Children and Fire

( 19 )


The fourth novel in the Burgdorf Cycle

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...

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The fourth novel in the Burgdorf Cycle

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.

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Editorial Reviews

Leah Hager Cohen
Ursula Hegi… attends not to a single dollhouse but to an entire imagined village. Again and again, she has returned to this setting, investing it with renewed curiosity and a desire to feel her way down new paths, coming at many of the same rooms and characters, even the same story lines, from different angles.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Hegi returns in her languid latest to the fictional village of Burgdorf, Germany, from Stones from the River and The Vision of Emma Blau, focusing this time on Thekla Jansen, a teacher during the early days of the third Reich. It's 1934, and the burning of the Reichstag the year before still haunts many minds, particularly those of the boys in Thekla's fourth grade class. Convinced that Hitler cannot last forever as leader of Germany and believing the path of least resistance to be the surest way of protecting her boys from harm, Thekla accedes to the government's increasing interference in daily life, such as the banning of certain books and interrupting class time for the Führer's radio speeches. But the encircling political danger and her own moral compromises are not her only worries, as a secret from Thekla's past may jeopardize everything she has worked to preserve. Hegi captures the passions, curiosities, and cruelties of boyhood with uncanny precision, and she smoothly injects German culture to create an authentic atmosphere, but the narrative feels too loose as it meanders across time, and its reliance on a tired family secret amounts to a finished product that doesn't live up to the dramatic potential of its historical moment. (May)
From the Publisher
"This novel is a lyrically written, emotionally powerful portrayal of a brilliant teacher battling the tragic effects of one man's hubris that shattered not only a town but the entire world." —-Library Journal
Library Journal
In this latest from Hegi (Stones from the River), the story weaves between present and past, with characters linked to crucial moments in history beginning with February 27, 1934, the first anniversary of the burning of the German Reichstag (Parliament) in Berlin. While an arsonist has been named responsible, not everyone accepts the official version of the event that transformed the lives of the German people. Meanwhile, in the fictional village of Burgdorf, Germany, a young teacher strives to protect her students and herself from propaganda and fear in these early days of Hitler's regime. She cannot believe that the Nazis will last, but meanwhile, to keep the job she believes she was destined to fill, she must conform to behavior that is repugnant to her. Guiding, modeling, and lovingly supporting her young charges through tumultuous times, she endeavors to discover the depth of her own moral courage. VERDICT This novel is a lyrically written, emotionally powerful portrayal of a brilliant teacher battling the tragic effects of one man's hubris that shattered not only a town but the entire world. Most fiction readers should consider. [See Prepub Alert, 11/22/10.]—Joyce J. Townsend, Pittsburg, CA
Kirkus Reviews

Hegi (The Worst Thing I've Done,2007, etc.) probes the moral dilemmas facing ordinary Germans in the early days of Hitler's Third Reich.

"No no not now. Away with this." That's the refrain of schoolteacher Thekla Jansen whenever she comes across some unpleasant reminder of the new state of things. Prayers addressed to the Führer, German classics banned from the classroom then burned in the streets, Jewish students and teachers barred from school—this is all temporary, Thekla tells herself. Soon people will come to their senses, and Fräulein Siderova, the beloved mentor who inspired Thekla to become a teacher, will get back her fourth-grade class—the class Thekla is now teaching because she was desperate for a job. These are the kinds of choices the new regime forces on people, Hegi shows us. Will Thekla's initial betrayal, relatively easy to justify, lead to worse? Hegi builds toward the answer by interweaving Thekla's musings over the course of a single day—Feb. 27, 1934, one year after the Reichstag burned—with the story of her birth in 1899 and her unsuspected paternity, which may put her in danger. But plot is not paramount in a narrative focused on Thekla's odyssey toward knowledge about herself. She's a superb teacher, we see in the classroom scenes, which show her gently encouraging her students to love learning and to think for themselves. But the pressures of the outside world cannot be escaped; when one student repeats his antifascist father's comments about "that damn Austrian," Thekla is quick to reprimand the boy for swearing, in hopes that the other students will remember that, and not his father's dangerous remark. Such half-measures will not long suffice, and readers will hope that Hegi's appealing protagonist does the right thing.

