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Based on the author’s discoveries about her great-grandfather, this stunning debut novel that “powerfully portrays the inner struggles of ordinary people moved to do extraordinary things” (Booklist) takes place over three days during World War II when members of a German family must make “the sometimes impossible choice between family and morality” (Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand).
When World War II breaks out, Edith and Oskar Eberhardt move their family—their daughter, Marina; son-in-law, Franz; and their granddaughters—out of Berlin to the quiet town of Blumental, near Switzerland. A member of the Fuhrer’s cabinet, Oskar is gone most of the time, and Franz begins fighting in the war, so the women of the house are left to their quiet lives in the village.
But life in Blumental isn’t as idyllic as it appears. An egotistical Nazi captain terrorizes the citizens he’s assigned to protect. Neighbors spy on each other. Some mysteriously disappear. Marina has a lover who also has close ties to her family and the government. Thinking none of them share her hatred of the Reich, she joins a Protestant priest smuggling Jewish refugees over the nearby Swiss border. The latest “package” is two Polish girls, and against her better judgment, Marina finds she must hide them in the Eberhardt’s cellar. Everything is set to go smoothly until Oskar comes home with the news that the Führer will be visiting the area for a concert, and he will be making a house call on the Eberhardts.
“With jaw-clenching suspense and unexpected tenderness” (Jacquelyn Mitchard), The Good at Heart is an “engaging...rich...evocative” (Library Journal) portrait of a family torn between doing their duty for their country and doing what’s right, especially for those they love.
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)|
About the Author
Ursula Werner is a writer and attorney currently living in Washington, DC, with her family. Born in Germany and raised in South Florida, she has practiced law while continuing her creative writing, publishing two books of poetry, In the Silence of the Woodruff (2006) and Rapunzel Revisited (2010). The Good at Heart is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Good at Heart – One –
The day the German army opened fire on its own citizens in Blumental was the day of Pimpanella’s miracle. It was a cool summer morning, with the first promise of sun after four drizzly, cold days. Rosie woke early, hopped out of bed, and ran downstairs. Ever since she turned five, she had been allowed to check for eggs in the henhouse. She loved crawling into the small plywood hutch that housed the four chickens, reaching into each nest, and gently wiggling her fingers between the straw and the burlap, feeling around for that small, smooth oval, still warm from being under the hen’s puffed chest, the shell slightly soft.
Rosie also loved the hens, Pimpanella especially. Spindly little Pimpanella was the closest thing Rosie had to a pet; she was the only chicken who did not peck at Rosie’s feet in the outhouse. And Rosie protected Pimpanella against her grandfather. The last time Opa was home from Berlin, he declared Pimpanella useless because she had never been able to produce an egg. “A poor excuse for a fowl,” he called her. He chased Pimpanella around the yard with a stewpot lid, yelling at her to pull herself together and do her part for the war effort.
This morning, Rosie crawled up the short ladder and crept into the dusty coop. She made her way around the circle of nests: first Nina (one egg), then Rosamunde (also one), then Hanni (none, but she had a habit of laying her eggs any old place), and finally Pimpanella. Rosie’s older sisters, Lara and Sofia, didn’t even check Pimpanella’s nest anymore because in the entire year they’d had her, they had never found anything. But Rosie had faith in Pimpanella, even if no one else did. You had to believe, Rosie thought. You had to believe in good things because there were too many bad things to scare you if you didn’t. Like when you saw soldiers with only half a face at the bakery in Berlin. Or when you saw the soldiers missing an arm or a leg. Or both.
Rosie gently patted Pimpanella’s entire nest, starting at the side nearest to her. Nothing. Undiscouraged, she started over, this time digging down a bit deeper with her fingers. Halfway through, on the edge of the tamped-down hay where Pimpanella usually sat, there it was—an egg, buried under about three centimeters of straw. Then, to Rosie’s surprise and delight, she found another, right next to the first one. Two eggs! Twins!
It was a glorious day. Rosie would have to remember to bring Pimpanella some carrot tops as a special treat. For now, she gathered all the eggs up carefully in her pajama top and walked back uphill to the house. The small square building stood at the northern end of their property, right by the road that ran along the train tracks into town. Its stucco walls held layers of ivy and honeysuckle, which wound their way around the blackened oak window frames up to a clay tile roof. Given the green cloak of these vines, and how tiny the house was compared to the vast garden surrounding it, anyone passing by the property along the lake path to the south might overlook the structure altogether.
For the Eberhardt family, however, the house was enough. Though cramped, it could hold five people, sometimes six or seven if Rosie’s father came home from the eastern front, or if her grandfather came south from his job in Berlin. The last time Rosie’s father was home, he was so skinny he looked like a ghost, and he woke up every night screaming. He didn’t stay long. The war wanted him back.
When Rosie entered the kitchen, it was empty except for the smell of warm bread. She deposited the eggs in the basket on the table. From the big hand on the clock, she knew she was late.
Rosie ran outside to the front of the house, where Sofia was waiting for her. The 8:00 a.m. train whistled in the distance. The girls didn’t have much time. Their daily race to see who would be first to the underpass would have to start right now.
Sofia looked at Rosie. “You’re not even dressed yet.”
“There wasn’t time,” Rosie said. “Quick, the train is coming!”
“All right, but you don’t get a head start just because you’re barefoot. Ready . . . set . . . go!”
It did not take more than several seconds for Sofia, two years older and at least a head taller than Rosie, to pull out in front, blond braids flapping against her shoulders. Racing just a few steps behind her sister, Rosie balled her fingers into fists. Her grandfather had told her that helped your speed. She was almost at Sofia’s feet.
“Coming to get you, coming to get you,” Rosie taunted. Sofia took a quick glance backward, stuck her tongue out, and sped up for the final few meters. She rounded the corner at the base of the bridge a few steps before Rosie, just as the three-car train shook the steel girders over their heads. The girls stood there, bent over and breathing heavily.
“Look, Rosie,” Sofia said. “The barricade is gone!”
Two mornings ago, at the end of their race, Rosie and Sofia had almost crashed into an enormous pile of tree trunks that had been piled under the bridge. Someone had chopped down all the trees from a nearby thicket and stacked them on top of one another. Even today, the copse of trees that had yielded them still looked naked and embarrassed. Their leftover stumps stared blankly up at the stark sunlight, as if in shock from the trauma of decapitation.
For the past two days, that makeshift wall had blocked all traffic on the narrow road that ran along the Bodensee between the towns of Blumental and Meerfeld. Everyone knew the barricade was Captain Rodemann’s doing, and the smoldering hatred they already bore him for disrupting their lives grew to a blaze.
