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Stones from the River is a daring, dramatic and complex novel of life in Germany. It is set in Burgdorf, a small fictional German town, between 1915 and 1951. The protagonist is Trudi Montag, a Zwerg — the German word for dwarf woman. As a dwarf she is set apart, the outsider whose physical "otherness" has a corollary in her refusal to be a part of Burgdorf's silent complicity during and after World War II. Trudi establishes her status and power, not through beauty, marriage, or motherhood, but rather as the ...
Stones from the River is a daring, dramatic and complex novel of life in Germany. It is set in Burgdorf, a small fictional German town, between 1915 and 1951. The protagonist is Trudi Montag, a Zwerg — the German word for dwarf woman. As a dwarf she is set apart, the outsider whose physical "otherness" has a corollary in her refusal to be a part of Burgdorf's silent complicity during and after World War II. Trudi establishes her status and power, not through beauty, marriage, or motherhood, but rather as the town's librarian and relentless collector of stories.
Through Trudi's unblinking eyes, we witness the growing impact of Nazism on the ordinary townsfolk of Burgdorf as they are thrust on to a larger moral stage and forced to make choices that will forever mark their lives. Stones from the River is a story of secrets, parceled out masterfully by Trudi — and by Ursula Hegi — as they reveal the truth about living through unspeakable times.
Suzanne Ruta The New York Times Book Review Rich and lively...This moving, elegiac novel commands our compassion and respect for the wisdom and courage to be found in unlikely places, in unlikely times.
Sometimes Trudi and Eva played with Seehund by the brook in back of the pay-library, but he'd run from them, yelping, if they'd splash him with water. And whenever they dragged him into the brook to teach him how to swim, he escaped as soon as they let go of his collar. Soon he learned to stay at a safe distance from Trudi if she went near water.
"You should have named him something else," Eva said one fall afternoon after they'd given up on trying to submerge Seehund. "A seal is supposed to love water."
"We'll call him Earth Snail," Trudi suggested.
Eva laughed. "Turtle Breath."
Both arms stretched wide, Trudi whirled around. "Turtle Breath," she chanted. "Earth Snail...." Her right foot banged into the end of the wooden planks that spanned the narrow arm of the brook soon after it forked. She cried out.
"Pinch your earlobe," Eva yelled.
Clutching her toe in one hand, Trudi hopped back and forth on the other foot.
"Just try it," Eva ordered. "It stops the pain."
When Trudi pinched her earlobe, it stung. Miraculously, her toe stopped hurting. "How come it works?" She plopped down on the grass next to Eva.
"It just does. I'll show you something else." Eva brought her face up against Trudi's. Her breath smelled of raspberry pudding as she opened her lips — so wide that Trudi could see deep inside her mouth. Its roof was curved like the ceiling in St. Martin's Church, and the dark gap in back was separated by a pink icicle. When Eva's tongue stretched up, it hid the gap but exposed bluish veins beneath her tongue and a taut membrane that connected it to the bottom of her mouth. "Try it." Eva's voice was muffled. The tip of her tongue danced against the roof of her mouth. "Move it so it tickles."
Trudi tried. "It feels silly."
Eva closed her mouth but right away yawned as if she needed to move her lips. "Remember to do this if you're ever hiding and have to sneeze and don't dare to because someone may capture you."
"Who would capture me?"
"You never know. It's an old Indian trick. Indians do it when they don't want their enemies to find them."
"How do you know?"
"My father. He read it in a book from your library. I know all kinds of other remedies."
"Can any of them — " Trudi felt her hands go sweaty. That morning, when she'd told Sister Mathilde she wanted to become a teacher, the sister had said it wasn't a good choice because children wouldn't have respect for a teacher who was shorter than they. She rubbed her palms against her skirt before she dared to ask Eva, "Can any of those remedies make you grow?"
Slowly, Eva pulled at a clump of grass until it came out by its roots. She tossed it into the brook, where it swirled in slow loops as it drifted away.
"I don't know of any remedies." Eva's voice was soft. "You'll grow on your own."
"Sister Mathilde — she says I can't be a teacher."
"My mother says people can be anything they want to be."
