Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast

by Chris Bohjalian

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307449559
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 05/06/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 6,843
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

CHRIS BOHJALIAN is the critically acclaimed author of eleven novels, including Midwives (a Publishers Weekly Best Book and an Oprah’s Book Club selection), Before You Know Kindness, and his most recent New York Times bestseller, The Double Bind. His work has been translated into nineteen languages and published in twenty-two countries. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.

Visit the author at www.chrisbohjalian.com.


From the Hardcover edition.

Hometown:

Lincoln, Vermont

Date of Birth:

August 12, 1961

Place of Birth:

White Plains, New York

Education:

Amherst College

Read an Excerpt

0307394956|excerpt

Bohjalian: SKELETONS AT THE FEAST

Part I

Autumn 1944

Chapter One

usually, it was only when one of the local soldiers was home on leave that Anna and her girlfriends ever saw the sorts of young men with whom, in different times, they might have danced. And, as the war had dragged on, the pool of marriage prospects—in Anna’s mind, often enough that meant merely her older brother Werner’s acquaintances—dried up completely. The soldiers were either missing or disfigured or dead.

But then came the POWs. Seven of them, sent from the prison camp to help with the harvest.

And a week after the POWs arrived at Kaminheim, when the corn was almost completely harvested and everyone was about to begin to gather the sugar beets and the apples, there came four naval officers in search of a plow. They were planning to mark a groove through the estate that would be the start of an antitank trench. When it was complete, the trench would span the length of the district, bisecting some farms, skirting the edges of others. Meanwhile, different officers were visiting neighboring estates as well, and the Emmerichs were told that at some point in the coming month hundreds of foreigners and old men would follow them, and descend on the estate to actually construct the trench.

And while the very idea of an antitank trench was alarming, the presence of all those handsome young men—the Germans, the Brits, and that one very young Scot—made it a burden Anna was willing to shoulder. This was true, at least in part, because she didn’t honestly believe the fighting would ever come this far west. It couldn’t. Even the naval officers said this was a mere precau- tion. And so she would flirt with the Brits during the day in the fields, where she would work, too, and dance with the naval officers in the evenings in the manor house’s small but elegant ballroom. Mutti would play the piano, joined after that first night by Callum Finella on Uncle Felix’s accordion, while her father—though distracted by the news from the east—would look on benignly. Sometimes Theo would put his toy cavalrymen away and watch as well, appalled in the manner of any ten-year-old boy that these brave and accomplished soldiers wanted to waste their time with the likes of his sister and her friends. He followed the men around like a puppy.

Helmut did, too. But Helmut actually would work with the officers as long as their father allowed him away from the har- vest, helping them to find their way around the endless acres of Kaminheim, and thus mark out the optimum design and place- ment of the trench. Then, after dinner, he would dance with Anna’s friends—girls who, previously, he had insisted were too puerile to be interesting. Seeing them now through the eyes of the navy men, however, he was suddenly discovering their charms.

Certainly Anna worried about her older brother, Werner, who had already been wounded once in this war and was fighting somewhere to the south. But she had rarely spent any time with men as interesting as this eclectic group who had descended upon their farm that autumn. She and Helmut had learned to speak English in school, though she had taken her studies far more seriously than her brother, which meant that she alone in the assemblage could speak easily to everybody—the POWs during the day and the naval officers at night—and appreciate how erudite and experienced everyone was. At least, she thought, in comparison to her. She was, on occasion, left almost dizzy as she swiveled among conversations and translated asides and remarks. And the longer stories? She felt like a star-struck child. When she was in grade school she had met English families the winter her family had gone skiing in Switzerland, but by 1944 she remembered little more than a very large man in a very poor bear costume, and the way she and the English children together had endured his clownish shenanigans because all of the parents had thought the fellow was wildly entertaining. But since the war had begun, she hadn’t been west of Berlin. In the early years, they had still taken summer holidays on the beaches of the Baltic or ventured to Danzig for concerts, but lately even those trips had ceased completely. Two of their POWs, however, had seen the pyramids; another had been to America; and Callum—the youngest of the group, the tallest of the group, and the only one from Scotland—had been born in India, where his father had been a colonial official, and had traveled extensively throughout Bengali and Burma and Madras as a little boy.

Even the German naval officers were more interesting than any of the country boys—or men—she had met in her district. They, too, had seen places in Europe and Africa she’d only read about in books.

Initially, she had worried that there might be unpleasant sparks when the Germans and the Brits crossed paths, especially on the first morning when the naval officers would be marking out a segment of the antitank trench in the very same beet fields where the POWs were working. But the two groups of men had largely ignored each other.

It was the next day, when she was working alongside the prisoners in the apple orchard, that one of the POWs—that exuberant young giant named Callum—segued from the usual flirtatious banter to which she had grown accustomed and had come to ex- pect from him, to guarded innuendos about Adolf Hitler and then (even more problematic, in some ways) to questions about the work camps.

“You’re such a nice girl, Anna, and so sharp,” he said, as the two of them stood together beside a particularly wiry tree, resting for a moment midmorning. There was a military policeman who must have been somebody’s grandfather standing guard a hundred meters away, but he was so old he probably wouldn’t have heard a word they were saying if they had been standing directly beside him. “And your family is much more hospitable than necessary—given the circumstances and all.” The POWs were sleeping in the bunkhouse that the farmhands had used before they had either run off or been commandeered by the Reich for work in the mines and the munitions factories.

“Thank you,” she said simply. She was unsure where this conversation was going, but that opening, that apparent surprise that she was such a nice girl, had her slightly wary. She’d been laughing with Callum for days, and the thought crossed her mind that perhaps she had misjudged him. Grown too comfortable—too friendly—with him. With all the POWs.

“So, I was wondering,” he continued, his voice nonchalant. “What do you think your Hitler is doing with the Jews?”

“My Hitler? You make him sound like one of my horses,” she said, aware that she was not answering his question.

“I didn’t mean that. I meant . . .”

“What did you mean?”

“I had a mate in Scotland who was Jewish, a chum I played soccer with. We were friends, our parents were friends. He had family somewhere in Germany. And they just disappeared. There was talk of them trying to come to Edinburgh, but they couldn’t get out. Eventually, the letters just dried up. Stopped coming. Then, at the stalag this summer, I met two chaps from Wales who had been in intelligence. And they said—”

She cut him off: “At school, they told me not to ask when I inquired. They told me I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

“But you asked?”