* * *
Captain Heinrich Rodemann, the seventeen-year-old leader of the Twenty-Sixth Battalion of the Hohenfeld foot patrol, had high expectations for his own military fame. He had always imagined he would make his name on a battlefield, even though he had entered the war only eight months earlier. Like the Führer whom he so proudly served, Heinrich Rodemann was not at all concerned about the recent Allied invasion of Normandy. He had great faith in the German military machine, for he shared with the Führer that intensity of ego that urged him to fight with greater strength and resistance the closer the end appeared to be.
In late June, when Berlin sent Rodemann south to investigate rumors of a possible French incursion on German soil, the overeager captain took the assignment very seriously. He decided to establish headquarters in a small town on the west end of the Bodensee. Blumental was ideally located for his purposes. No one seemed to know exactly if or when French troops would appear, but Captain Rodemann was committed to the engagement, eager to exercise his pubescent military muscle. His foot soldiers set up camp in the vineyards around the Catholic church of Birnau, to the east of town, while he took the best room in the town’s only inn, the Gasthof zum Löwen. Twice a day, the captain sent out scouting teams to ascertain whether there was any sign of the French; twice a day, his hopes were dashed with negative reports. To pass the time, he marched his troops around the marketplace. They stomped past the pigeon-stained bronze statue of Albrecht Munter, first mayor of Blumental. They paraded through the small commercial district distinguished by one newsstand, one jeweler, a clothing store, a pharmacy, a butcher, and the bakery of the three Mecklen sisters. They strutted down the lake promenade, where the metal chairs and tables of outdoor cafés rested wearily against one another, resigned to the rust that claimed more of their frames with each summer storm.
To ease the pain of his frustrated ambitions, Captain Rodemann commandeered chickens, fresh milk, and local produce from the farmers, and he practically emptied the vintner’s wine cellar. But not even these amenities could assuage his growing impatience and mounting irritation. He sent daily telegrams to Berlin, describing in exaggerated detail the reconnaissance efforts undertaken in the previous twenty-four hours and bemoaning the continued absence of signs of a French offensive. After three weeks, Berlin had had enough, and Rodemann was ordered to move his troops out. On his own initiative, Rodemann decided to erect an impediment that would hinder the French, should they ever arrive. He ordered his men to set up a barricade. They filled the underpass with headless tree trunks.
Nobody dared to move them, at least not immediately, and not in daylight. Deliveries that usually arrived via the southeast road were rerouted along a smaller dirt path intended for the farmers and shepherds who used the grass fields near the Birnau forest. By the end of the barricade’s first day, a hay wagon had collided with a meat van, two oversize trucks were stuck in the mud next to the sheep pastures, and the bewildered sheep had been introduced to an entirely new vocabulary of epithets. Grumbling about the situation began quietly, in conversations between two or three people, then spread through flocks of women at Mecklen’s Bakery and six-packs of men at the town tavern. By the end of the second day, everyone had run out of patience, and a resolute group of Blumental citizens, fortified by several pints of beer, dismantled the pile of logs under cover of darkness.
* * *
Marina Thiessen was outside in the yard, talking to her neighbor across the fence, when Rosie ran up the gravel driveway.
“Mutti, Mutti! They unblocked the road!”
“Rosie, hush.” Marina held up her hand and gave her daughter a stern look. “I’m speaking with Frau Breckenmüller about it.”
Rosie liked Frau Breckenmüller. She lived next door and had the pink cheeks of a fairy-tale grandmother. Rosie also liked Herr Breckenmüller—even though he was a fisherman and often smelled like fish—because he had helped her grandfather hang a swing in the apple tree. Last summer, after Rosie pestered her opa all morning about the swing, Opa had marched over to the Breckenmüllers’ to borrow some rope. Rosie remembered Herr Breckenmüller leaning on the fence next to her, puffing quietly on his cigar, a half smile creeping up his cheek, while Opa threw the ropes over the apple tree branch to secure the wooden board.
“Sure those knots are tight, Oskar?” Herr Breckenmüller had asked.
“Stop yammering at me, old man,” Opa had growled. “Don’t you think I know how to tie a knot?” Herr Breckenmüller had smiled and winked at Rosie. He knew something he wasn’t telling.
“Okay, then,” Opa had said, grabbing the two ropes on each side of the swing. “Let me just try it once, Rosie, and then it’s all yours.” He took a few steps back, the seat of the swing dangling beneath him, then kicked up his feet and briefly pulled himself into the air before firmly depositing his bottom on the wooden plank. The knot in the rope unraveled immediately, landing Opa in the dirt with a loud thud.
“Scheisse und verdammt nochmal!”
Rosie had never seen her grandfather get so angry, and for an instant she had been afraid. He stood up slowly, still cursing loudly and rubbing his backside. But when he turned and saw Rosie, his face changed immediately. She saw the skin that had been fixed in tight ripples around his mouth and eyes become smooth and relax back into the sheepish smile of the Opa she knew.
Herr Breckenmüller tried hard not to laugh. Then he stamped out his cigar and walked slowly over to the apple tree. “It takes a fisherman to know his way around ropes,” he had said, winking at Rosie conspiratorially.
This morning, Rosie ran over to the apple tree so she could swing while her mother was talking.
“Yes, Karl helped them take down the barricade early this morning, before he went out in his boat,” Frau Breckenmüller said. “I tried to talk him out of it. I didn’t want him involved.”
“The authority of Captain Heinrich Rodemann is so sacrosanct.” Her mother clenched her fists and pushed them into the pockets of her apron. “Of course we should be careful not to disturb the grand military edifice of dead trees erected by that great officer, never mind that he is nothing more than a pig!” Marina spat out the word. Frau Breckenmüller gasped and quickly reached across the fence to cover Marina’s mouth with her hand. Rosie slowed the swing.
“You’re not immune, you know,” Frau Breckenmüller cautioned, “just because your father works for the Führer. Remember the Rosenbergs. People can disappear overnight.”
Marina nodded and removed Frau Breckenmüller’s fingers from her lips. “Come, Rosie. Let’s get you some breakfast.” She looked at Rosie’s bare feet and frowned. “Even better, let’s get you dressed.”
“Oooh, yes!” Rosie suddenly remembered Pimpanella’s eggs. “Come see the big surprise!”
Her grandmother was talking on the phone as Rosie and Marina walked into the kitchen. Any other day, Rosie would have run over to Oma and demanded to talk to whoever was on the line (usually her opa), because the telephone was still a novelty. Very few families in Blumental had one in their house, and most people had to use the telephone at the post office if they wanted to make a call. But her opa was an important person in Berlin, so they got one. Mostly they used it to call him.
Rosie wished Opa did not have to stay in Berlin to work while the rest of the family lived in Blumental, but as Oma often reminded her, everyone had to make sacrifices for the war. Long ago, when she was very little, they had all lived in Berlin. Then Sofia and Oma had almost died the night the bombs fell, and they moved to Blumental. Rosie didn’t remember anything about that night. Apparently Sofia didn’t either, because whenever Rosie asked about it, Sofia curled up into a little ball and whispered, “I don’t remember.”