"What do you want to be?"
"A doctor. I'll be a doctor and you'll be a teacher."
"Teachers have to be tall."
"Teachers have to be smart. You're the smartest girl in class."
"I know," Trudi said without enthusiasm. She would gladly give up being smart if she could be tall. "I don't want to look different."
"Look." Eva unbuttoned her cardigan and blouse. "I'm different too." She pulled up her undershirt. A dark red birthmark, shaped like an irregular flower, spread across her thin chest. Its petals blossomed across her nipples and toward her waist in a paler shade of red than the center, as if they'd faded under a strong sun.
Air and sound and scent spun through Trudi as she raised one hand and brought it close to Eva's flower, spun through her, spun her, as though she were spinning in a world that would always and always spin through her. Her ears hummed and her arms tingled and it took impossible effort not to lay her palm against Eva's chest until Eva nodded, but when she finally did, the skin of the flower was the same warmth as her own hand and it felt as though she were touching herself.
Eva swallowed, twice, and Trudi felt her heart beating beneath the flower. With her free hand, she traced the outline of the petals, wishing she could trade her difference for Eva's.
"It's beautiful," she whispered.
Eva yanked down her undershirt so hard it dislodged Trudi's hands. Her long fingers jammed the buttons back through their holes. "You'll grow, but I'll always have this." She leapt up. "And when I have babies, they'll drink red milk from me." She dashed across the planks to the other side of the river and down the hill that led toward the fairgrounds.
When Trudi ran after her, Seehund raced toward the brook, barked, but recoiled a couple of times before he stalked across the planks like a very old dog. As soon as he was on the other side, he caught up with Trudi, then Eva, circling between the two girls like a sheepdog pulling in his flock.
Trudi wanted to keep running, wanted to keep hearing that conviction in Eva's voice: You'll grow. "You really mean it?" she shouted, her legs feeling long and light as if they'd already begun to stretch.
"What?" Eva stopped. One of her braids had come undone and hung in waves down one side of her face.
"Yes," Eva shouted back and flung herself into the high grass. "Yes yes yes." Her head disappeared, and she stuck her feet high into the air — above the clover and daisies and cornflowers — her legs pumping the air as though she were riding a bicycle.
Trudi threw herself down next to Eva, her breath fast and dry, but Eva's legs kept flying through the air as if she were trying to get away from wherever she was. Trudi broke off a handful of purple clover and began to braid the stems.
"What are you doing?" Eva dropped her legs and lay motionless.
"Making a crown for you."
Seehund nudged Trudi's shoulder, then dashed off again. Careful not to snap any of the stems, she wove more of the purple flowers into a crown for Eva. The air was moist and still, very still. As Trudi set the crown into Eva's sweaty hair, she wished she could take Eva to the sewing room and keep her there, lock her up, her friend forever.
They stood up, and when Seehund ran toward them, a bird — a gray bird with a ruby chest — swerved from the grass near him. Like a lopsided top, it reeled and whirred, one wing spread, as it fluttered into the dog's path. Playfully, he stopped the mad flight with one paw and, before Trudi could come to the bird's aid, closed his jaws on it.
"Make him stop," Eva cried.
With both hands, Trudi pried Seehund's teeth apart. A startling trace of something ancient and rotting rose with his breath. As he let go of the bird, Eva scooped it up in her hands. Its chest was rising and falling rapidly, and one wing hung at a crooked angle.
Eva carried the bird home in the basket that Seehund had come in. Her mother would set the wing in her office, and Eva would keep the bird in the basket for two days and two nights before she'd find it dead. She would be inconsolable until her father would phone Herr Heidenreich. At his shop, the tall taxidermist would cradle the bird in his hands and promise Eva to give it a new soul. To convince her of his magic, he'd let her hold the lifelike bodies of other birds he'd preserved, inspiring in Eva a fascination with stuffed birds that would continue into her adult years.
But the night after Seehund hurt the bird which, quite likely, had already been injured, Trudi didn't let him into the house. Tied with a length of clothesline to one of the pillars of wood outside the earth nest where Trudi's mother used to hide, the dog spent the night outdoors. Alone in her room, Trudi kept seeing the flower on Eva's chest, kept seeing it through the layers of clothing, lit from within Eva's body.