Aware that she couldn’t help but sound oversensitive, she answered, “Maybe it would surprise you, but I do have a brain behind my eyes. Yes, I asked.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me a bit,” he said, smiling.

“I asked them where the Jews were going,” she continued. “Before the war, my parents had friends in Danzig who were Jewish. That’s where my father went to university: Danzig. He grew up on a farm in another part of Prussia, but for a time he considered becoming a lawyer. But he’s a very scientific man. And he likes working the earth too much. Anyway, he has never understood the Nazis’ obsession with Jews. Never. My mother? It’s different for her: She’s lived her whole life here. She, too, thinks it’s ridiculous, but she has always been a little oblivious of anything that doesn’t involve the farm or this corner of the country.”

“They’re both party members, right?”

She nodded. “My father wouldn’t have the contracts he has if he weren’t a member of the party. Even I know that.”

“Tell me, then: These friends. Your parents’ Jewish friends. Where are they now?”

“One, I know, was my father’s banker. I don’t know his name, but he took very good care of Father and Mutti on their honeymoon. The inflation was so horrible that suddenly they couldn’t pay their bills and Father’s stocks were worth nothing. Somehow, the banker solved everything for them and they had a perfectly lovely holiday after that.”

“What do you think became of him?”

“He and Father lost touch. But I can tell you this: My father wrote letters on his family’s behalf to different people. I don’t know who or what the letters were supposed to accomplish. But he wrote letters for other friends, too. And for a few weeks in the summer of 1940, my parents had some Jewish friends who lived with us: a younger couple and their baby. A little baby girl. She was adorable. They had lost their apartment in Danzig. I was thirteen and I always wanted to babysit, but the mother wouldn’t let the child out of her sight.” She could have gone on, but it was a memory she tried not to think about. There had been some talk about hiding the family—and hiding was indeed the word her parents had used—but so many people in the village had been aware of the Emmerichs’ visitors from Danzig that the couple had refused her mother and father’s offer of sanctuary and simply disappeared into the fog one August morning.

“I’m badgering you,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I have a habit of talking too much. You might have noticed.”

“You’re inquisitive,” she said, unable to mask the small tremor she heard in her voice. The truth was, she didn’t want to be having this conversation. She knew she wouldn’t dare discuss these sorts of things on one of the streets in the village or in a city. One never knew who might be listening or how they might be connected to the party. And, suddenly, she felt an odd spike of defensiveness. “But you tell me: How am I supposed to know where everyone is in the midst of a war?”

“Well,” he said evenly. “You can keep track of the Jews because of the stars on their clothes. You’ve seen them.”

“Yes, of course I have. I’ve seen them in Danzig and I’ve seen them in Berlin.”

“Lately?”

“I haven’t been to Berlin lately. Or Danzig.”

He used a handkerchief to wipe the perspiration away from his temples. The hair there was a bay that reminded her of Balga, her favorite horse. “The folks who will be coming to build the antitank trench,” he began, and she could tell that he was choosing his words with great care. “You know, actually digging where those navy blokes are leaving the plow marks? They’re the lucky ones.”

“They’ll be more prisoners like you.”

“Maybe. But I think they’re going to come instead from those work camps. Not the prison camps. It will take hundreds of people just to dig through your farm. And, besides, it’s one thing to put a group of us soldiers to work harvesting apples and corn and sugar beets. Trust me, this is luxurious compared to life in the stalag, and we are all deeply appreciative of your family’s kindness. But it’s quite another to make us dig antitank trenches. The Red Cross and the folks who penned the Geneva convention wouldn’t exactly approve.”

“So, the workers will be the criminals from the camps? Communists and Gypsies. Why should that trouble me?”

“And Jews. That’s my point, Anna. They’re in those camps for no other reason than because they’re Jewish.”

“What?”

“The Jews have been sent to the camps.”

“No,” she said. “No. That’s not true.”

“I’m sorry, Anna. But it is.”

“The Jews have just been resettled,” she continued, repeating what she had been told at school and at her meetings with other teen girls in the Bund Deutscher Mädel whenever she had asked the question, but until that moment had never said aloud herself. Somehow, verbalizing the idea made it seem ludicrous. She certainly didn’t add what so many of her teachers or BDM leaders had added over the years: They have to be resettled because they are not Aryan. They are inferior in every imaginable way, they are worse than the Russians and the Poles. Most have nothing that resembles an Aryan conscience, and they are interested in nothing but their money and mezuzahs and diamonds. Many are evil; all are conniving.

“And doesn’t even resettlement seem, I don’t know, a trifle uncivilized—even if it really is what’s occurring?” he went on. “Think of that little family that was with you when you were thirteen. Why do you think there was talk of hiding them? I mean, suppose my government in England just decided to ‘resettle’ the Catholics—to take away their homes, their animals, their possessions, and then just send them away?”

Another prisoner, the balding mason named Wally, passed by with one of the wicker baskets they used for the apples and gave Callum a look that Anna recognized instantly as the universal sign to shut up. His head was cocked slightly and his eyes were wide. Callum ignored him and continued, “Those intelligence chaps from Wales. They told us about another camp. One further east in Poland. They had heard rumors—”

“I’ve heard rumors. We’ve all heard rumors. I’ve listened to your propaganda on the radio.”

“You listen to the BBC? That’s illegal, Anna, you know that,” he told her, his voice mocking her good-naturedly.

“Everyone listens. And you know that.”

Wally dumped his apples in one of the shipping crates in the back of a wagon and started to say something, his mouth opening into an anxiety-ridden O, but then stopped himself and returned to the trees where he was working, shaking his head in bewilderment.

“Besides,” she said, angry now, “what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to go have tea with the führer and advise him on policy?” He paused, seeming to think about this, unsure what to say. She decided to press her advantage. “You would be in serious trouble, you know, if I told anyone what you were saying.”

“Indeed I would. I am putting my trust completely at your discretion.”

“Why?”

“Because you are very pretty and very smart, and until I was sent here I hadn’t spoken to a girl who was either in a very, very long time.”

