German Bride: A Novel

( 3 )

Overview

Berlin, 1861. Eva Frank, a sixteen-year-old Jewess, has her portrait painted, which leads to an indiscretion that has devastating consequences. Desperate to escape a painful situation, Eva marries Abraham Shein, an ambitious merchant who has returned home to Germany for the first time in a decade since establishing himself in the American West. The young bride leaves Berlin and its ghosts for an unfamiliar life halfway across the world, traversing the icy waters of the Atlantic ...
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The German Bride: A Novel

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Overview

Berlin, 1861. Eva Frank, a sixteen-year-old Jewess, has her portrait painted, which leads to an indiscretion that has devastating consequences. Desperate to escape a painful situation, Eva marries Abraham Shein, an ambitious merchant who has returned home to Germany for the first time in a decade since establishing himself in the American West. The young bride leaves Berlin and its ghosts for an unfamiliar life halfway across the world, traversing the icy waters of the Atlantic and the rugged, sweeping terrain of the Santa Fe Trail.

Though Eva’s existence in the rough and burgeoning community of Sante Fe, New Mexico, is a far cry from her life as a daughter of privilege, she soon begins to settle into the mystifying town. But this new setting cannot keep at bay the overwhelming memories of her former life, nor can it protect her from an increasing threat to her own safety that will force Eva to make a fateful decision.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"At once lyrical and heartbreaking, Hershon’s third novel (Swimming, 2001, etc.) follows a young Jewish bride as she leaves the refinement of Berlin for the wilds of 1860s Santa Fe....Hershon creates a finely nuanced portrait of their marriage—Eva, politely contemptuous of the state in which she’s forced to live, Abraham, glib, guilty and self-righteous, and yet the two love, or at least desperately need the other. As Eva suffers a number of failed pregnancies, Abraham becomes more indebted to the gambling table and local bordello, and their downfall is imminent. Hershon’s large cast of supporting players—Santa Fe’s French bishop and his grimacing flock of nuns, the other German Jewish merchants prospering and creating a community—and her graceful description of the desert form a narrative of outsiders pitted against a giant landscape. Amidst it all stands little Eva, determined to make a life for herself. A beautifully written tale of small sufferings and redemptions."—Kirkus Reviews

“A surprising novel of grace and refinement. It is a tale of the American West, but unlike any I have ever read before. Hershon enters Willa Cather territory and does it with a rare elegance and complete originality. I was not familiar with Joanna Hershon’s work when I read this novel, and it made me order her first two books.”—Pat Conroy, author of The Water Is Wide

“Wonderful from start to finish. An immigrant tale and a Western, without the Lower East Side or cowboys. I don’t know why nobody has told such a story before, but I’m glad Joanna Hershon has told it first and told it so well.” —Mary Doria Russell, author of A Thread of Grace

“A novel of great breadth and depth, a richly imagined pilgrimage into this brave new world. Joanna Hershon paints the portrait of a woman——and her family and suitors, the strange company she starts to keep——with authoritative precision; hers is a first-rate talent and here is a riveting read.”—Nicholas Delbanco, author of Spring and Fall

“Joanna Hershon’s lush and gripping novel of travel and dislocation exquisitely delineates the shock and loss that accompanied the wild ride of immigration and frontier-living in the mid-nineteenth century. Eva Shein’s heart-in-the-throat journey, from Germany to Santa Fe, is an elegant and mesmerizing testament to human adaptability and survival.”—Helen Schulman, author of A Day at the Beach

“A highly satisfying story, full of marvelous details that evoke a time when the American West was being built. There is stunning power in Hershon’s finely cadenced prose, and compassion for her characters. This is a novel you can’t put down. Get ready to stay up all night following Eva’s adventures.” —Jonis Agee, author of The River Wife

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345468468
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/24/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 766,215
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Joanna Hershon is the author Swimming and The Outside of August. Her short fiction has been published in One Story and The Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the painter Derek Buckner, and their twin sons.
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Read an Excerpt

Holiday, 1861

Father held the chicken feather in one hand and the candle in the other. By the light of the small candle’s flame, Henriette and Eva followed him through the house now that the day was done. They searched for bread or anything resembling it—cookies, cakes, biscuits, noodles, Eva’s favorite things. Father dusted corners with the feather, while holding light to the darkest places to make sure each crumb was caught and placed inside the sack. As they gathered crumbs, Mother practiced the piano.

During the winter months Mother remained at home, but she more or less constantly played music, or else she withdrew to her rooms. When the season began at Karlsbad (where Mother took endless baths meant to have restorative healing powers), she brightened briefly before packing her things and leaving. And, as Mother’s exodus was fast approaching, Father—made plainly cross by her eminent departure—became impassioned with religious fervor, which, no matter how often it was asserted, always seemed sudden. During the weeks leading up to the Passover holiday, he roamed the hallways after his workday and vigorously recalled his own dear departed parents with increasing de- votion and righteousness. Father came from devout people and Mother did not and Passover was always the year’s turning point, a time when Father and Mother displayed themselves just as they did now: Father focusing on the ritual task while Mother played a Mozart sonata. The music floated gently (if a bit unsteadily) through the house. Mother had already shared her love of the healing waters—the Kur—with her daughters and despite enjoying the pine-needle baths and the climbing tours (which ended with a delicious cherry tart), Eva could not imagine what could possibly be in Karlsbad that reassured Mother so deeply.