Pulling her mother past the telephone room, Rosie stopped at the kitchen table.
“Look, Mutti.” She pointed at the basket. “Eggs!”
Marina smiled hesitantly. “One, two, three . . . four eggs. That’s wonderful, Rosie. Nina, Rosamunde, and Hanni are working very hard.”
“No, no, only two of the eggs are from Nina and Rosamunde,” Rosie interrupted. “The other two are from Pimpanella. They were right in her nest under the straw. Both of them.”
“She probably stole them from the other chickens when they weren’t looking,” Lara said, shuffling into the kitchen in her slippers.
“She did not! She laid those eggs all by herself.” Rosie ran over to her older sister and pummeled her in the stomach. Lara laughed and easily pushed Rosie away. Just then, Edith walked into the kitchen, her telephone conversation with Oskar ended.
“What does Oskar say?” Marina asked. She placed a pot of milk on the stove. “What’s the news from Berlin?”
“Oskar is in Fürchtesgaden, not Berlin,” Edith said. “Apparently the Führer felt the need for mountain air and asked the cabinet to join him for its weekly meeting.”
“Hm. Sounds like our Führer, uprooting everyone from their normal lives because he ‘felt the need,’ ” Marina said with a sniff, just as the porch door flew open and Sofia dashed into the kitchen.
“Irene Nagel’s cat had kittens!” she said.
“Kittens!” Rosie thrust the basket of eggs into Edith’s hands. Kittens were fluffy and warm and bouncy. Like a ball made out of feathers. “Can we go see them, Mutti? Oma? Please, can we?” Rosie ran over to her mother and put on her saddest, most pleading face.
“Actually, Rosie, your opa told me he needs your help with a special project this morning.” Edith put her arms on Rosie’s shoulders and addressed all three girls. “Everyone can help. We need to make a new flag for our window. A red, white, and blue one.”
Marina looked up. So did Lara, who had been examining the fingernails on her right hand.
“Those are the colors of France,” Lara said.
* * *
It turned out that the French army’s approach was not a complete fabrication of Captain Rodemann’s mind. One German intelligence dispatch reported sighting a small French battalion marching southeast to the German border, toward the lake. In their telephone conversation, Oskar told Edith that it was still many days away and probably not something to be overly concerned about. Nevertheless, he urged her to take precautions. Change the flag, he advised.
The flag flying from the second-floor window of the Eberhardt home was, like every other flag displayed outside Blumental homes, the national flag of the Third Reich. One of the Führer’s earliest laws required all German homes to display that flag in a prominent location. In Blumental, unanimous compliance with this decree was less a demonstration of the town’s civic loyalty and unerring faith in the nation than a triumph of the efforts of the bürgermeister to safeguard his person.
On the day the law went into effect, long before the war began, the mayor of Blumental, Bürgermeister Hans Munter, almost choked on the soft-boiled egg he had been enjoying with his morning newspaper. The government, he read, would hold the mayor of every city and town accountable for any transgression by any citizen. This was a shock to Munter, whose own mayoral approach to civic governance was laissez-faire, rooted in his conviction that everyone should be left alone and confrontation should be avoided at all costs. But could all of his citizens be trusted to comply with this law without his intervention? He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to find out.
Through expeditious use of the municipality’s emergency fund, Munter soon ensured that full-size replicas of the national flag of the Third Reich were distributed to each Blumental family and hung prominently in front of every home. What Oskar feared, and what he shared with Edith over the phone, was that an invading French battalion might not feel generously inclined toward a town where swastikas flapped outside every window. Would it not be more prudent to substitute a French flag, or, if one could not be found, a white flag of surrender? Weighing strict compliance with the Führer’s edicts against concern for public safety—primarily the safety of his family—Oskar thought the balance tipped in favor of changing the flags.
Edith agreed. After breakfast, she hurried over to the home of the Duponts, who had relatives in Paris, to share Oskar’s news and request their help. Digging into the supply of French flags they had saved from Bastille Day celebrations, the Dupont family generously donated them to many of their neighbors. Families that did not receive French flags borrowed white cloth diapers from families with babies. By lunchtime, Blumental had successfully transformed itself into an apparent Francophile oasis, and everyone awaited the possibility of French occupation with trepidation.
* * *
When Captain Rodemann, marching east from Blumental with his battalion, received a telegram containing the same report that prompted Oskar’s telephone call, he was so elated, he almost fell off his horse. The French army was finally marching toward the northern shore of the lake! Of course, if they were still in France, as the report indicated, it would be at least a week before they reached the Bodensee. They might head through the Black Forest or follow the Rhine along the Swiss border until it reached the lake. Either way, Rodemann was determined to intercept them and thus, as he imagined the consequences, to solidify his place in military history—first for restoring and holding the southern front and then for turning the tide of the war inexorably toward German victory. Veering west, the captain ordered his men to march at double time.
Captain Rodemann and his troops reentered Blumental poised for battle. In fact, Rodemann was so intent upon his upcoming victory that he did not immediately notice the red, white, and blue stripes hanging on each building the battalion passed on its way down the main street. Nevertheless, the flags wove in and out of his consciousness with steady regularity, slowly but firmly knitting a pernicious banner of dissension and rebellion, a banner of popular support for the enemy. Captain Rodemann turned the corner to where he had built the perfect roadblock, where he had constructed out of tree trunks alone an impregnable barrier, and where now stood . . . nothing. He turned around and looked up the street he had just marched down. Flags flapped at him, mocked him, laughed at him in white, blue, and red. Captain Rodemann exploded in anger.
* * *
Rosie and Sofia had spent the morning staining a white cloth diaper with red currant and blackberry juices, trying to make a French flag for the upstairs window. They had just hung the finished product outside the second-floor dormer when their grandmother called them down to lunch.
It was a quiet meal of fish with small yellow potatoes from Edith’s garden. Rosie sat next to Sofia on the oak bench, opposite Lara, who insisted on sitting in her own chair. Rosie had eaten very quickly today because she wanted to get to Irene Nagel’s kittens. Irene had told Sofia there were five. Certainly no house needed that many cats. Sooner or later, Irene’s mother would be giving away some of those kittens, and Rosie and Sofia wanted to be first in line to claim one. Rosie fiddled with the lace curtains and plucked one of the African violets from the little potted plants on the windowsill. She pulled off its petals one by one and looked around the table.
Her mother and grandmother were silent, but that often happened after Opa called. Sometimes he told them news about Rosie’s father, who was away fighting in France. He used to be away fighting in Russia, but then he got stuck in that Russian city, and every time Opa called, her mother grabbed the phone, and when she was done talking to Opa, she would bite her lip. She bit her lip all winter.