“Spare me,” she said, but she couldn’t help being flattered. “I’ve gone just as long without the company of boys. They’re all off fighting somewhere.”

“Ah, but then your navy men arrived,” he said, and she realized he was actually a little jealous of them. He seemed about to say more when Wally returned, this time accompanied by the Yorkshire schoolteacher named Arthur Frost. “Come along, Callum,” Arthur said firmly, “those apples won’t pick themselves. No more dillydallying.”

Callum nodded agreeably and left, turning back to Anna once to bring his index and middle finger to the tip of his lips. At the time, she thought he was shushing her; later, she would conclude he had in fact blown her a kiss.

theo moved two of his toy cavalrymen to the front of his column, and then had them ride to the river that Anna had helped him paint a year ago now on a piece of barn board. The board was at least a meter and a half square and he could carry it by himself—but just barely. Helmut had found it and his father had sanded it flat. In addition to the river, he and Anna had also painted trees and wooden fences on it, and a long trench winding its way down one of the sides, all as if seen from a low-flying airplane. He had wanted to add barbed wire near the trench, but Anna had convinced him that it would reduce the number of conflicts he could reenact by limiting his scenarios to the Great War. The trench, she had suggested, could be a streambed that had dried up in the summer if he wanted to stage a battle from the nineteenth century.

“Or,” he had suggested helpfully at the time, “one of the firefights Werner has been in.”

“That’s right,” she had said, but he had been able to tell by the pause and the way her voice had quivered just the tiniest bit that for some reason she was troubled by the idea of him using his lead soldiers to reenact battles along the eastern front. He hadn’t really expected at the time that he would, because he had only a pair of toy tanks, and battles these days demanded lots and lots of armor. Moreover, his two tanks were of a different scale than his lead soldiers. They were from another collection and they were barely the height of his fighting men, which meant that he rarely used them.

He did know boys who owned model tanks that would have worked quite well with his men. But they wouldn’t have shared their tanks with him and he never played with them. He wanted to, and he would have been happy to join them if they had ever asked—he would have been happy and flattered and more than a little grateful—but they never did. Moreover, he knew they never would. Once he made the mistake of telling some of the boys in school about the scene he and Anna had painted for his soldiers, hinting that they should come to Kaminheim and bring their own model cannons and tanks, but they had laughed at him and suggested that they would sooner have gone and played in Moscow. It wasn’t, of course, Kaminheim that kept them away; it was him.

He had set up his playing board this evening after dinner in a corner of the dining room underneath one of the sconces, and these two cavalry officers were reconnoitering the terrain. It was the summer of 1870, and they were deciding whether this might be a good spot to try and force a battle with the French Army of the Rhine.

He heard his father and the naval officer named Oskar in the hallway walking toward Father’s office, and he went very still. Oskar had small eyes, a high forehead, and almost no lips, but he was calm and intelligent and Theo knew that his parents respected him. He heard his father pushing the door shut, but it didn’t close all the way and he could hear some of what they were saying if he didn’t move. They were discussing, as the grown-ups did all the time these days, the Russian front, but it seemed that Oskar was talking as well about the attempt that summer on the life of the führer. A few months earlier, in July, a group of officers had set off a bomb in the führer’s headquarters in Prussia. Hitler had survived, but it seemed the conspiracy was extensive. Even now, months later, the SS was still rounding up individuals who were involved. At school and among the Jungvolk, people referred to those officers as traitors and discussed with undisguised glee how cowardly they had been when they were executed for their crime, but Theo had the sense when the subject came up at dinner that his parents believed the plotters had only had Germany’s best interests in mind.

It seemed, from what Theo could hear, that Oskar did, too.

“The problem,” the officer was telling his father now, “is that we can’t win the war. But we can’t negotiate a peace now because of what some of Hitler’s lackeys have done.”

“A negotiated peace was never an option. Churchill and Roosevelt said years ago they would only accept a complete surrender,” his father said.

“We are speaking in confidence, true?”

“Of course.”

“Have you heard about the camps?”

“I’ve heard whispers.”

“When the Russians find them? Or the Americans and the Brits? There will be hell to pay.”

“Tell me: What do you know?”

Suddenly Theo’s heart was beating fast in his chest, in part because his father and this officer were discussing the possibility that Germany might actually lose the war, and in part because of whatever it was that Oskar was about to reveal. Before the officer had continued, however, there were great whoops of laughter and the sound of the front door swinging open. He felt a rush of cool air. Two of the other naval officers, Oskar’s friends, had come inside, and then he heard Anna and Mutti greeting them and helping them off with their coats. Any moment now they would bring that giant Scotsman in from the bunkhouse and hand him the accordion, and everyone would start dancing. No doubt, one of Anna’s friends had arrived with the officers. The two men had probably been off somewhere picking her up.

His father and Oskar emerged from the office, and Oskar greeted his associates. His father noticed him now on the floor and knelt beside him.

“I didn’t hear you out here,” he said, and he rubbed the top of his head. “Have you been playing long?”

He had the sense that he would worry his father if he told him that he had. And his father had worries enough right now.

“No. I just sat down,” he answered.

This seemed to make his father happy. He motioned down at the cavalrymen. “The battle of Mars-la-Tour?” he asked.

“I hadn’t decided.”

“Oskar reminded me of a book I think you’re old enough to read now. It has a wonderful description of Von Bredow’s Death Ride and the Prussian cavalry charge. Would you like me to see if I can find you a copy?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Over their shoulder one of the officers was boasting that he had brought honey for the schnapps from the village, and Theo heard a female voice he couldn’t quite recognize start to giggle. No doubt, it was indeed one of Anna’s friends: She had so many. Another night, Theo thought, he might have continued to move his lead soldiers around the board, alone on the dining room floor, but not this evening. He would join the crowd that would gather in the ballroom. Perhaps if he was unobtrusive, the grown-ups would let down their guards and he might learn whatever it was that Oskar had been about to reveal.

another day, callum told Anna about his uncle’s library in Edinburgh. His uncle was a university professor there, and among the books on his shelves were novels by Russians that he was confident would convince her that not everyone born east of Warsaw was a barbarian.

“I don’t think that,” she said. “My mother might. But I don’t.”