A thoughtful, sidelong approach to the worst moment in Germany's history that invites us to understand how decent people come to collaborate with evil.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451608304
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 5/8/2012
  • Edition description: Simon & Schuster
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 297,175
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 7.80 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Ursula  Hegi

Ursula Hegi is the author of The Worst Thing I've Done, Sacred Time, Hotel of the Saints, The Vision of Emma Blau, Tearing the Silence, Salt Dancers, Stones from the River, Floating in My Mother's Palm, Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories, Intrusions, and Trudi & Pia. She teaches writing at Stonybrook's Southhampton Campus and she is the recipient of more than thirty grants and awards.


Multiple award winner Ursula Hegi moved from West Germany to the U.S. in 1964. She has lived on both coasts, in the states of Washington and New York.

Hegi's first two books had American settings; but when she was in her '40s, she began investigating her cultural heritage in stories about life in Germany. Her critically acclaimed 1994 novel Stones from the River gathered further momentum when it was selected in 1999 as an Oprah's Book Club pick.

Among numerous honors and awards, Hegi has received an NEA Fellowship, several PEN Syndicated Fiction Awards, and a book award from the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) in 1991 for Floating in My Mother's Palm. She has taught creative writing and has written many reviews for acclaimed publications like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post.

Good To Know

Hegi immigrated to the U.S. in 1964, at the age of 18.

After it was rejected by several publishers, Hegi destroyed the manuscript of her first novel. She explains herself in this way:

"[The novel] was called Judged, and I wrote it between 1970 and 1972. When Intrusions -- my first novel brought into print -- was accepted for publication, I was a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire, and one of the other students said it would be interesting to write a thesis on my two unpublished novels. By then I knew that I didn't want to publish Judged. It just wasn't very good, and I knew I didn't want to revise it. But I had learned a lot from writing it -- especially how not to write a novel. I went home, made paper airplanes with my children from the manuscript, and landed them in the wood stove.

My second unpublished manuscript, written in the mid-1970s, was The Woman Who Would Not Speak. It was set in Germany, and I used quite a bit of the material, in very different form, for two later novels, Floating in My Mother's Palm and Stones in the River. I always felt that I wanted go further with those characters. When I began Floating, it helped a lot to have descriptions that I'd written not too long after leaving Germany. Floating contains one chapter, called "The Woman Who Would Not Speak," which gives you an idea of the storyline and characters in the book. I revise my work between 50 and 100 times, going deeper each time. But part of revision is also knowing what to abandon."

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    1. Hometown:
      Upstate New York
    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
    1. Education:
      B.A., M.A., University of New Hampshire

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

AWINTER MORNING IN 1934. Imagine frost on the windowpanes of the schoolhouse in this village by the Rhein, milk blossoms of frost. Imagine the chill on the necks of the boys in Fräulein Jansen’s classroom. Feel their dread because today is the first anniversary of the fire that destroyed the parliament building in Berlin, a fire that has scorched their dreams in a whoosh of yellow and red, jagged and fast, so fast it’s like a whip, like a hot wind, clutching at timbers till they cave in.

“What if the communists burn our school?” the boys ask their young teacher.

“Will they attack our village?”

“Oh no.” She tries to calm them. “The fire happened far away from here. Hundreds of kilometers.”

But the boys have heard about the fire so often that they’re frightened it will happen here in Burgdorf. They’ve heard about it on the people’s radio and in their parents’ discussions over who really burned down the parliament building. Most parents repeat what’s on the radio, that the communists set the fire. But other parents whisper that the Nazis set the fire to frame the communists.

“We are safe here,” the teacher promises her boys. And hopes it’s true.

They want to believe her. Because they adore her. Because she makes them feel proud. Because she gets them to laugh till their belly muscles ache. Because—and this they don’t know but will figure out as men, those who’ll survive the next war—she keeps the shutters open at night, even in winter, to feel moon on her skin. It takes a certain kind of teacher to do this, one who leaps and runs with her boys when she takes them outdoors.