Rosie looked to see if her mother was biting her lip now. But today, her mother was only pressing her lips together. Rosie jiggled her legs impatiently. Sofia’s plate still had two potatoes and a lot of fish on it. She kicked Sofia under the table. “Eat faster,” she urged.
Noticing Rosie’s impatience, Edith stood up from her chair and walked over to the chocolate cabinet. “Tell you what, Rosie,” she said. “Why don’t you have a peppermint while you wait?”
Rosie loved peppermints. She unwrapped this one from its crinkly pink paper and held it between her thumb and forefinger and licked it slowly to make it last longer. She only put the whole thing in her mouth later, when lunch was finally over and she needed her hands to dry the dishes. Sofia washed and Rosie dried, sweeping the dish towel over the wet plate at the same time that she swirled her tongue around the peppermint.
Pecka pecka pecka. Rosie looked up when she heard the noise. It sounded like a woodpecker. A loud one, and very close. She usually only heard woodpeckers during walks through the Birnau forest with her mother. But there it was again. Rosie went to the kitchen window to try to see it, but at that moment, three things happened simultaneously: one of the empty milk bottles that was sitting on the front door stoop shattered, Sofia dropped a pot that she had been washing, and Marina came thundering down the stairs and through the kitchen, shouting, “Into the reeds! Now! Into the reeds!”
The Eberhardt family response to air raids and other military dangers was the same as that of every family living along the lakefront: leave the house immediately and hide in the thicket of willow reeds on the shore. Though air raids were rare this far south, there had been a few bombings in nearby Friedrichshafen that had required them to put this escape plan into effect. The girls hated hiding in the reeds. It was wet and scary and uncomfortable to stand in the water motionless for up to an hour and a half. In the summer, the water was warm and home to leeches; in the winter, it was unbearably cold.
In less than a minute, Edith and Lara were already outside the French doors and running down the lawn toward the lake. Neighbors all around were doing the same, shrieking and shouting and scrambling as quickly as possible to get to the relative safety of the thick, camouflaging reeds. Sofia was still near the sink, curling herself into a ball next to the pile of pots Rosie had just dried. Rosie knew that Sofia was trying to make herself as small as possible so that the danger would overlook her and move on. It had worked for her in Berlin.
But Marina knew where to find her. “Out! Out!” Marina screamed, grabbing Sofia’s arm and pulling her up from the stone floor where she was cowering. She pushed Sofia’s stiff form out of the house, and then—awkwardly, because Sofia was getting too big for Marina to carry—gathered her up and ran haltingly down to the lake.
Rosie recognized the look of panic on her mother’s face when she ran through the kitchen. The look said, Run! Now! For an instant, Rosie was confused because she did not understand why a woodpecker would be dangerous, but now there were other sounds coming up the street, sounds that Rosie had heard in Berlin at night, before they moved. Guns. Yes, Rosie concluded as her feet began to run, it must be gunfire that was peppering the stone houses. Rosie knew that machine guns meant follow the exit drill, and Rosie was very good at the exit drill.
She had just reached the French doors heading to the backyard when she remembered Hans-Jürg. He was still upstairs in her bed. Hans-Jürg the bear had always been with Rosie. She was devoted to him, in part because he was the only other member of the family with brown eyes, just like hers. Rosie could not leave Hans-Jürg alone with gunfire going off all around him. So as Marina was running out of the house dragging Sofia behind her, Rosie ran through the living room to the staircase.
Rosie knew, with each step upward, that she should not let herself feel scared or listen to the increasing volume of the machine-gun sounds, which meant that the soldiers, whoever they were, were now on their street, getting closer to their house. She should not, could not, let any of that into her mind. Instead, she thought about Hans-Jürg. Hans-Jürg. Hans, putting her right foot on one step, Jürg, her left foot on the next one. Hans, right, Jürg, left. Hans, Jürg. Hans, Jürg. At the top of the staircase, she half tripped over the old throw rug, put her hand down briefly to catch her balance, and ran to the left into her room. She could tell immediately that Hans-Jürg was grateful to her for coming back. He sat on the faded pink quilt, smiling at her with his thick-threaded, slightly crooked black mouth.
Wrapping Hans-Jürg in her arms to protect him, Rosie ran back down through the house and yard, so quickly she did not have time to feel scared. She ran straight through her grandmother’s pansies, past the ripening cherry tree—where just yesterday she and Sofia had practiced spitting pits into the Breckenmüllers’ yard—over the molehills and through the back fence gate. It did not matter this time that she left it open.
Rosie ran from the bullets, across the pebbles of the shallow beach, into the tall willow reeds, through the water, the mud sucking at her sandals. Unable to pull up her foot, she stopped, panting. She had ignored her terror until now. Now it clamped onto her rib cage and paralyzed her lungs. She had to fight to suck in air. Finally she began to sob and clutched her bear to her heaving chest.
“Rosie!” her mother called out. Marina brushed aside willow stalks and thrust her way through the defiant sludge and water of the lake. “Shh, shh! I’m here, Rosie, I’m here.” Rosie felt her mother’s arms wrap around her and hold her tightly. She pressed her head into her mother’s body, burrowing her face into the coarse wool of her mother’s skirt. Gradually, the air Rosie breathed in became warm and minty, a reminder of her peppermint.
“This is crazy,” Frau Dachmaier said as Marina and Rosie waded over to the group. “I thought the French were civilized. Why would they shoot at civilians?”
The older Dachmaier boys, Boris and Jan, had broken off two of the longer reeds and were engaged in a mock machine-gun shootout, splashing about in the shallow sections of the beach. “Stop it!” Lara hissed at them. “Keep quiet!” She reached over, grabbed Boris’s reed, and snapped it in half. The boys glared at her in fury.
“I . . . don’t . . . think . . . it’s . . . the . . . French . . . who . . . are . . . shooting.” Old Herr Schmidt spoke in a measured, ruminative way, as if he were one of the clocks that he had spent his lifetime fixing and could issue only one word per second. He shook his graying head for a moment, then looked over at Edith and raised his eyebrows, inviting her speculation.
“Well, it can’t be the Russians, can it?” Frau Dachmaier continued. “They’ve never gotten this far south. Or west, for that matter.”
Rosie watched her grandmother study Herr Schmidt’s face. “No,” Edith said finally. “It’s not the Russians either. There’s only one army battalion nearby, and it doesn’t belong to the enemy. It’s us. It’s Rodemann.”
The neighbors fell silent and let Edith’s words float among the reeds.
* * *
Captain Rodemann was furious. The removal of the barricade constituted flagrant contempt for his authority, criminal disrespect for a military officer. There was no question that removal of this barrier aided and abetted the enemy in its incursion onto German soil. And there were all those French flags too, flapping from the town’s windows like derisive tongues taunting him as he passed by. The more the captain considered the situation, the more the whole thing looked like treason. It appeared that Blumental was a hitherto undiscovered haven for the Resistance. Someone would have to answer for this, someone visible to the entire community. The bürgermeister.