Still, she was only dimly aware of most of the authors he mentioned. She wondered if their books had been banned in Germany, or whether they simply weren’t available in their rural corner of the Reich. The same seemed to be true of movies he had seen, and specific operas and dramas he’d attended. It all made Callum seem almost impossibly erudite for someone so physically imposing and, yes, so young—it was hard to believe he was only twenty—and it caused her to rue, for the first time, all of the things she was being denied.

They also compared the beaches on the Baltic with those along the North Sea, and the castle ruins that dotted their landscapes. She expressed envy for how civilized the winters sounded in Scotland, and he, in turn, said he thought Scotch farmers would be jealous of the soil in which her family grew sugar beets and corn, and cared for their apple trees.

She found herself wishing she had a fraction of the stories and experiences he had, and worrying that soon he would come to find her boring. All she knew, she realized, were horses. Horses and housework. Her father had taught her to ride—and, in all fairness, to ski and to hike—and her mother had groomed her well to be the wife, someday, of a farmer. A gentleman farmer, certainly. A landowner. An aristocrat, even. But, like her father, a farmer nonetheless.

He was completely unlike her three brothers—even little Theo—whose posture had always been perfect at the dining room table, and who seemed to stand with their ankles together and (inevitably) their arms folded imperiously across their chests. Could Werner and Helmut ever be anything but stern? She didn’t think so. Perhaps there was still hope for Theo, but already he was being trained to be a soldier in carriage if not, in the end, in profession.

And yet their father was no martinet. He laughed and drank beer and had stories of his own he could tell. He would slouch on occasion. Listen with them to the BBC. Tell jokes about the Nazis, despite the reality that both he and his wife were party members. She asked her father that night if he had ever read books by the Russians Callum had mentioned, and he said that he had. Mutti had, too.

Of course, they had grown up in a different era. A different time. The world they knew wasn’t decorated solely with red flags and black swastikas, and a person could still read novels written by Russians.


From the Hardcover edition.

What People are Saying About This

"The perfect novel for a book club. . .this book sucked me right in. It’s vivid and heart-wrenching." — John Searles, The Today Show

"Reading Bohjalian's descriptions of terror and tragedy on the road has just as much impact as seeing newsreels from the end of World War II....While creating suspense, Bohjalian agilely balances the moral ambiguities of war....Right and wrong shift depending on the situation. Ignorance is tolerated and murder is justified. But Bohjalian does posit that one absolute exists: No one wins at war." — Dennis Moore, USA Today

"Harrowing. . .ingenious. . .compelling. . .Judging who's right or wrong is difficult in Skeletons at the Feast, and one senses that's just the way Bohjalian wants it. . .A tightly woven, moving story for anyone who thinks there's nothing left to learn, or feel, about the Second World War. That Bohjalian can extract greater truths about faith, hope and compassion from something as mundane as a diary is testament not only to his skill as a writer but also to the enduring ability of well-written war fiction to stir our deepest emotions." — Paula L. Woods, The Los Angeles Times

"Harrowing. . .Bohjalian spins a suspenseful tale in which the plot triumphs over any single sorrow. . .[His] sense of character and place, his skillful plotting and his clear grasp of this confusing period of history make for a deeply satisfying novel, one that asks readers to consider, and reconsider, how they would rise to the challenge of terrible deprivation and agonizing moral choices." — Margot Livesey, The Washington Post Book World

"A poignant account of the conflict's last year. . .Harrowing. . .In creating the Emmerichs and their relationship to Uri, Bohjalian has given us something new and disturbing. He has also created a wonderful character in the protected child, Theo, whose gradual understanding of what is happening to them is moving and real. . .Bohjalian has given us an important addition to the story of World War II, and, not at all incidentally, may expand the vision of those who may have avoided 'Holocaust literature' in the past." — Roberta Silman, The Boston Globe

"Rich in character and gorgeous writing.” — Jodi Picoult, Real Simple

"Bohjalian has shown a prodigious gift for exploring how people are transformed.” — Entertainment Weekly

"Chris Bohjalian has done it again! His latest novel, Skeletons at the Feast ... is more than well worth the read ... Along this journey we not only see the horrors of the war unfold, we see the individuals evolve." — The Valley Voice

"A bittersweet story of romance, war and death, inspired in part by a real diary. . .Strongly dramatic and full of the heartbreaking horror of war, this novel is Bohjalian at his imaginative best." — Carole Godlberg, The Hartford Courant

"Skeletons at the Feast is a prime example of a well-written historical fiction. Readers will feel the despair experienced by the characters but will be able to find the bit of hope that keeps them moving forward. Bohjalian provides a vivid and well-researched look at the horrors experienced by the characters and presents a more personal account of anguish caused by the events of World War II." — Courtney Holschuh, The Huntington, W.V. Herald-Dispatch

"Intense and fascinating. . .Bohjalian masterfully presents the desperation of troops who realize their cause is doomed.. . .He successfully captures the humanity of one of the 20th century's most horrendous tragedies." — The Rocky Mountain News

"This story mixes the nail-biting brutality of 'The Kite Runner' with the emotional intimacy of Anne Frank's diary." — Austin American-Statesman

"An extraordinary historical novel based on the exodus of Germans in eastern Germany escaping the Soviet Army's advance in the waning days of World War II. . . A sense of justice pervades all of [Bohjalian's'] books. He demands that we act humanely toward one another and understand and respect others' beliefs and values. . .Skeletons at the Feast is not a screed on good vs.evil, but it does inspire thought on man's inhumanity to man, and, conversely, how individuals overcome adversity with acts of kindness, civility and integrity." — The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

"Riveting. . .an unforgettable finale. . .Chris Bohjalian handles the context of this story effortlessly and has created characters so engaging that any reader will find themselves connecting with these very real people.. . .I hail Bohjalian's new novel and its fearless account of one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century." — Ray Palen, Bookreporter

"This is the perfect novel for a book club because there’s so much to discuss. It’s vivid and heart-wrenching." — John Searles, Cosmopolitan, on The Today Show, “Top 10 Summer Reads”

"Nail-biting, heart-ripping. . .The reader of Skeletons at the Feast is quietly checkmated by Bohjalian into a radical compassion we've heard somewhere before: Love Thy Enemy . . . I loved this unforgettable novel." — Tom Paine, The Burlington Free Press