“What if the communists burn my barn, Fräulein Jansen?”

“What if they blow up our bridges?” Otto’s voice is fearful.

But some of her boys look excited.

Thekla Jansen knows why. As a girl, she built bonfires with her Catholic youth group. The girls and their leader would sit around the flames, roasting potatoes and competing with stories about creatures that arose from the underbellies of their dreams. In the mist—stories like that are always more exciting in the mist—the girls would huddle closer, shout with delicious fear, lure the beast inside their circle of flames, and laugh at it till it faded away.

Andreas raises his hand. “The communists sleep on steel floors, not in beds, that’s how tough they are.”

“We have three cows, and if we can’t get them out—”

“What if they sink our ferry?”

“Five cows. We have five.”

The teacher rests one hand on the piano, against the glass frog house where Icarus lives. The frog’s heartbeat pulsates on every surface of his body, flashy and rapid, as if his body were his heart. Icarus survives on the dead flies the boys peel off sticky coils of flypaper that dangle from their kitchen ceilings.

“I was afraid, too,” Thekla Jansen says. “Especially those nights after the Reichstag burned.”

Startled that their teacher is admitting to fear, her boys lean forward in the wooden rows of desks, two to each row. Most of her ten-year-olds are already in uniform, pins of the new flag on their brown collars. But the nine-year-olds, too young to join, wear threadbare shirts buttoned to their throats, borders of white collar only on those boys who own their schoolbooks; for the poor boys, it’s one book shared by two.

“For weeks I kept checking for flames and smoke above our roofs,” she says and wonders if her boys, too, will forever remember where they were when they found out.

For her it was at a costume ball, dancing with friends from her university days to music from an orchestra of clowns. Rosenmontag—Shrove Monday, the pomp and glory of parades and floats and music and masks, your last fling because once Lent began, you had to atone for your sins and mistakes. Rosenmontag, the next to last day of Karneval, when all of Germany let loose in frivolity, when—behind your mask—you could be anyone you chose. As Thekla danced in the red and black flamenco costume her mother, Almut, had sewn, words shattered the music, a man’s voice from the Volksempfänger—people’s radio saying the Reichstag was on fire in Berlin, saying it as though he didn’t believe it, his voice urgent and climbing like the highest note of music itself. The costumed dancers froze as if in a pantomime as the voice described how, there in Berlin, ghosts and jesters and Vikings and Chinamen and ballerinas and prophets and Indians and angels and cats and Dutch girls with wooden clogs were swarming from restaurants and bars toward the blazing cupola of the Reichstag, while men in uniform, firefighters and SA and police, tried to block the bizarre witnesses from getting too close.

“Do you remember where you were when you heard about the Reichstag fire?” Thekla Jansen asks her students.

A murmur. A hum. Several hands rising.

“I was allowed to stay up late because of Rosenmontag. A neighbor came in and told us.”

“I heard on the radio.”

“I went to sleep in my costume.”

“I was a cowboy with—”

“I was a Chinaman. My Oma made me a yellow hat that’s like an umbrella.”

“—with two holsters and a mustache.”

“My mother woke me up and took me outside,” Richard says. “Some houses were dark. She kept wondering who knew about the fire. And who didn’t.”

“Did you have a mask, Fräulein?”

“Black satin with red stones.” Thekla remembers how troubled she felt as she pulled off her mask, and again on Aschermittwoch—Ash Wednesday two days later, when the priest’s thumb drew the cross of ash on the forehead of each parishioner. The scent of ashes in his golden bowl tilted her back into the night of ashes falling on Berlin—Ashes to ashes. To whom must I answer?—as though the Reichstag fire had been the harbinger for this ash on her skin; and she envisioned future Ash Wednesdays, years funneling into decades, when the cool smudge on her forehead would summon that fire for her.

“It started fourteen minutes past nine,” says Franz. Pants too short, but quick with numbers.

“I was asleep. But my father told me the next morning and said it would be a different world tomorrow.”

“My mother said anything can happen now, and that we must stock up on food that can’t spoil.”