On his way to the bürgermeister’s home, Rodemann allowed his men to fire their rifles and machine guns into rose gardens and playgrounds and living rooms, chasing everyone into hiding. If their weapons were somewhat indiscriminately discharged, Rodemann did not worry about it, for the residents of Blumental needed a lesson in the consequences of disloyalty. Eventually he found his target, for poor Hans Munter’s fringe of dwindling blond curls was not dense enough to camouflage him in the middle of his neighbor’s herd of sheep.
* * *
Captain Rodemann marched Hans Munter at riflepoint through the town and up the hill to the Catholic church. It was a steep hill, and Hans found that he could do little better than stumble his way up—years of sausages and strawberry schnapps had taken their toll, and he seemed to have lost complete control of his legs.
Hans Munter had spent his entire life successfully avoiding his country’s wars—too young for the first and exempted from the second because, as bürgermeister, he was in charge of sending a roster of military-eligible Blumental men to Berlin, and he conveniently forgot to add his own name. He had read with sorrow and heartache many of those same names on monthly casualty lists sent to the town, and personally visited each family that had lost a young son or father to offer his condolences. Each spring, on Remembrance Day, he lit candles for those lost men. Thus did Hans try to give to the war effort without actually offering his life.
But the war could not be fooled, he realized now. It had come to extract payment, in the form of a rifle butt that kept prodding him to move forward. He was no more ready to give up his life today than he’d been four years ago. Only one small glimmer of hope flickered amid the panic that had seized his brain: negotiation through abject apology.
Hans could tell that Captain Rodemann was angry. He could also tell that he himself was, in some way that he didn’t understand, at fault. He decided that he must look for an opportunity to apologize to the captain for whatever it was that was irking him. Surely if Hans took responsibility for whatever this transgression was, if he was contrite and sincere and offered the captain whatever amends might be demanded, surely—possibly—everything could be straightened out.
Hans shuffled on, willing his feet to keep moving. Why the apology had to take place on top of the highest hill in the village, in front of the church, he didn’t know. Perhaps the captain was religious.
* * *
The machine guns had been quiet for some time. Rosie waited with her sisters while the adults pushed their way through the reeds and looked up and down the lake path, listening for danger. After several minutes, Marina came back through the water and waved them to shore. The children stood still while their parents checked them for leeches.
Rosie was too impatient to wait for her mother, so she lifted her pants leg herself. She was neither surprised nor upset to find a small leech attached to her calf. She plucked it off and threw it back into the reeds, then grabbed Sofia’s hand.
“Come on, Sofia, Mutti and Oma are going to the marketplace to make sure everyone else is okay,” Rosie said, pulling her sister forward and stomping her feet to get the mud off her shoes.
By the time they all arrived at the town center, most of the residents had come out of hiding. They emerged from linen closets and bathtubs. They threw off potato sacks in cellars. They left haylofts and chicken coops, picking bits of dried grass and feathers from their shirts. They climbed down from apple trees. And they walked over to the marketplace. The instinct to establish contact with friends and neighbors, to take stock, to shake hands, slap shoulders, and hug children, was universal. It appeared that everyone was safe.
The only two who were unaccounted for were Hans Munter and young Max Fuchs. And just as Johann Wiessmeyer, the Protestant minister, was comforting and reassuring Max’s mother, Max himself came running back into town from the Birnau forest, where he had been hiding. “They’re going to hang the bürgermeister!” he shouted. “Come quickly, they’re going to hang him!”
* * *
Hans Munter kept waiting for his opportunity to clarify the situation. When Captain Rodemann stopped underneath the old yew tree on the perimeter of the graveyard, Hans tried to speak, despite the fact that he could scarcely control his bladder and that his arms were forcefully held by two burly soldiers.
“Pardon, Herr Captain, if I could just have a—” he began.
“Silence!” screamed Rodemann. He pointed to a soldier behind the bürgermeister. “You there, get a rope. Throw it around that tree branch.” As the lanky blond boy ran back down the hill, Rodemann sighed with irritation, then took a knife from the sheath on his hip and began cleaning his fingernails.
“Captain, I think—” Hans tried again.
Rodemann turned on the bürgermeister, knifepoint extended menacingly. “Did I not tell you to be quiet? Did I not ask for silence? Must I stuff a potato in your mouth?” Rodemann could not abide these interruptions. He needed to keep his anger alive. From the time he had discovered the dismantled barricade to the moment his men had located Munter, his fury had been reliably constant. He had a plan that had come to him at the height of his rage, and he required rage to carry it out. But this interminable march up the hill, and now the delay in finding a strong piece of rope—all this had deflected his anger, allowed it to subside. His anger was like a wave that had swelled and risen, promising to crest and crash, but now instead it was emptying slowly onto the shore and threatening to creep back to the ocean. Rodemann wanted his anger to crash; he needed a collision, a catharsis of some kind. He was determined not to let his anger go, not until he had completed his plan.
By the time his soldier returned with a long section of hemp—stolen, in the end, from a pair of horses tied to an untended plow—Max’s urgent report had brought the townspeople of Blumental from the marketplace to the foot of the Birnau hill. Rodemann saw them coming and didn’t stop them. In fact, he was pleased that they’d come of their own accord. It was better to have an audience for things like this.
* * *
Rosie wanted to go to Birnau with Marina and the Breckenmüllers. So did Lara. But Marina told the girls to go home with Edith, and Edith said that it was no spectacle for children, not even—she looked pointedly at Marina—for adults. Sofia had been silent.
It took Rosie less than fifteen minutes to sneak back out of the house. Lara had stomped up to the girls’ bedroom in a huff the moment the front door shut behind them, despite Edith’s suggestion that the girls all join her in the living room for cookies and tea and a story from the illustrated Adventures of Kasperle that she kept next to the sofa. Sofia happily agreed, but Rosie said she was tired. “Hans-Jürg and I need a little quiet time,” she said, turning toward the stairs. To allay suspicion, she warned Sofia, “But don’t eat all the cookies! We’ll come down later.”
At the top of the stairs, Rosie waited for what seemed like hours while her grandmother heated water on the cast-iron stove. When she finally heard the familiar singsong of Edith’s gentle storytelling voice, she tiptoed into Oma and Opa’s bedroom, climbed onto the big bed under the skylight, reached up to unlatch it, and pulled herself through the window onto the sloping roof. She left Hans-Jürg behind. He was afraid of heights.
Rosie knew the route well, since she and Sofia had used it countless times to make naptime pass more quickly. Across the roof tiles, down the unused attic ladder, with a short drop onto the back porch. Then she had to keep her head down as she crept past the French doors and around the kitchen side of the house. She unlatched the iron gate to the street and let it swing back into the anemones while she ran to the hill that led to Birnau.