"A lush romance, reflecting resilience in the face of nearly certain tragedy....a trenchant epic that is both agonizing and enriching." — AirTran Magazine

"A fictional tale of love, violence and redemption. . . Bohjalian deftly moves from the journey to the back stories of each character, fleshing out their histories and making their choices more poignant as their friendship and interdependence develop. Who will live and who will die? The author keeps up the suspense until the last page, with a surprise twist at the end." — Capital Living Magazine

"Powerful . . . Skeletons at the Feast positively resonates with authenticity. I've read several accounts of that small part of World War II, but it took this novel to bring home to me, most clearly and vividly, the dreadful ordeal these people endured...[The Holocaust's] evils are more palpable when its victims come to life-and, in so many cases, death-in the pages of a well-crafted novel. Bohjalian allows the reader to know them and identify with them in a way that no photographs or program on the History Channel can match." — A.C. Hutchinson, The Times-Argus

"Chris Bohjalian has written his finest novel to date, set against the brutal, waning days of World War Two in Eastern Germany....Skeletons at the Feast is Bohjalian's masterpiece. The power of the narrative will stay with the reader long after it is put down. Inspired by an actual World War II diary the author read, it will stand as one of the best novels ever written about one of the most brutal periods in history." — Marvin Minkler, The North Star Monthly

"A deeply moving and engrossing novel. . .Bohjalian has created a microcosm of that devastating winter of 1945. . . he makes us care deeply for his characters. His terse, dry prose renders the most appalling atrocities in an almost stoic manner, doubling the emotional impact." — The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Immensely readable...Bohjalian takes a fresh perspective and details the brutal realities of World War II in a novel that for once does not focus entirely on the Allies. Recommended for fiction collections." — Library Journal

“Careful research and an unflinching eye. . . Bohjalian's well-chosen descriptions capture the anguish of a tragic era and the dehumanizing desolation wrought by war.” — Publisher’s Weekly

"Bohjalian is especially good at conveying the surreal 'beauty,' the misshapen lyricism, of the war-torn landscape: 'Even the stone church had collapsed upon itself…the once imposing pipes of the organ reshaped by heat and flame into giant copper-colored mushrooms.' From harrowing to inspiring." — Kirkus Reviews

“Bohjalian demonstrates an intricate historical knowledge and impressively illustrates the stark horrors of the time. . .A compelling read with its mix of history, romance and portrayals of strength in the midst of severe adversity: War really is hell, the book says, but the human spirit is ultimately salvageable.” — Rebecca Stropoli, Bookpage

Reading Group Guide

A Note to the Reader

In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this book–as well as the ending.

If you have not finished reading
Skeletons at the Feast, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.


In the chaotic months before the final collapse of the Third Reich, the Germans living in the eastern part of Hitler’s empire fled their homes to escape the onslaught of the Soviet Army. If these refugees didn’t know the specifics of the atrocities their people had committed on Russian soil –and, in fact, were still committing in concentration camps across Poland and Germany–they nonetheless understood that the Russians were going to be merciless.

It is this world that Chris Bohjalian brings vividly and powerfully to life in Skeletons at the Feast. A Prussian aristocrat struggles west with her beautiful daughter, her young son, and a Scottish prisoner of war. Meanwhile, a female Jewish prisoner struggles to survive first the horrors of a concentration camp and then a forced march west in the ice and snow of a German winter. And a Jewish man who has leapt from a train bound for a death camp learns to do whatever he must to survive.

This reader’s guide is intended as a starting point for your discussion of the novel.

1. Do you know–or are you yourself–a veteran of World War II? Discuss what you know of the war and any reminiscences that veterans may have shared.

2. Both of Anna’s parents are members of the Nazi Party–though it is clear that they are not die-hard believers. Living on their farm in rural Prussia, they are largely sheltered from the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews. As Germans, do you think they share responsibility for the Nazis’ actions even if they didn’t know the full extent of what was happening? Why did they join the party? Did they have a choice? Consider Helmut’s teacher who questions the boy about his father’s loyalty to Hitler and the consequences of resisting. If failure to join meant death for you, what would you have done?

3. A group of POWs is brought to the Emmerich family’s farm to help with the harvest, including a Scot named Callum Finella. He and Anna fall in love. What brings them together? Does the kindness of the Emmerich family, and Callum’s love for their only daughter, change his view of the German people as a whole?

4. We meet Uri on the train to Auschwitz. What kind of man is he? How does he behave on the train? Imagine yourself in those deplorable conditions. Do you think you would seize the opportunity for freedom and jump as Uri did, leaving behind your family to an uncertain future?

5. While arguing with Anna about what is really happening to Jews, Callum says, “Suppose my government in England just decided to ‘resettle’ the Catholics–to take away their homes, their animals, their possessions, and just send them away?” What if this was happening where you live? What actions would you be willing to take to protect your friends and neighbors? At what point would the risks have been too great?

6. To survive, Uri impersonates a German soldier, stealing papers and uniforms from soldiers he either kills or finds dead. Discuss the events that lead up to his first killing of a Nazi. Discuss his reaction to what he has done (page 59). Do you believe his actions were warranted?

7. Although the world is essentially collapsing around them, Anna and Callum fall in love, Theo cries over leaving his beloved horse behind, and Mutti carefully drapes the furniture in sheets to protect it before they flee their home ahead of the Russians. What do these simple, ordinary actions reveal about them as people? About the human capacity for hope?

8. Theo is only a child but he feels lacking in comparison to his older brothers Werner and Helmut, both off fighting in the war. What kind of child is he? Does he fit in with his peers? Why doesn’t Theo tell his mother about his foot? What does this reveal about him? Does Theo change over the course of the novel?

9. Describe Cecile. What kind of woman is she? What keeps her going in spite of the cruelty and degradation she suffers every day? How is she different from her friend Jeanne? Do you think you would act more like Cecile or Jeanne in the same circumstances?

10. In Chapter Eight, Helmut and his father, Rolf, try to convince Uncle Karl to leave his home along with the Emmerichs. He refuses, keeping his daughter, daughter-in-law, and grandson with him in spite of the danger. Why won’t he evacuate? Why won’t he let the women and the child leave? On page 118 he refers to them and their way of life as “skeletons at the feast.” What does he mean by this?

