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Saints and Villains

Saints and Villains

4.8 5
by Denise Giardina

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In this gripping, resonant novel, we witness the shaping of this emblematic figure through the events of his extraordinary life. Here is Bonhoeffer experiencing the awakening of his social conscience while witnessing racism in the United States; leading a breakaway church in Germany as the Nazis rise to power; entering a dangerous liaison with a Jewish woman;


In this gripping, resonant novel, we witness the shaping of this emblematic figure through the events of his extraordinary life. Here is Bonhoeffer experiencing the awakening of his social conscience while witnessing racism in the United States; leading a breakaway church in Germany as the Nazis rise to power; entering a dangerous liaison with a Jewish woman; undertaking perilous clandestine meetings abroad under cover; and finally, living the dark night of the soul in prison.

Editorial Reviews

Philadelphia Inquirer
A splendid novel about a splendid man.
Library Journal
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Protestant theologian, philosopher, and author executed in 1945 for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. In this first novel, the title of which is drawn from Bonhoeffer's Ethics, Giardina re-creates Bonhoeffer's story, from his privileged childhood in Berlin, through his travels abroad both before and during the war, to his final days in an interrogation prison. Fiction should have provided Giardina with the means of exploring Bonhoeffer's essence and engaging the reader in an understanding of his beliefs and motives. While Giardina captures Bonhoeffer's aloof and abrasive style, she fails to create a heroic or even compelling central character. Not all lives are suitable to fictional biography, and as Giardina herself writes in a postscript, "a collection of facts does not make an engaging story." Yet Bonhoeffer's story, told from a different perspective, could have been an epic morality tale of World War II. -- Caroline M. Hallsworth, Cambrian College Library, Ontairio
The Philadelphia Inquirer
A splendid novel about a splendid man.
Paul Baumann
Only weeks before Nazi Germany's collapse, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler....Saints and Villains is a fictional retelling of Bonhoeffer's life in which Denise Giardina, the author of three previous novels, displays a thorough knowledge of the historical and theological record. She writes cleanly, gets a large cast on and off stage without much fuss, and tells a coherent story... -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Giardina, whose previous novels Storming Heaven and The Unquiet Earth offered thoughtful, provocative considerations of the struggles of American labor, surpasses herself with this powerful re-creation of the life and martyrdom of German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45), who participated in a plot to kill Hitler and was executed at Buchenwald in the waning days of the war. In a crisp, flexible style that skillfully alternates past and present tense, Giardina creates a compelling image of a pampered boy whose gentle nature was indulged by his prosperous family (and was nurtured by Dietrich's closeness to his twin sister, Sabine). Despite his inability to become a conventional believer, the boy grew up convinced of the morality of religious observance, and this lavishly developed story gives detailed attention to Dietrich's studies at New York's Union Theological Seminary (with Reinhold Niebuhr), his horrified encounter with American racism, his pastorates in England (where he befriended T.S. Eliot) and Germany (where he was endangered when his increasing criticisms of Nazism climaxed in the ultimatum that his countrymen choose "Germanism or Christianity"), his service in German Military Intelligence, during which he worked against his superior officers, and a long period of imprisonment and interrogation prior to his death. This was a life lived very much in the world, and Giardina characterizes in moving depth the two women Dietrich loved and lost, as well as a vivid host of confederates and enemies, including the cautiously accommodating pastor Martin Niem"ller, and the S.S. officer and later Judge Advocate Alois Bauer, a brilliantly imagined characterwhose cat-and-mouse games with his prisoner give the story a tremendous climactic charge. Giardina has the gift of making intellectual argument excitingly dramatic, this time with a dozen or more passionate exchanges in which the fate of civilization and the responsibilities of citizens are memorably debated. A big novel in every sense of the word, and a triumphant portrayal of one of the century's authentic heroes.

Product Details

Blackstone Audio, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 5.30(h) x 2.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

"Sorry, Mother. But you don't go to church either."

"Still I pray every night," she said. "And I read scripture. Certainly you've been taught it is rude to mock religion. Has he not, Father?"

"He has," Dr. Bonhoeffer agreed. "I myself participate in Mother's devotions out of respect for her, though I admit to knowing little of such matters myself."

"Or caring little," Karl Friedrich whispered beneath his breath so that only Sabine heard.

"If theology seems irrelevant," Dietrich said to a parsley potato stuck on the end of his fork, "then it is because it has been improperly presented. I shall change that."

Then everyone laughed, except Sabine. And Karl Bonhoeffer. After considering his son for a time he said, "I'd hate to see you waste your years at university. There was a time when theology and philosophy and science were one. But that hasn't been true for centuries. The best minds of our time concern themselves with the latter two disciplines, because there lie the most possibilities for the improvement of humanity."

"There's von Harnack," Dietrich said.

Adolf von Harnack was the leading Protestant theologian in Germany, and the next-door neighbor of the Bonhoeffers, an elderly man pitied by the other intellectuals in the Grunewald because his field was archaic and his nephews were rumored to be Bolsheviks.