In school, Trudi and Eva learned that the Jews had killed Jesus. That was true because the sisters said so; but Trudi didn't know if what Fritz Hansen said was also true — that Jews killed Christians and drank their blood and offered them as sacrifices to the devil who was their God. Jews like that seemed far away and foreign — not at all like Eva and the Frau Doktor; or Frau Simon; or the Abramowitz family; or Fraulein Birnsteig, the concert pianist who, it was rumored, was a genius. The Jews in Burgdorf were different kinds of Jews, not the kind who killed Jesus — or anyone, for that matter.
They might beat you up, but not kill you. Trudi had already learned that belonging to one religion meant getting beaten up by kids of other religions. Mostly, though, the Catholic kids would be the ones to chase the Jewish or Protestant kids. There were lots of other reasons for getting beaten up: if you were a girl or if — in any way — you didn't look like others.
In school you also learned it was wrong to question anything that had to do with God and the saints. You had to believe. And for answers that demonstrated your belief you received holy cards — pictures of saints with rings of light around their raised heads. Questions were doubts. Doubts were sins. Even wondering why the Holy Ghost looked like a pigeon was a doubt. Or trying to figure out how that pigeon stayed up in the air between God and Jesus without having to flap its wings like other pigeons.
"There are things we do not ask...."
"If God had wanted us to know, he would have sent us proof, but God wants us to believe...."
But for Trudi, questions that weren't answered kept prodding at her. When she asked Sister Mathilde what God ate, the sister said, "God is nourished by his own eternal love," and when Trudi wanted to know how Jesus could change from being God to being that small, heavy boy on the shoulder of St. Christopherus, the sister told Trudi. "This is what faith is all about — believing what cannot be explained."
But it wasn't only during religion lessons that the sister talked about God. God and the saints had a way of appearing in every subject.
"If Saint Hedwig has ten plums and there are five lepers — how many plums will she give to each leper?"
"When God made the world, where did he put the North Sea?"
"It pleases the Virgin Mother when she sees tidy handwriting."
The prettiest statue of the Virgin Mother was kept in the church basement, but the last day of November it was dusted off and displayed on the side altar of St. Martin's, part of the nativity scene. Maria's gown was the color of heaven, and her mouth curved in a cryptic smile as she knelt next to the pile of straw where the Christ Child lay. St. Josef looked rather stodgy and old, like Herr Blau, the way he stood behind her, leaning on a stick. But all three had identical glittering halos and were surrounded by nearly a hundred clay pots, filled with lush violets, that belonged to the winner of the annual violet contest, an honor that the old women of Burgdorf dreamed about all year and competed for, fiercely.
That December Trudi became a member of the church choir. Sister Mathilde had selected her and Irmtraud Boden because they had the best voices in class and could memorize entire hymns. Trudi loved standing on the high balcony next to the organ, loved the way the other voices in the choir filled in around her voice, and as she belted out the hymns, she felt them vibrate in her chest, her toes, lifting her on the current of music.
"She has the voice of an angel," Herr Heidenreich, who also sang in the choir, told Trudi's father. That compliment meant a lot coming from the taxidermist, whose voice was so beautiful that the pastor always chose him for solos.
When, the first Sunday of Advent, Herr Pastor Schuler lit one of the four candles on the pine wreath that hung above the Holy Family, Trudi felt all sacred and still inside. The rich threads in the pastor's brocade chasuble glistened, and the scent of incense wove itself into her breath. If only she could become a priest. But only men could be priests. Women could be nuns, but she didn't want to be a nun. Nuns had to listen to priests and wear layers of black cloth and stiff wimples that made it hard to turn their heads. Still, if nuns went far far away and became missionaries, they were almost like priests. If she were a missionary, she could travel all over the world like St. Franziskus and baptize hundreds of thousands of pagans in India and China.