11. Describe the circumstances that bring Uri and the Emmerichs together. Why does he choose to stay with them after running alone for so long? How does he feel about them initially? How do his feelings for them change?

12. On page 178, Callum is thinking about bringing Anna home with him to Scotland after the war. How does he think she will be received? Why is he troubled?

13. During their long march from the prison camp to the factory, Jeanne and another prisoner find soldiers’ rations and eat them. They do not wake Cecile to share them with her. Why? In the same circumstances, what would you have done?

14. Given the odds of success, would you have been brave enough to attempt to escape with Cecile and her friends?

15. Describe Mutti. What was she like at the beginning of the war? At the end? What does she view as her primary responsibility? On pages 291—293, she remembers burying the young German pilot whose plane crashed in her park. Why was burying him–and the enemy Russian soldiers–important to her?

16. How does Anna change as the novel progresses? Why does she feel the need for personal forgiveness at the end? Is she right to feel guilty?

17. Discuss the importance of hope in survival. Which character is the most hopeful? Which character is the most defeated? What moments at the end of the novel symbolize hope most poignantly?

18. Discuss the legacy that Mutti’s generation left for Anna’s. As a nation, what kind of legacy are we leaving for our children?

Interviews

Skeletons at the Feast
Chris Bohjalian

The Back Story

Like most of my novels, the idea for Skeletons at the Feast emerged from the minutiae of everyday life. There was a little girl in my daughter’s kindergarten class here in Vermont, and one day her father, Gerd Krahn, asked me if I would look at his German grandmother’s unpublished diary. His mother, Heidi, had just finished translating it into English and adding to it the recollections of other family members. This was back in 1998.

Usually, this sort of request is a novelist’s worst nightmare: Most family histories are dull as toast and badly written. But Gerd is a very good friend of mine, and so I was happy to read the diary that his East Prussian grandmother, Eva Henatsch, kept from 1920 through 1945.

Much of the diary focused upon the day-to-day activities of helping to manage a sizable estate in a remote, still rural corner of Europe. But then there were the passages that chronicled 1945 and Eva’s family’s arduous trek west ahead of the Soviet Army – a journey that was always grueling and often terrifying. I was fascinated. But I still didn’t anticipate that it would ever inspire me to embark upon a novel.

Eight years later, however, in 2006, I read Max Hastings’s history of the last year of the war in Germany, Armageddon, and I was struck by how often the anecdotes in Hastings’s nonfiction account mirrored moments in that diary. Apparently, the horrors in Henatsch’s diary were not unique. But nor were the moments of idiosyncratic human connection – such as the occasional friendships (and even romances) that grew between Allied prisoners of war who were sent to the farms in East Prussia to help with the harvest and the teenage German farm girls there. It was thus almost out of intellectual curiosity that I asked Gerd if I could revisit his grandmother’s diary. It was on that second reading that I began to imagine a novel and started to research the period.

And while I did a great deal of secondary research, much of my learning came from my interviews with Germans who were alive in the period and my interviews with Holocaust survivors – including one woman who endured the sort of horrific winter death march that the character Cecile experiences. Everyone seemed to have stories that were as astonishing as they were wrenching.

My sense is that the last six months of the Second World War in Poland and the eastern edges of Germany had to have been one of the most brutal periods in human history – which is why, perhaps, I was drawn to it as a novelist. People behaved in ways that are almost unimaginable outside of fiction and the stakes could not possibly have been higher. The magnitude of the carnage is inconceivable. There were concentration camps that were still functioning; there were the starving, desperately ill prisoners from other camps whom the Nazis were marching west in the cold; there were the Russian soldiers dying in monumental numbers since a part of the Russian military strategy was simply attrition; there were the German soldiers fighting like cornered wolves because they knew they didn’t dare surrender after the atrocities their army had committed across the Soviet Union; and then there were the terrified German civilians – women and children and old people – plodding west ahead of the advancing Russian army.

The scope of the crucible is always brought home to me by one single moment: The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945. The former cruise ship was the very last vessel to leave the surrounded East Prussian port of Gotenhafen, and so over 10,000 frantic evacuees fought their way aboard. (Think for a moment of those images we’ve all seen of the last helicopters leaving Saigon in 1975 as the North Vietnamese were arriving – then move that chaos to a port and multiply it a thousand times over.) The ship was quickly sunk by a Russian submarine, and over 9,500 people went to the bottom of the Baltic – or six times the number of people who died on the Titanic.

When I had written my first complete draft of the novel, I had the manuscript read by historians and holocaust survivors – and, of course, by the Krahn family.

Now, it’s important to note that although characters in Skeletons at the Feast endure some of the same trials as Eva Henatsch and her remarkable family, Irmgard Emmerich – Mutti in my novel – is not Eva. Nor is Anna Emmerich, my principal heroine, a recreation of Eva’s daughter, Heidi. I hope the fictional Mutti and Anna have a semblance of Eva's and Heidi’s monumental courage and resiliency and compassion, but they are nonetheless fictional constructs.

Finally, although Skeletons at the Feast differs from my earlier work in that it’s set in a particular historical moment, it still shares some specific universalities: It’s about ordinary people coping with trials they had never before imagined; with young people coming of age in moments of seemingly unbearable stress; and, I hope, with the sorts of moral ambiguity that give us all pause and force us to examine our values.

Introduction

A Note to the Reader

In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this book–as well as the ending.

If you have not finished reading
Skeletons at the Feast, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this guide.


In the chaotic months before the final collapse of the Third Reich, the Germans living in the eastern part of Hitler’s empire fled their homes to escape the onslaught of the Soviet Army. If these refugees didn’t know the specifics of the atrocities their people had committed on Russian soil –and, in fact, were still committing in concentration camps across Poland and Germany–they nonetheless understood that the Russians were going to be merciless.

It is this world that Chris Bohjalian brings vividly and powerfully to life in Skeletons at the Feast. A Prussian aristocrat struggles west with her beautiful daughter, her young son, and a Scottish prisoner of war. Meanwhile, a female Jewish prisoner struggles to survive first the horrors of a concentration camp and then a forced march west in the ice and snow of a German winter. And a Jewish man who has leapt from a train bound for a death camp learns to do whatever he must to survive.