Weaving her way among all the people, Rosie slowed as she approached the small group where her mother was standing next to Frau and Herr Breckenmüller. Marina and Myra were tightly grasping each other’s hands. Just below them on the hill, near the vineyard, stood a wheelbarrow piled high with grapevines. Rosie quickly ran behind it so she could see and hear everything that happened without herself being seen.
Three soldiers were securing a thick rope to one of the lower branches of the old yew tree at the top of the hill, leaving a long loop hanging down in a makeshift noose. Rosie had seen nooses in newspaper photographs, but this one looked different. It hung crookedly and the coil did not look very tight. The soldiers exchanged curses as they tried to secure one of the rope ends. Rosie saw Karl Breckenmüller lean over to his wife. “Bad knot,” he said, in a whisper heavy with condescension and relief.
Captain Rodemann ordered his men to bring the bürgermeister over to the tree. Hans Munter had been dutifully holding his tongue, but he had nothing more to lose.
“Please, Herr Captain, this is unnecessary,” he pleaded. Rodemann ignored him. “It was all a mistake,” the bürgermeister continued, his voice breaking. A soldier pushed him over to a milking stool that the others had placed under the noose and motioned for him to climb up on it. “I apologize for whatever it is that has angered you. I apologize. I am so, so sorry,” Herr Munter begged while the noose was placed over his head. A trickle of liquid ran down his exposed ankle. Captain Rodemann watched it drip onto the ground and then slowly walked over to him. “Apology accepted,” he said, and kicked the stool out from under the bürgermeister’s feet.
Hans Munter never had a moment to feel the rope tighten around his neck. The noose unraveled almost immediately upon bearing his weight, and he fell to the ground with a heavy thud. He lay there quietly, breathing in the dirt. He did not feel like moving; he hoped that if he lay still enough, everyone might think he was dead. Sudden heart attack or stroke caused by the stress of the situation—surely that was possible. In any case, there was no need to call attention to himself.
Captain Rodemann rediscovered his anger. “Fools!” he barked at his soldiers. “Can none of you make a proper noose?” Rodemann spat in the direction of his battalion and strode over to the townspeople, now gathered at the top of the path. He leaned into Gerhard Mainz, the butcher, and hissed, “Is there no one here who knows how to tie a knot?” Rosie saw Myra Breckenmüller tug on her husband’s arm, pulling him farther back into the crowd. “Well?” Rodemann’s eyes fastened onto the butcher’s and would not let go.
“Th-the f-fisherman,” the butcher whispered.
“The fisherman!” Rodemann crooned, and scanned the crowd. “Where, oh where is the fisherman?”
Rosie held her breath, hoping no one would identify her friend. But, though some of the Blumentalers managed to look down at their feet in response to the question, many of them instinctively turned their heads in Herr Breckenmüller’s direction. Rosie watched with fear and horror as he pried his wife’s fingers from his arm, kissed her on the cheek, and quietly pushed his way through the crowd. No, don’t go! Rosie screamed in her head. She saw her mother put her arms around Myra Breckenmüller’s shoulders. “Nothing will happen to him,” her mother said. “He will be fine.”
Myra shook her head. “If he has to tie the noose that hangs and kills Hans Munter, he will not be fine.”
Rosie watched as Karl Breckenmüller slowly made his way up the hill to the old yew tree. He picked up the loose end of the swinging rope, made a large loop, and began winding it tightly around itself. By the time he finished tying the knots that would hold the loop in place, the entire thing looked to Rosie like a coiled snake with a wide-open mouth. The bürgermeister was huddled underneath it. He did not look happy. He did not even look to Rosie as if he was fully awake. He swayed from side to side, his hands tied behind his back. Two soldiers kept prodding him to stay upright. Another was yelling at them and at the bürgermeister. Then, just as the mouth of the snake-coil rope was being positioned over the bürgermeister’s head, she saw the approaching horse.
It came from the opposite side of the church plaza, its hooves clacking across the cobblestones. There was a tall soldier sitting on it. A general, Rosie knew, because he wore a uniform just like the kind her opa had hanging in his closet. The horse had been galloping, but the general slowed it to a walk as he neared the yew tree. His gaze was fixed on Captain Rodemann. As he came closer, Rosie saw that the general had dark hair, and as he came closer still, she recognized his dark eyes and thick eyebrows, those wonderful fuzzy brows that she loved to stroke.
* * *
General Erich Wolf rode his horse right up to Captain Rodemann and did not dismount. He was grateful now that he was still wearing the uniform he’d had on for his meeting with the Führer in Fürchtesgaden that morning. Erich did not like wearing his uniform any more than he absolutely had to, but he had been in a hurry, so he had not taken the time to change. Sitting comfortably up on the horse, he appreciated the poetic justice of being able literally to look down on a captain who thought so highly of himself. He was pleased when he saw Rodemann flinch.
Captain Rodemann was already acquainted with General Wolf. He did not like to remember the brief time he had spent working in the general’s office in Berlin, before he was assigned to field duty. The general had had an extremely attractive secretary, a woman who rejected Rodemann’s advances (unthinkable; she was probably a Sapphist) and tried thereafter to tarnish his good reputation with the general by blaming Rodemann for oversights that were undoubtedly her own responsibility. Despite all subsequent efforts by Rodemann to ingratiate himself with the general, he was fairly certain that the man had a poor opinion of him.
Raising a hand, Captain Rodemann gestured to one of his men to suspend the hanging for the moment. Freed from the restraining hold of the soldiers, Hans Munter slumped to the ground again. General Wolf glanced briefly at the bürgermeister, then positioned his horse broadside between the captain and his subordinates, so that, should the man dare to give another command, they would not be able to see him.
“Captain Rodemann,” General Wolf barked. “What exactly is going on here?”
The captain looked stricken, and for a brief moment was speechless. Then, inhaling deeply, he squared his shoulders and shouted out, in as imperious a voice as he could manage, “Insurrection, sir! I have discovered, singlehandedly, that the town of Blumental is a hotbed of resistance and—”
“Stop!” The general cut Rodemann off. He moved his horse one step closer and leaned down to stare the captain in the eye. “Do you wonder why the Third Reich is struggling to win this war when commanders such as yourself disobey direct orders? When they stray from their duties and try to lighten their boredom by mixing themselves in the affairs of the very people they should be trying to protect?” He held the captain’s gaze for a long moment, then slowly straightened back up. “I am not concerned with this town or its people. Nor is it clear to me why you should be, given that you have strict orders from the Führer to intercept the French army, which is approaching this town as we speak!”