Father must have wondered, too. Eva knew, if nothing else, he longed for a more orderly home. The chaos of the kitchen usually sent him into a furious state (it wasn’t unusual for Father to inspect the kitchen and find something amiss: a milk plate mixed in with the meat plates, a box of chocolates that Mother claimed she hadn’t realized was there), but Eva preferred the fury to what increasingly looked like hopelessness. It was too much to bear Father’s bald head in his broad hands; Father asking Mother—gently at first and then not so gently—why it was so difficult for her to organize the help who were for heaven’s sake hired because they were Galician Jews and weren’t they meant to know a thing or two about keeping a kitchen?

Eva imagined the servants’ downstairs quarters, where she knew they’d be taking their supper now, probably too exhausted to converse. This morning Eva had helped Rahel and the others hang Passover linens out to dry with special wooden pins kept exclusively for the day. She thought of them now, all finishing their supper, and she couldn’t help but wonder—if they weren’t too tired—what they might have to say. A few years before, Father had insisted on hiring extra servants for Passover but Mother had refused, claiming she could only trust Rahel. But when Father prevailed and Mother compromised (agreeing to hire extra servants but only Rahel’s relations), unflappable Rahel—having already told Eva that she had only brothers—produced several sisters, one after the other, all of whom looked nothing like her. Mother didn’t seem to like Rahel very much but she always wanted her nearby, always called out for Rahel from the depths of her bedroom, where the curtains were usually drawn.

And—after years of refusing to eat in the Frank home because they didn’t trust the kitchen—Father’s devout relations were coming to the seder. Father had evidently said something quite miraculous to convince them. “Promise me that you girls will do your duty this year,” he asked them solemnly over a month ago. “Your mother . . .” he said, shaking his head, and while Eva simply stared at him with nothing useful to say, Henriette took his hand and said: “Dear Father, of course.” Henriette was four years older than Eva, and sometimes Henriette taught Eva fine needlework, discussing at length her favorite colors, which were subject to change any day, and when Eva didn’t pay her proper attention, Henriette would accidentally poke Eva with a sewing needle.

Father didn’t stop Mother from making her preparations for Karlsbad and Mother didn’t argue about the kitchen. She said, “I’m sorry darling,” to Father in the very same way she said it to Eva and Henriette when they questioned if she might not like to stay home. Mother gave dry kisses to her daughters—kisses that landed more on the air and less on their expectant cheeks—and Henriette had taken on the household responsibilities as if she’d only been waiting to be asked all these years. Eva was amazed to see how she didn’t seem daunted at all. Her older sister actually seemed far more comfortable being in charge than Mother ever had been—discussing a schedule with Rahel and the “sisters,” choosing not only her own elaborate Passover ensemble in advance but Eva’s new clothing as well. And Mother hardly seemed to mind this loss of authority; her mood actually improved as Henriette ordered the appropriate crates out from the storeroom, dispatched servants to purchase matzot from the special bakery, the meat from the special butcher, the scalding cream for the pots and pans, and the kindling—stacks of it—for hearth fires as well as for this night’s ritual burning of the chometz.

Father’s footfalls were hypnotic in their placement on the stone steps, the wood floors. Eva had always enjoyed this ritual—the hunting, the quiet, the crumbs—but this year she realized her mind was wandering and the wandering came from boredom. Her sister was wearing a corset and her cheeks were flushed; she looked as energized as she had when, last month, her first suitor came to call. Eva wasn’t sure why but she felt herself on the precipice of absurd laughter (her very favorite kind) and she was gratified to see that her smile was still contagious; Eva could see that, even in her most officious state, Henriette was smiling, too.

“Evie!” her sister whispered. “Why are you smiling?”

“Why are you?”

“Because you are!”

“I’ll stop then,” Eva promised. But it was too late.

“Please,” insisted Henriette, but Eva could tell she too was about to break into laughter, and Henriette’s was the best in the world; her sister went from perfectly proper to literally snorting with giggles. “Please, please, please,” Henriette mouthed, as Father turned around and Henriette pinched Eva’s arm.

“Girls,” said Father, before turning down the guest wing hallway, continuing with the search.

“Evie,” Henriette hissed.

When she saw that Henriette was truly upset, she vowed to pay closer attention; she swore that when the small sack was close to full of all of the remnants of bread in the household, she would be the one who volunteered to fetch the matches and Mother. “I’ll be helpful tomorrow,” Eva promised. She took her sister’s hand.

“I know you will.”

“You have such faith in me, Monsieur.” Eva fluttered her lashes. Her sister had promised—she had sworn on the Torah—that Eva had nice eyes.