This reader’s guide is intended as a starting point for your discussion of the novel.

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Skeletons at the Feast 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 214 reviews.
Ushi More than 1 year ago
I was born in Cologne Germany in 1939. When I was 5 years old we were evacuated to Sachseny in East Gemrnay.
After a wile there, we were urged to flee towards the West because the Russians were coming closer and everyone knew what they would do to women and female children.....

I was part of the people on the street and also dodged the low flying English planes. We went from farmhouse to farmhouse to ask for food and for baby buggies for the younger children, of which I was one.

Chris Bohjalian ia a wonderful writer. He brought out feelings I thought long forgotten.

Thank you Chris.
crimekitty763 More than 1 year ago
This is a fantastic book. I could not put it down once I began reading. The story is both romantic, thrilling, honest, exciting and believable. The main character is Anna, daughter of a Prussian farmer, and her family's escape from Nazis and Russians. Other characters of equal importance are: her mother, younger brother, older brothers, father, Callum, a Scottish POW, Uri, an escaped Jewish man who takes many others identies, Joan, his sister, and the girls from a concentration camp. This is their stories of trying to reach freedom and safety. Along the way is much sadness and unbelievable atrocities. This story is definitely NOT what we were taught in high school about WW II. I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially readers who enjoy historical fiction.
felix_willow More than 1 year ago
Even if you're not a history buff - World War II is fascinating - the struggles and endurance people went through during that time, it almost doesn't seem real. This is a great snapshot of life during the war, from many perspectives. The plot and characters will draw you in and you won't want to put the book down. the story flows beautifully. A must.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was totally different then the usual story line by this author, but the love stories between man and woman, mother and child-are priceless. The German WWII perspective was also interesting and kept the pages turning and turning.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I should know better than to buy into the publisher's review. An epic love story this was not. Of course, this subject matter is going to be depressing, and to some degree predictable, given that we have historic fact to draw upon. However, I was, perhaps, expecting a different perspective or twist in the plot from this author. As the journey of this rag tag group plodded on through Germany, so I plodded on through the pages, horrific atrocity after atrocity making me more miserable by the page. Obviously, I was not expecting this to be a joyous, romantic romp, but I was expecting infinitely more than this book held.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not many books capture my attention as this one did. The plot was amazing and I felt myself finishing the book quickly in order to see what happens up until the last sentence. I have recommended this book to all my family and friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved it, start to finish. This story of survival was very moving and had me in tears in a few spots. Great read; I would love to see it on the big screen!
Guest More than 1 year ago
i personally thought this was a great book. i am studying germany its culture history etc and i absolutely loved this book! all i know is i hate reading... hated reading... now im hooked! ha. but it truely was a wonderful book. i completely fell in love and cried for and cheered for Uri ... his character truely captured my attention.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It held my attention & on a scale of 1-5 (highest being 5) rated it a 3.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! I cannot believe the absolute "ignorance" of the German people! They didn't know what happened to the Jews, but they knew enough to flee the Russians! A realistic look and the end of the war for the German civilian. Vivid imagery, extremely well written!
Thiltpold More than 1 year ago
Good account of WWII from more than just Germany's view but I enjoyed Double Bind much more. I enjoy his writing style overall.
oldblack on LibraryThing 24 days ago
This book seems to me to be a cross between a romance and a "Boy's Own Adventure", with a lot of graphic violence thrown in. I am not really a big reader of either romances or war novels, and I shut my eyes in the movies when the violent bits come on. Therefore, this book won't be on my "favourites" list. Nonetheless, it did offer some interesting insights, reflecting on the futility and stupidity of nationalism and war, and the transcendence of individual human relationships. Also, seeing WWII from a German or Polish perspective is relatively rare in popular American literature.This is my first Bohjalian book, and I think I need to read more of his work, in different genres, before I make a judgment about whether I'll regularly visit the "B" section in my local library. This one was easy to keep "reading" - I had uploaded it from the 10 library CDs onto my iPod and I listened while I had my daily exercise.
sharlene_w on LibraryThing 24 days ago
This book was inspired in part by an actual diary a friend asked Bohjalian to read in 1998; it had been kept by his friend¿s East Prussian grandmother from 1920 to 1945. Bohjalian artfully fleshed out a story describing the relentless horror and barbarism of WWII and a family torn apart by war. In an interview he indicated these were his favorite characters that he has ever spent time with and that is reflected in the quality of the writing and in how compelling the story is. He also indicated it is is favorite of the twelve books he as written and he feels he has finally done the characters justice. I agree. This is my favorite of his books that I have read. Well done.
burnit99 on LibraryThing 28 days ago
A story set in Germany in the closing days of World War II, as a German family attempts to flee east away from the advancing Russians, whose treatment the German people have reason to fear after the deprivations visited upon the Russians by Hitler's invading armies. The family is joined by a disguised Jew who has escaped from the prisoner trains and is seeking his sister, and Callum, a young Scottish soldier/prisoner who has been furloughed to the family for farm labor, and is now being hidden by them as they flee, hoping he will be their safe passage when they reach the Allied troops in the west. This is a mature, finely-written novel that I like more than any other Bohjalian book I have read, laced with love and fear and courage and cowardice in the shadow of the darkest drama of the 20th century. The ending is perfect: tragic, hopeful and wrenching, it speaks for the capacity of mankind to find love and happiness after the darkest brutalities that humanity can inflict upon its own kind.
Bellettres on LibraryThing 28 days ago
Perhaps the best WWII novel I've read. Not only is the story told from the perspective of both Germans and Jews, but it also deals with the closing months of the war, which is not generally the focus in this sort of book. Courage and heroism are evinced by many of the characters: the German mother protecting her children, the German boy trying to live up to the standard of his father and older brothers, the young Jewish man who escaped from a train heading to Auschwitz, the Scots POW who is taken along on the trek west to provide proof of good will to the Allies. Rarely does one see kindness side by side with unspeakable atrocities the way one does in this novel. The horrors of war are brought home, and we understand that everyone, regardless of nationality or political ideology, suffers. Three-dimensional characters and fine writing added to my pleasure in reading this book. Some episodes were tough to get through, but seemed quite likely realistic portrayals of what might have happened on a journey of this sort. I've read other novels by Bohjalian that I liked, but this is by far the best!
