, brooding tale containing mystery and suspense...a good novel that is well told."
--Springfield Sunday Republican
"What David Gutterson's Snow Falling on Cedars did for the Northwest and the subject of Japanese internment camps, Michael C. White's ( A Brother's Blood) might do for rural Maine and another murky aspect of World War II."
--The Hartford Currant
"Read it--do read it...A mystery of uncommon humanity and understanding."
--Central Maine Newspaper
Topics for Discussion
1. In the novel, Libby is at first reluctant to question the past. Why is she reluctant? What begins her transformation?
2. Libby is not a typical symbol of femininity. Her mother said that with her looks she would have to try harder to get a man. Several people have made fun of her cleft lip, yet she has no lack of male suitors. Discuss Libby as a feminine symbol.
3. Libby has always protected her brother Leon. And yet in part because of him, she was never able to have a life, a husband, and a family. What does Leon represent to Libby?
4. Ambriose is a complex character. A drunkard, he is gruff and distant from his family, yet by the end of the novel, we see him in different terms. Why?
5. The setting of this novel can almost be looked upon as another character. How does the bleak Maine landscape contribute to the tension of the book?
6. Libby was abandoned by her mother at a young age. How does this affect her? Does she ultimately resolve her conflict about being left alone?
7. The title comes from The book of Genesis: "The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground." Discuss as many possible implications of this as they appear in the novel.
8. Had Libby known earlier on about the truth of Dieter Kallick's death, would she have lived her life differently?
9. Did the horror of the Holocaust and the atrocities on the German side diminish the concern of the local citizens about the death of a German?
10. Why did the author choose to tell the story from a female point of view?
11. Mitzi's death hits Libby hard. Why does she react so emotionally and how does this serve as a pivotal force in the novel?
About the Author:
Michael C. White, the author of the highly-acclaimed novel A Brother's Blood, has published over forty stories in national and liter- ary magazines. His story "Take Her Dancing" was nominated for a National Magazine Award, and his story "Nights" won the 1996 Advocate Newspapers Fiction Award. He is also the founding editor of the yearly fiction anthology, American Fiction. Currently, he teaches English at Springfield College in Massachusetts. Born and raised in New England, he has lived in Colorado, North Carolina, New York and England. He has also spent a good deal of time in the backwoods of Maine, which is the setting for A Brother's Blood. White has recently completed a collection of stories called Marked Men, and is currently at work on a new novel called Sins of the Father.
A Note from the Author:
A Brother's Blood had its genesis during a fishing trip I made to Moosehead Lake, Maine. While there, I happened to come across a map of the lake that had a brief history of the area. Included was a passing mention of the fact that the lake was once the site of a German POW camp. Having been born after the war, I was surprised to learn that we had POWs in America. The subject piqued my interest and I began to dig. I found there were hundreds of similar camps spread throughout the U.S., with hundreds of thousands of German prisoners. Each camp had its own unique stories to tell, stories about escapes and violence, about loneliness and survival, stories which involved not only the Germans, but the Americans as well. Here was an important part of American history that had been over- looked, that hadn't been taught in school. I wanted to tell that story in A Brother's Blood.
The novel is much more than just a history of a time and place though. It is above all the story of Libby Pelletier, a strong independent woman. It is the narration of her determination to hold her family together at all costs, to make any sacrifice to save her brother, to keep sacred the memory of her father as well as the memories of the German POWs she came to know and respect. As the novel unfolds, Libby Pelletier, the narrator, wins us over by her grittiness, her rough sense of humor, her compassion, and ultimately by her honesty and decency in the face of lingering prejudice and hatred. Libby's vigilant search for the truth, no matter what the personal consequences, is at the heart of the novel. What Libby learns ultimately, and what we learn from her, is that while a war may be long over, those human weaknesses that spawned the conflict - hatred, narrow-mindedness, a thirst for vengeance - are still very much with us and we still need to guard against them. The novel can be seen as Libby's quest for understanding in the face of such ignorance, for knowledge - both of the town's past and her personal past - in the face of secrecy, and her compassion in the face of animosity. Her story is ours.
Posted July 23, 2001
This is an engaging story set in an interesting time in American history. It deals with the lives of many people and how their actions served to connect them both then and now some 40 plus years later. The strong female main character Libby is wonderful. Great start for Michael C. white. A writer to watch.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 25, 2008
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