“We bought lentils and peas.”

“My father, he was yelling,” Bruno Stosick says. He’s the son of the teacher’s landlord, a brainy child who can recite every move of historic chess games but doesn’t know how to play in the dirt. Already, Bruno is a chess champion, has grown up within the Burgdorf Chess Club that meets every Tuesday in his family’s living room.

Soon after the teacher rented the apartment above the chess club, Bruno began sneaking up the steps in his socks to play his hiding games. He’d knock at her door, hide behind the coatrack in the hallway. When she’d open her door and pretend to be surprised nobody was there, he’d leap out, smelling of chalk and of sleep, tip his face to her—“I thought you’d never find me!”—such sweetness in his smile, it’s almost too much for a boy.

But Bruno isn’t smiling now. He’s imitating his father’s hoarse voice: “‘Everyone knows that damn Austrian started the fire!’”

Most of the students giggle.

But some don’t.

Bruno digs his fingernails into his palms. “My father says the Führer should be strung up by his—”

“Bruno!” Alarmed, the teacher cuts him off. She has never seen him like this. “We do not say swear words.”

As if ‘damn’ mattered one damn to me. But this is what she wants her boys to recall when they tell their group leaders or their parents about school: that their teacher scolded Bruno Stosick for saying damn—and not that Bruno’s father wants the Führer strung up by his balls. Or, rather, by his one and only ball. If rumors are to be trusted.

© 2011 Ursula Hegi

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 19 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2012

    If you would like some answers, good story to find out

    I have always wondered how the German people and Americans could swallow the supported changes into the following/leadership of Hitler. I could now understand how this happened. A warning to us, Americans, how gradually the lies and deciet can be brought into play. Very informative.

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  • Posted August 19, 2011

    An interesting take on the effects of the Nazi rise to power in Germany from the average German's possible life.

    I think this would be a perfect "book club" selection for discussion. It should be compared to the similarities in US's present economy and political stances. Definitely could be a great movie if the central character was carefully chosen.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 28, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Not to be missed

    Thekla Janson is a young school teacher in Burgdorf, Germany during the early days of Hitler's rise to power. A caring and gifted teacher, she has a sweet disposition and finds something lovable in even the most annoying of her ten-year-old students. They, in turn, love her dearly.

    Janson has taken over the class from Ilse Abramowitz, a Jew. Janson revered her old teacher and thinks about her often, but doesn't visit, fearful of repercussions. She has no real affinity for the wave of patriotism permeating her country, yet encourages her students to become members of the "Hiltler Jugend" or Hitler Youth for the camaraderie and friendship. Thekla is aware of the dramatic changes in Germany, but adopts a "go along to get along" attitude and is able to hide her head in the sand and continue with life as she wants it to be, both for herself and her students.

    But there's so much more to this latest book from Hegi. Janson is just a symbol of how fear and propaganda, fomented by Hitler, eroded the moral fabric of Germany, one person or one child at a time. It's only when Janson discovers a secret in her own family that she begins to open her eyes and see the horrors for herself.

    A number of years ago I read STONES FROM THE RIVER by the same author. That book, like this one, stayed with me. Hegi has a quiet, intelligent and understated writing style, yet still manages to vividly convey the chilling reality of her characters' lives and the insidious erosion of family, freedom and humanity in the landscape of Nazi Germany. CHILDREN AND FIRE is another unforgettable book from Ursula Hegi, not to be missed. Lynn Kimmerle

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  • Posted July 8, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Sometimes you're NOT just being paranoid

    This book shows how easy it is to let a terrible situation sneak up on you - in this case, Germany in the 1930s. The main character thinks she can "just wait for it to be over" in 1934. History tells us what happened after 1934. It's like the story about how to boil a frog - put it in a pot of cold water and it won't notice the water gradually heating up until it's too late. Is this book a good cautionary tale for our times, or what?

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  • Posted July 7, 2011

    Beautifully Written

    If you liked Stones from the River, you'll like this. Hegi goes back to the fictional town of Burgdorf and brings more of the people to life. And she writes beautifully.

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