At this, General Wolf reached into his jacket and pulled out a piece of paper. He slapped it open with a quick snap of his wrist and waved it before Rodemann’s stunned face. “This is a telegram from Berlin, containing an order that was reiterated to me by the Führer in Fürchtesgaden this morning. Do you know what it says?” Rodemann opened his mouth, but nothing came out. The general did not wait for him. “It instructs you and your men to repel the French incursion. Not that I understand either Berlin’s or the Führer’s confidence in your ability to accomplish this. Nothing I have seen in you, either today or in the past, suggests that you possess an iota of competence.” He refolded the telegram. “Nevertheless, it is not my place to second-guess the Führer, who has given you a direct order. And I daresay—no, I am certain—that he would not approve of this . . .” He leaned down again, to within a handbreadth of the captain, as if his snarling teeth might take a bite out of him. “This digression.”
Captain Rodemann was shocked. It was true, he had completely forgotten about the French. How could he have let that happen? The French army was his instrument of triumph, his weapon of glory, his catalyst to fame, and he had lost sight of his grand objective because of some petty little villagers? He called himself to attention. Looking to the soldiers who were still standing next to Munter’s now-prostrate and apparently unconscious body, he swept his hand through the air and announced, “Yes, sir, General! We will engage the enemy immediately!” Then, in a tempest of loud commands and clattering boots, Captain Rodemann and his regiment were gone, marching west toward the enemy.
* * *
Rosie ran over to Erich Wolf’s horse. “Erich! Erich! Will you let me sit up there with you?”
“Rosie!” Though surprised to see her, Erich Wolf dismounted and picked her up, kissing her mop of brown curls as he placed her on top of the horse. “Does your mother know you’re here?”
“No, but she’s here somewhere, and now she’ll see that I’m with you. Oooh! I’m so tall up here! I can see everything!” Rosie looked over to the yew tree, where Dr. Schufeldt was bent over Hans Munter, checking his breathing and heart rate. Frau Breckenmüller was helping him, cradling the bürgermeister’s head in her lap and murmuring reassuring words. Rosie was not certain, but she thought she heard Frau Breckenmüller naming various kinds of sausages and meats. Turning her head downhill to where the crowd was gathered, Rosie saw Marina striding toward them. Fortunately, she did not look angry.
“Erich, how wonderful that you’re here!” Her mother seemed not to notice Rosie at all. She looked at Erich as if she hadn’t seen him in many, many years, when actually they had seen each other in Meerfeld just last summer. Rosie knew because she had been there too, with Sofia, and they’d fed bread crusts to the swans. Lara had stayed home with Oma, who said she wasn’t ready to see Erich. Rosie did not understand that. What would Oma need to do to be ready to see him?
Back when they lived in Berlin, Erich used to come to the playground near Lara’s school to push Rosie in the swings. He was there every weekday, standing next to the swing set in his ribboned uniform, waiting for Marina and Sofia and Rosie after they dropped Lara off. Marina referred to him as “Onkel Erich,” but she said that he wasn’t really an uncle because he wasn’t Oma and Opa’s son. He had just lived in their house, before her mother got married. All of that was too confusing for Rosie, so she simply referred to him as Erich. And he was a great swing pusher. He pushed her as hard as she asked him to, so Rosie could swing higher and higher. After swinging, Marina usually let Rosie and Sofia play in the sandbox while she and Erich sat on a bench nearby.
Now Rosie looked down from the horse at her mother and Erich. They were facing each other, Erich with his hands on Marina’s arms.
“I was heading this way anyway,” he was saying. “Though I had no idea when I left Fürchtesgaden this morning that Rodemann was marching about. As I got closer, I heard rumors about a German attack on one of the towns on the lake. So I stepped up my pace.” He smiled. “My car broke down back in Schwanfeld. But I was able to borrow a horse. My preferred means of transportation, as you know.”
“Well, it’s a miracle, really. Who knows what would have happened if you hadn’t intervened,” Marina said. “You must have galloped over here at full speed. It’s a good thing you’re in shape, or you’d be in a hospital bed right next to Hans Munter, recovering from a heart attack or exhaustion.”
“Yes, if nothing else, the Third Reich keeps me fit.” Erich patted the horse on its side. “This mare did her best, poor thing. I imagine she hasn’t had such a workout in a long time.”
Rosie perked up. “Then she deserves a reward! We can give her some of our carrots.”
“Yes, Rosie, I’m certain she would love that,” Erich said.
“And the French, Erich?” Marina was looking out toward the lake, as if searching for signs of men marching in the distance. Rosie followed her gaze, but she saw nothing.
Erich shrugged. “We’re getting conflicting reports. This morning, they were definitely heading toward the southeast border, but the telegram I picked up in Schwanfeld had them reversing course. Perhaps they heard that Captain Rodemann had been sent to engage them.” He smiled. “I wouldn’t worry too much about the French, Marina. Oskar regrets alarming everyone. He’s en route and should be here tomorrow.”
“Opa’s coming?” Rosie gleefully bounced up and down on the horse’s back. “We need to tell Oma! Erich, will you ride me to my house? Can he, Mutti? And can he stay for dinner? Please?”
“Rosie, I would be honored to accompany you to your destination. But about dinner . . .” He hesitated and glanced at Marina. “I’m not sure I should stay. I don’t know how Edith would feel about it.”
Rosie readied a harsh glare and protest, but Marina was nodding. “It’s been long enough, don’t you think?”
Rosie’s happiness was complete. She was riding a horse, a real horse, with her favorite uncle and her Mutti walking next to her. And Sofia would see her on the horse when they got home. And Erich would stay for dinner. And he could have Pimpanella’s last egg.
“Mutti, can Erich have one of Pimpanella’s eggs?” she asked.
“Pimpanella’s eggs?” Erich looked amazed. “That suggests she laid more than one.”
“Two! It’s another miracle.” Marina laughed. “Probably all she has in her, but don’t tell Oskar that.”
They made their way home. The horse’s hooves kicked up puffs of fine gray dust that swirled behind them in eddies of haze. Rosie took a moment on her high perch to look back at the yew tree. She had to squint through the small atmospheric tempests of dirt to see the dangling rope. It was still there, swinging slowly back and forth, a reminder of how suddenly things could change.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Good at Heart includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Ursula Werner. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set in the quiet town of Blumental in southern Germany during World War II, The Good at Heart tells the story of one family, the Eberhardts, and their complicated quest to do right by one another during a time of turmoil, confusion, and terror. Narrated from the perspective of multiple characters, including Edith, the matriarch of the family, and Rosie, her spirited five-year-old granddaughter—this story considers the complications of life for ordinary Germans living in a police state. The Good at Heart is partly a love story, partly a wartime thriller, and partly a meditation on good, evil, and the space between good and evil, where so many of the characters exist.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Good at Heart opens with a famous epigraph from The Diary of Anne Frank: “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. . . . if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.” How does this epigraph work as a lens through which to read the novel? To which character(s) do you think “good at heart” refers?