"That's it," Karl-Friedrich said. "Old von Harnack's got hold of you."

"I haven't spoken to him," Dietrich said. "I didn't tell anyone until today, when Herr Heininger asked us in class to declare a field of study." He looked around the table. "I said 'theology.' It just came out suddenly, but I realized I'd beenconsidering it quite a while."

Sabine nudged his leg beneath the table and smiled at him. He smiled back.

"What did your classmates say?" Christel asked.

"They looked at me as if I'd said I was going to take up big game hunting."

"At least with big game hunting you'll have a chance at some solid results," said Karl-Friedrich. "A theologian is about as useful as a maker of paper airplanes."

"Dietrich," said his father, "you suffered a very great disappointment when a musical career no longer seemed likely, and I'm sure you're not yet over the hurt. Still you will need to make a decision soon, and I urge you not to be rash."

"But why shouldn't Dietrich study theology?" Paula Bonhoeffer asked. "After all, my side of the family includes a number of distinguished clergymen."

"Great men in their day," agreed Karl Bonhoeffer, "but it was a different time, a less sophisticated time."

"When we were small," Sabine said, "Dietrich used to speak of God to me nearly every night when we went to bed. And we used to talk about eternity before we fell asleep."

"Eternity!" said Karl-Friedrich. "Now there's a sleep-inducing subject for you."

"Karl-Friedrich, that is quite enough!" his mother admonished.

But Dietrich was looking at his father as though no one else had spoken.

"It's what I want," he said. "And I don't care about the disappointment of not studying music. That sort of life would have been too easy. Not this. This will be the hardest thing in the world."

He asked to be excused and went to his room.

Dietrich and Sabine celebrated the passage of their school-leaving examinations with a hiking trip through the Thuringer Wald. They began at Meiningen on a spring day so warm their blouses were damp beneath their backpacks, and for sheer joy they clopped through mud puddles in their heavy boots. But though they spent their vacations at the Bonhoeffer summer home in the Harz, they were children of the city, unused to the vagaries of nature. On the Inselberg they climbed into a blowing snowstorm and lost their way. Their light jackets were not much use against the cold, and they stopped often so Dietrich could kneel in the drifts and knock crusts of ice from the skirt of Sabine's dress. Then they floundered on, arms around each other's waist, free hands clutching walking sticks that propelled them along, a single creature, like some huge ungainly snowbird.

With no clear path, and night coming on, they thought it best to simply go down. This way took them through stands of dark green fir that forced them time and again to alter their course. Night fell. They sang, Dietrich booming out Horch, was kommt von drauBen Rein? in his fine voice, Sabine Heula hie, heula ho! Their feet were numb and each step jarred them to the teeth, and they were happy, and pressed on, Hansel and Gretel in search of a hearth.

At last they slid down an icy funnel and landed in a heap at the edge of an open meadow. Through the white curtain of snow a warm light glowed in a cottage window. They sat in a drift and knocked snow each from the other, pointing at the light and whispering.

At the door, Sabine stepped forward first and knocked, then Dietrich pulled her back to the shelter of his arm. They waited, faces turned to the single ice-glazed window. The door opened. A table, and the faces that hovered around it, seemed a great distance away. The large man who had opened the door leaned forward and blocked their view.

"Ja?" the man said.

"Pardon," said Dietrich, "we have lost our way in the snow. May we find shelter here? A bit of food, perhaps?"

He stepped away from the door and ushered them inside. The faces still watched them, then moved off, accompanied by a strange and comforting clatter of clogs on the stone floor. The man led them to a bench. Wooden bowls and spoons appeared, then ladles of potato soup. The soup was lukewarm, with thick, milky bits as though the bottom of a pot had been carefully scraped to find enough for them. Wedges of goat cheese and heels of black loaves daubed with pork fat were laid beside their numb hands.

They ate slowly while the faces retreated to the hearth and began murmuring. There were as many as in the Bonhoeffer family, but they seemed more worn and brown around the edges. At first Dietrich's eyes felt frozen but then seemed to melt and it was easier to look about. Every wall of the cottage was covered with implements, pruning hooks, blunderbusses, washboards, clocks, crucifixes, salt shakers, bric-a-brac shelves, jars of flour and beans and preserves, mattocks.

Sabine leaned against him and whispered, "It's like living inside a drawer." He nodded and smiled.

When they had done eating, the old woman of the family approached, pulling her shawl about her shoulders.

"Come, children," she said, "and sit by the fire. The young ones want stories. "

She placed warm cups in their hands, and they sipped rich homemade beer.

"A story," the youngest girl said. "A story."

Sabine was truck dumb. But Dietrich pulled his knees to his chin and looked into the fire. "Shall I tell of the Wild Swans?" he said.

"Ja, ja," the children chorused.

He began, "Once upon a time, a king hunted in a dark forest."