Copyright © 1994 by Ursula Hegi
Posted December 15, 2004
I read Stones from the River several years ago and it is still the best book I've ever read. Not only a wonderful novel, but a history lesson as well. Until I read this book I could not comprehend how young German boys ended up turning on their families and neighbors. But the book gave me a sense of the way the Nazis pulled young men in gradually, luring them with an ideology that seemed to promise a brighter future. By the time the Jews were being singled out, these boys were already hopelessy loyal and commited to the 'cause'. A lover of historical novels, I found this book entertaining and thought provoking. I loved it!
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Posted March 11, 2010
This is truly an original story based on the most horrific event of modern times.
Hegi illustrates the struggles and victories of a dwarf living in Germany during the 1930s and '40s.
Her characterizations of the people in her book are touching. She eases the reader through the hard times the characters experience-- she's the ultimate compassionate "messenger" of history.
Hegi's story will bring tears to the eyes of the most stern and may even bring about permanent change in the way people treat others, which would be a huge contribution to society. In fact, this book should be required reading for every high-schooler because one can't help but be moved (for the better) by the poignancy of the story.
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Posted February 12, 2013
Trudi is a Zwerg, a dwarf. This makes her something of an outsider, and what makes matters worse, her mother is crazy. As in, going to church and taking off all her clothes for the angels, crazy. Then she dies before Trudi is even four years old. Trudi learns to collect stories, and takes pride in retelling them, reshaping them, making them her own. She also has a touch of prescience.
The Jewish people in Burgdorf are an integral part of the town, initially. But slowly, over the course of years, they are first subtly demonized. There are the German people, and there are the Jews, Us and Them. After the feeling of separation is created, after people have come to tolerate the Jews being insulted, cheated, stones thrown at their windows, they may have their fine houses and businesses taken away. If a Jewish person is thriving while the rest of Germany is in recession, it's easy enough to play on the resentment of the neighbors. Surely those things couldn't have been honestly earned. Once moved to the outskirts of town, they are then moved to other towns, and finally the "work camps." Hegi does a powerful job of portraying how such a horror can come about. At first, rather than protesting their mistreatment, many of the Jewish people themselves believe that if they just keep a low profile, this too shall pass. By the time the harassment gets serious, it is also taken for granted. Those who protest and speak up to defend their neighbors, are also jailed and harassed.
I found this part of the story fascinating. I found Trudi herself sometimes admirable, generally interesting, and other times not very likable. In the beginning, when she believes that if she hangs from her arms, it will stretch her out and she will grow, I felt very sorry for her, and was moved by her experience of meeting another Zwerg, a beautiful and talented woman named Pia who was comfortable in her own skin. Then there's the search for a boyfriend or lover, because like any girl, she wants to be kissed, and loved. Trudi is definitely a complex, but not comfortable character. She uses rumors - collecting them, spreading them - to get back at those who've hurt her, or who've persecuted their Jewish neighbors.
I think about 90% of the book is told from Trudi's point of view, including the first third. The early chapters move slowly, but as Trudi's voice becomes older, it becomes much more compelling. The end, on the other hand, is a little choppy, as if the author realized how long the book was already, and felt the need to wind it up quickly. All in all, this is an excellent book, rich in description, and well worth the read.