JGoto on LibraryThing 28 days ago
Well written and compelling, Skeletons at the Feast is a story about the final days of World War Two in Europe. The cast of characters include the Emmerich Family, rich German gentry from an estate in Poland, and Callum, the Scottish prisoner of war whom they are hiding as they trek westward in a frantic attempt to escape the approaching Russian army. They are soon joined by Uri Singer, a Jew masquerading as a German officer after jumping from an Auschwitz bound train. On a parallel path are a group of Jewish concentration camp women, being marched toward Germany in the attempt to erase the Nazi atrocities from the view of the liberating armies and the rest of the world. This book was based on a WWII diary read by the author and it captures the horrors, uncertainties, and humanity of the times.
etxgardener on LibraryThing 28 days ago
I really like Chris Bohalian's novels. He cannot be classified into a genre & he writes about a wide range of subjects. This book, inspired by the wartime diaries of the grandmother of a friend, chronicles an aristocratic German family fleeing from the advancing Russian army in the declining days of World War II. The group consists of the mother, her young son, Theo and her beautiful 19-year-old daughter Anna. The father and the two older sons remain behind to fight in a desperate rear guard action to try & stop the Russian advance. Accompanying the women is a strapping Scot who is a POW who has been working the family farm and a German Jew who is masquerading as a German soldier.The book vividly illustrates the chaos that occurred as the German Reich collapsed as well as the denial of some of her citizens in the face of defeat. The main character, 19 year-old Anna, slowly comes to realize the full extent of the horrors that her country has inflicted on not only the Jews, but also on the people they conquered. Her growth as a person, along with the tale of the family's flight from the Russians, makes this book a compelling read.
mojomomma on LibraryThing 28 days ago
I thought this was really an excellent book, every bit as good as Midwives and The Double Bind by the same author. The story takes place on the eastern European front in the first few months of 1945, as Germany is being slowly defeated by the invading Russians and the British and American allies coming in from the west. Every able-bodied man is being drafted to help repel the Russians and their families are fleeing to the east to await their fate...but they aren't sure if the victors will be the Nazis or the Americans, but they know they must flee the barbaric Russians. I really enjoyed this because it focuses on a part of the war that I didn't know that much about. And I also enjoyed the plot development as the Germans realize that their Reich is drawing to a close and they are faced with an uncertain future.
mckait on LibraryThing 28 days ago
This is a poignant and extraordinary story of a family in the midst of WWII.Beginning in the autumn of 1944 at their farm home, Kaminheim, the Emmerich family brought in their harvest with the help of some prisoners of war that were made available to them for the task.The prisoners were German, British and there was one young man from Scotland, Callum Finella. At this point things had not changed too much for the Emmerich family. One son Werner had gone to be a soldier and another was about to leave. Helmut who was twin to the daughter of the family, Anna. Their father had served before and was preparing to enter this war as well. The fact of war, and the horrors of what was happening around them had not really come home to Anna, Mutti or Theo the youngest brother. This was about to change. By the approaching winter They, along with the one remaining prisoner of war that had been able to remain with the family were about to flee their home. The stories of the death camps, the reality of what was really happening to other Jews had intruded finally into their near idyllic existence on their farm. Their days of comfort were over for what soon looked to be forever. While attempting to find safety and their way to a new life, they met up with many others making the same journey, all of whom affected their lives. Some of them passed through quicky, others lingered and changed them forever. The characters captivate, the story enthralls, and be warned, this is a story that will stay with you for a very long time. It will touch your heart and mind in ways you never dreamed a book could.This is a keeper, a gift book and a reread.
yogiclarebear on LibraryThing 28 days ago
A holocaust/WWII story seen from different points of view that end up coming together. Dragged a little at times but well organized. Learned a lot, I like that.
jamaicanmecrazy on LibraryThing 28 days ago
WWII story which demonstrates that lines often become blurred in wartime. For instance, there is the "chameleon" Uri, a Jew who poses as a Nazi officer as he helps a German family running from the invading Soviets. Remember the subject matter---not for the faint of heart. Bohjalian did his homework before he wrote this very sad yet hopeful read.
Othemts on LibraryThing 28 days ago
The William & Mary Alumni Boston Chapter selected this novel set in German-occupied Poland at the end of the Second World War. It tells the story of three different journeys that intertwine and complement one another. First there is the Emmerich family, prosperous German farmers in East Prussia with the elderly father and eldest sons off fighting, the women and children flee west to safety from the Russian army taking with them a Scottish POW. Then there is Uri, a Jew who escaped from the prison trains and has spent two years taking on the uniforms and identities of various German officers both for survival and sabotage. Finally there is Cecille, a French Jewish woman forced with her fellow prisoners on a death march (although this is the least well-realized of the three storylines).Bohjalian does not shrink from the details of all that was horrible about the war and the Holocaust. Yet, in the end this is a book about hope. After tearing us down, Bohjalian builds us back up with the romance of 18-year old Anna Emmerich and the Scottish airman Callum, the persistence of Cecille, the bravery of Uri and many small, kind acts. The one thing I wish the author had not done was to distance the Emmerich's so much from Nazism. It seems a cop-out that many authors/filmmakers fall on is the "good German" instead of trying to find humanity or promise of redemption in those who adhered to this evil ideology.All in all a gripping and well-written novel.
cemming on LibraryThing 28 days ago
A family of rural Germans rush to escape their country as World War II comes to a violent close, befriending both Jewish and English soldiers on their trek. An insider's perspective about the ludicrisy of the war on Jews from the viewpoint of Germans not ensconced in townships, and also of the Russians' brutality.
readingrat on LibraryThing 28 days ago
This gripping WWII novel starts off with a bang and keeps the action going strong almost all the way to the end.
ddirmeyer on LibraryThing 28 days ago
I eagerly anticipate new works by Chris Bohjalian. The subject of this novel, WWII, was a departure from his prior works. It was fabulous. Written with amazing insight into the perspective of Jews, Russians, and Germans, it was an emotionally draining book to read. Skeletons is one of those novels I continue to think about weeks after finishing it, which is another indication to me of its greatness. Novels about war should not be light reading and this one isn't. But you will be greatly rewarded if you pick up this book.