Of course they knew it, as well as he did. And still Dietrich held them. He told of the widowed king who lost his way in the Thuringer Wald and was tricked into marrying the daughter of a witch.

"Once the wedding was performed," Dietrich said, "the king's eyes were opened and he saw what he had done. He feared at once for his children, six boys and a girl, and sent them away to live in this very forest, at the foot of the Inselberg. But the wicked stepmother found them out. She wove six blouses of white silk, enchanted blouses with the power to transform Seeking out the young princes, she threw the blouses over them, and each in turn was changed into a white swan, and flew away. Only the witch did not know of the girl child, who hid and then ran away deep into the forest.

"One night, as the girl huddled hungry and frightened beneath a giant spruce, the six swans found her. In their beaks they carried blankets and baskets of food, which they laid about her. For a moment they were changed back to their human forms. And they told--"

"Pardon!" A small girl tugged at Dietrich's arm. "How were they changed back? Why did the witch allow it?"

Dietrich thought a moment. "Perhaps the witch didn't allow it," he said. "Perhaps it was their care for their sister which broke the spell ever so briefly."

"Of course," said the old woman. "Go on with your tale, go on."

"The brothers asked their sister to weave them shirts of thistle and thorns," Dietrich continued. "Only in this way would the spell be broken for good. And she must not speak to a soul until the task was completed.

"The girl set about her work. Think how painful it would have been to weave thistles and thorns, day in and day out."

"Her fingers would bleed," a boy said.

"They would not stop bleeding," Dietrich agreed.

"Like the hands of our Lord," the old woman said from her corner.

Dietrich looked startled but went on with the story, told how a handsome prince married the girl, who remained mute, and how many began to accuse her of witchcraft because of her silence. At last her enemies prevailed and she was to be burned at the stake, but even as the pyre was built, the swans swooped from the clouded sky to the prisoner's balcony. One by one the girl threw the blouses over the swans, who became her brothers once more. At last she could speak in her defense, and so was saved. Only one blouse was not finished, so the youngest brother kept the wing of a swan for the rest of his days.

They heard Dietrich out in silence, the youngest with her thumb firmly in her mouth.

"Well told," the man said at last. The woman nodded, and set down her darning to refill their cups.

"Where from?" the man asked.

"Berlin," they answered.

"Ah. Ah. Are there any stories worth telling about Berlin?"

"Nein." The woman paused in her pouring. "They will not have good stories about Berlin. Too many Jews there."

Dietrich sat up. "Why do you say that? Do you know any Jews?"

She crossed herself. "God forbid!"

Sabine caught Dietrich's arm and forced him to look at her, shook her head. "Leave it," she whispered.

"But it's wrong," he whispered back.

"Of course it's wrong. But they have taken us in and shared their food with us. And they have precious little for themselves. They're worn--out look at them--and so are we just now. You won't convince them. It isn't worth a row."

He leaned back against the leg of a table and shut his eyes. The children watched him carefully.

"Tell another story," the boy asked.

"Whsst," the man said. "'Tis past time for bed. Mother, see to the guests."

The old woman gave them a package of bread and butter for the morning, and refused their offer of pay. Then a thin boy of around fourteen carried a lantern before them to the barn and up a ladder to the loft. With apologies, he explained, "We've no more room in the house. But I sleep up here always and it is quite warm in the hay."

He helped them spread their blankets, then retreated to a far corner and was soon snoring. They wrapped themselves tight and burrowed deep, Dietrich with his back to Sabine. She knew he didn't sleep.

"What?" she asked after a time. "Is it because I asked you to be silent?"

"I don't blame you," he said. "But one never makes up for something like that."

"It's how human beings get on sometimes," Sabine said. "Who has the strength to always he right?"

At dawn the family went out for their day's work in the field. Though the ground was frozen, it was April, and they must begin to break up the soil. Through a crack between the boards, Dietrich and Sabine watched them go, clogs punching holes in crusts of ice, like gunshots, as they made their way clutching shovels and mattocks, and disappeared around the glazed curve of the meadow.

Meet the Author

Denise Giardina is the author of Storming Heaven, Emily's Ghost, and Saints and Villains, which won the Boston Book Review Prize. She is an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church and lives in Charleston, West Virginia.

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Saints and Villains 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book gives you an idea of what it was like for so many Germans who were against Hilter and yet were forced to make so many difficult decisions. It also gave you a perspective of what was going on in America and why it took so long for the world to react!!! I highly recommend this book for reading groups or individuals. I was happy that it did not go into the gory details of this war and the tortures.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an extremely important book covering the highest order of morality. The characters come to life and you feel their struggle and agonize over their decisions. The historical nature of the story makes it all the more compelling as you can relate your knowldge, as skeletal as it may be, to the fleshed out accounts in this novel. I loved reading this book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*walks out*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sits by the fire think of sabertooth. Smiles at the most reasont thing. I think shadow that i really do love him. Pets shadows head with a smile.