Posted January 13, 2013
Posted December 6, 2012
Posted August 11, 2012
This was a wonderful book, it deserves its best-seller status. It's a wonder feeling when a book changes you, and this one did it for me. Every character in this book was so rich and multi-dimensional, they all touched my heart. After finishing this book I find myself missing them. I found the book to be very historically accurate; it reminded me very much of Irmgard Hunt's autobiography, On Hitler's Mountain. If you're interested in German history, pick up this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 7, 2012
Stones from the River is a daring, dramatic and complex novel of life in Germany. It is set in Burgdorf, a small fictional German town, between 1915 and 1951. The protagonist is Trudi Montag, a Zwerg -- the German word for dwarf woman....Good story, i read in about 2 days....Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 4, 2011
Posted September 14, 2011
This novel has some pros and cons that make it interesting and exceedingly boring at different points in time. One of the primary reasons that a reader might be deterred from reading on in the start, is from how easy it is to not like the main character, Trudi Montag. The beginning is rather depressing from her mom's insanity to her many attempts to become accepted by those around her, and it invokes empathy. Then the novel drags on and on about how she cannot become accepted by the other children in the small town of Burgdorf, and most readers begin to get tired of the slow pace of the novel. It does however have a very interesting take on the WWII Germany once you reach the rise of the Nazi Regime. The war affects the world around the main character, Trudi, and influences her life and community in unimaginable ways, giving whole new meaning to the treachery of the dark times from a smaller scale perspective from their small town. The reason I give this novel three stars is because it didn't manage to hold my interest all the way to the last page, and I found it hard to read it for too long without falling asleep in some points. However, the novel is worth reading, but it may not be a very enjoyable read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 14, 2011
Even by the first few pages of the book, you want to quit it. We are introduced to Trudi's parents, and her background. We find that her father was crippled as a result of WWI, and her mother had an affair while her father was away at war. An accident involving a motorcycle and the affair caused her Mother to have pebbles underneath the skin of her knee. Already we can tell that the novel isn't going to be so great -- and it isn't. It just gets progressively worse. Trudi tells us the story of her life, how she (because of being a dwarf) was bullied, ignored and even raped by members of the town she lives in. THe only point at which the novel gains some interest is during WWII, and that is only due to the interesting and unique perspective of the war from Germans (yes, some NAZI's too). But after the war ends, the book goes back to her telling the sad story of her life, about all the disappointment and hate. Wouldn't suggest this novel.
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Posted May 10, 2011
Although I found this book to be overly long, I also found it provided such a unique perspective of German society in the years leading up to, during, and post WWII, that I could not put it down. The story is told through the eyes of a social outcast--a dwarf or "zwerg" who spends her entire life growing up in a small town where conformity is synonymous with strength and being different (size or shape, religion, sexuality, etc.)is not just discouraged, it is abhorred. So often Americans will ask how the German people could have let the Jews among them be treated as they were, and this historical fiction piece went a long way to help me understand--so much so, that I felt frightened by how easily something similar could happen here. A thought provoking book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 2, 2011
Posted May 29, 2010
This is a great book, it really makes you think and you find yourself getting lost in the story as it unfolds. This is the story about Trudi who is a dwarf (Zwerg). She is the voice of anyone who has ever tried to fit in. She learns that being different is ok. She harbors Jewish people in her cellar with her father during the war with Hitler. It is a really good story and it makes you appreciate what you have. You really root for Trudi. You will really like this book!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 14, 2010
Posted December 5, 2009
Angst, horror, beauty all woven in one well written novel that shows the best and the worst in all of us, oftentimes within the same person. An incredible story that hits the heart with its exposure of the pain of being different.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 13, 2009
If you can make it past the first 250 pages (almost a whole book in itself) there is some good reading ahead. It often becomes tedious and cryptic - only the determined get beyond it. I wish I could have liked Trudi, but I can understand her wrath at spending the only life she would ever have in the body of a dwarf. Her own story pales in comparison to that of the havoc the Nazis brought down on her little town, and her whole country. That part was well done. While I wouldn't recommend it, I'm glad I stuck with it for the historical part.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 20, 2009
This is set in WW II Germany. It does seem to be a popular topic these days and this is yet another point of view. It is one I hadn't considered and therefore is thought provoking. It is written from the view of a dwarf who tries to help Jews. She can get away with some things as she is not taken seriously because of her stature. She is portrayed as insightful. However, the characters are shallow and not well drawn. The writing is stilted. It is an interesting portrayal of the resisiting population and what life might have been like from their prospective, but not one of the greatest pieces of literature around.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 16, 2009
Posted May 8, 2006
This book was amazing!!! I was looking for something to read for my Western Civs Honors book report, and I noticed that this had some good reviews, so I decided to buy it, and it was a GREAT choice. I could hardly put it down! Not only does this book give you a good idea about what it was like to live during WWII, but you also find yourself being absorbed into Trudi's life, to the point where her feelings become yours. Its insightful, interesting, exciting, romantic, honest, raw, and real- a must-have.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 7, 2006
This is a lovely novel. I could not stop reading it. Hegi's character development was so rich that I could 'see and feel' the town and its elements. Absolutely beautiful and enriching on many levels.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.