“Mademoiselle,” said her sister, “I have no choice.”

The family stood outside in the garden. The seder table had been laid for the following evening, and Eva missed the linens hanging on the clotheslines like sails against the sky. Father struck a match, the kindling caught fire, and he poured on the bag of chometz. The crumbs and bits of cookie, the starchy odds and ends—they all burned away, and soon the Franks were faced with an extravagant flame.

•••

When Henriette found Eva in the middle of the night, sitting at the piano in the music room, she gave an elaborate sigh before sitting down beside her.

“I can’t sleep,” said Eva.

Henriette nodded and patted Eva’s back. “Neither can I.”

Eva suddenly realized how lonely she’d felt, sitting in the dark by herself. It was often that way with her; the loneliness arrived only after she settled comfortably into another person’s presence.

Her sister rambled on and it was a cadence as familiar as wind through the trees. “. . . I imagine it’s because of the holiday, you know. I want everything to be perfect.”

“It won’t be,” said Eva, and Henriette didn’t bother responding. “Nothing ever is,” Eva insisted, more or less cheerfully.

“You’re a funny girl,” her sister said.

“So you’ve said, Monsieur, oh so many times.”

Henriette didn’t smile and held out her hand. “What are you hiding?”

“What am I . . . ? Nothing,” said Eva. “Nothing.”

“What is in your mouth?”

Eva shook her head. She swallowed.

“Show me.”

Eva produced the half-eaten cookie from her pocket. She had hidden it, over a week ago, in a box of sheet music and had taken it from the box only minutes ago. It had been her plan to savor it slowly.

“Why?” asked Henriette, and Eva couldn’t tell if her sister was more curious or appalled.

“I’m not sure,” said Eva, and it was true. When she hid the cookie, she’d been filled with a kind of glee, as if by breaking these sacred laws in secret she might have her own kind of revelry. Suddenly the taste of illicit cookie in her mouth was not moist with brown sugar and almond paste as she had so keenly anticipated, but instead it was chalky and bitter.

“Come,” said Henriette. “We’ll go outside in the garden and throw it onto the fire.”

“It’s too late,” said Eva, but Henriette shook her head.

“Listen to me,” she said, and Eva could imagine her years from now, presiding over a busy household. Her sister would have her own little monsters soon enough—a cluster of naughty boys and girls, all with romantic names. “Those embers are still burning outside,” Henriette explained. “Don’t you see? We have time.” And they walked out into the garden to watch Eva’s cookie burn away to an inconsequential mistake.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Eva blames herself throughout the novel for the death of her sister Henriette and Henriette’s newborn son. Do you think that Eva is, in fact, to blame? Do you think in a similar situation today, a woman would suffer a comparable amount of guilt and shame?

2. Eva has relationships with three different men in this novel—Heinrich, Abraham, and Levi. What issues do you think Hershon was trying to explore through each one? Do you think Eva was in love with any, or all, of these men?

3. Abraham is a maddening husband, brother, business partner, and friend. Even so, there is something compelling about him. Did you find yourself rooting for him despite his terrible behavior, or did you feel that he got only what he deserved?

4. Why do you think Hershon chose “The self forms on the edge of desire,” a quote from an Anne Carson poem, as her epigraph?

5. What role does Judaism play in The German Bride? What about the role of Jewish identity? Is there a difference between the two?

6. There is a drastic difference in environment between Berlin and Santa Fe, and the landscape of the American southwest is evoked both harshly and sublimely. What role do you think “place” plays in the development of The German Bride?

7. Do you identify more with Eva’s sister-in-law, Beatrice Speigelman or with Eva herself? Why?

8. How big a part does God and faith play in this novel?

9. Eva and Levi form their friendship while in a sickroom. How does his weakness play a part in their relations? Is his weakness eroticized? How?

10. Abraham and Meyer have a strained and ultimately tragic relationship. Do you think Meyer should have cut him off long before he did? Which of the two brothers is more “American”?

11. This is a historical novel, in that it takes place in the past. But do you think this story would hold up in a contemporary setting? Is there a difference between a historical novel and a literary novel that happens to take place in the past?

12. How would you characterize Hershon’s prose style? Are there any sentences that stayed with you after you’d finished reading? Pick a striking scene and read it aloud. Is there music in the language? Variation? Is anything excessive?

13. The ending of The German Bride leaves so much in question. Were you satisfied by Hershon’s decision to end mid-journey? What role does Pauline, her fellow stagecoach passenger, play in this story? Do you think she is important to the novel? How? Why do you think Hershon ended the book with the line: “The other is me”?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 2, 2009

    THE GERMAN BRIDE by Joanna Hershon

    The German Bride is a very powerful story about what a German-Jewish bride went through during and after traveling half way across the world to leave a bad situation in Berlin. Eva was only sixteen when she married a businessman thinking she would have a wonderful life in America but everything went wrong.
    Lorraine

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 1, 2009

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    Posted June 29, 2009

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