2. In chapter 1, the narrator tells us that “for the Eberhardt family . . . the house was enough.” Why do you think Edith and Oskar spent so much of their marriage fantasizing about the house in Blumental? What symbolism does the small house hold for the couple? For the family?
3. Discuss the relationship between Oskar and Marina. Would you call their relationship strained? Typical? Problematic? Do you think the two are truly at odds in terms of ideology? Why or why not?
4. A possible theme emerges in chapter 9 when Rosie notes, after Hans Munter’s narrow escape from death, that the rope was still tied to the tree, “swinging slowly back and forth, a reminder of how suddenly things could change.” Do you think the swiftness of change is a theme in the novel? Why or why not?
5. What do you think is Marina’s goal in joining Johann’s underground group? Does she want simply to help right the wrongs of the regime, or is it something more? Do you think helping refugee children assuages her guilt about her crumbling marriage and her affair?
6. In chapter 10, Marina says that walking through her mother’s garden and breathing in the scent of roses are “pockets of comfort.” Where else does Marina find comfort? What about Edith? Johann? Lara? Sofia? Rosie?
7. Revisit the scene in chapter 13 when Edith and Sofia get trapped underground during the bombing of Berlin. Why do you think Sofia escapes to her “reveries” of blue as a result of this traumatic event? What is the connection between being trapped in the basement and the desire for blue? Do other characters in the novel “escape” in their own way? How so?
8. For Johann, the question of participating in an assassination attempt on the Führer is inherently complicated because of his vocation. He wonders, “would a God who gave Moses the Ten Commandments condone assassination” (see chapter 14)? Ultimately, how does Johann conclude that delivering the suitcase is part of God’s will? Do you think he abandons his faith temporarily in order to fulfill this obligation, or is he acting in accordance with it?
9. Discuss the three-part structure of the novel. What symbolism can you glean from this structure? How does the compression of time in the novel influence the characters’ decisions? Consider Marina, Johann, Erich, and Oskar in your response.
10. What do you think of Erich Wolf? Is he a sympathetic character? How does his sudden arrival in town prefigure his sudden death?
11. Were you surprised to discover that Rosie is Erich’s daughter? How does Rosie seem distinct from her older sisters? Do you have the sense that in the end Rosie and Lara know the truth about Rosie’s father?
12. How does the tension between Marina’s decision about whom to love—Franz or Erich—mirror the tension in the house as they prepare for the Führer’s visit? Are both equally doomed enterprises? Is there any way that Marina could have changed the outcome and not lost both loves? Is there any way the family could have avoided losing Oskar?
13. In chapter 22, Edith ponders the notion that “perhaps the only way to forgiveness was through pain.” What pain(s) do you think Edith is referring to in this moment? Does she ultimately find a way to forgive in the end? Who or what does she forgive?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. For the characters in The Good at Heart, choices between right and wrong are never clear-cut. In many ways, all the characters had to make tough decisions about what was right in the moment—sometimes with terrible consequences. “Our choices are not always what they seem to others,” in chapter 15. Oskar tells Marina. With your book club, discuss this quote in light of Oskar’s job. To what “choices” do you think he is referring? Does this quote act as an omen for the ultimate choice he has to make to disappear from his family—or do you think that disappearing was not his choice? Consider all the tough choices the characters in the novel have to make, and share a time when you were faced with a dilemma in which you had to make a choice that could have seemed wrong from another point of view. How did you manage to make the decision? Did you gain any hindsight after the choice was made? If you had the chance to do it all over again, would you?
2. Edith’s statue of Daphne in her garden becomes a kind of sanctuary for the women in the house, a place to sit and contemplate difficult decisions or the unlikely roads that led the family to have the Führer in their living room. With your book club, read the myth of Daphne: www.greekmythology.com/Other_Gods/Minor_Gods/Daphne/daphne.html.
3. Afterward, discuss the myth as a group. Why do you think Edith—and later Marina—feel drawn to the statue? Can you note any connection between Daphne’s story and the story of these women?
4. Despite the turmoil aroused by the Führer coming to the Eberhardts’ home, much care and attention is given to preparing the best desserts to accompany coffee and tea. Host an afternoon tea for your book club, and prepare some of the same treats Edith and Mariana made, including a Linzer torte (www.joyofbaking.com/LinzerTorte.html) and a strudel (www.quick-german-recipes.com/german-apple-strudel-recipe.html). Over tea and coffee and the desserts, discuss what it must have been like to have Hitler sit at your table. How do you think Edith, Oskar, Marina, and the others managed? Share a time when you felt distressed about a guest arriving in your home.
5. The work Johann and Marina do to offer safe harbor to Jews during the war is difficult in part because of Oskar’s prominent position in the Führer’s cabinet. Difficult—even impossible—decisions are often the focus of Holocaust narratives. Host a movie get-together with your book club and watch Sophie’s Choice (1982). Discuss how Sophie’s Choice parallels the choices the characters in the novel have to make. What do you think you would do if faced with such impossible decisions?
A Conversation with Ursula Werner
The Good at Heart is your debut novel. Can you share with us what it was like to write this story? How much is inspired by true events in your family? How much is fictionalized?
The basic questions of The Good at Heart—what might be the stresses and difficulties facing a German family living in the midst of World War II if the patriarch of that family was a high-ranking official in the totalitarian government—came directly from my own family. My great-grandfather, Hans Ernst Posse, was a cabinet secretary under Hitler. That fact, along with the silence of my family surrounding his activities during the war, weighed heavily on my psyche for many years. I wondered what he knew and didn’t know, what he did or didn’t do, and I was equally curious about what he told his wife and children—whether they asked him about his activities, or whether they were too afraid to do so. Writing The Good at Heart allowed me to examine, imaginatively, not only those questions, but also the larger question of the collective or cultural guilt that settles upon a nation ruled by a dictator like Hitler.
I also grew up with stories from my parents about what it was like to live in southern Germany during the war. To a large degree, these stories conflicted with the images of Germany and German civilians during the war that I had seen on television and in film. So my secondary imaginative endeavor in writing the book was to present a snapshot of a small southern German town during wartime—where people might try to live their lives as normally as possible, given the police state surrounding them, and the circumstances of war.
The town of Blumental, though completely fictional, is based upon a real German town in which my mother currently lives, and many of the physical locations—including Birnau, the pink church on the lake—are real. And there is a real historical truth underlying some of the events described in the book: for example, Hitler really did visit a composer who lived in that town, and the mayor of the town was almost murdered by a sadistic SS officer. But the vast majority of the plot details are fictional.
Why did you choose to structure the book around the three days leading up to the assassination attempt on the Führer? Is there an argument to be made that this novel has a clear beginning, middle, and end?
Because I wanted to tell my story from multiple points of view and because there were a number of different, possibly confusing, plot lines, I decided to limit the time frame of the novel to three days. Structurally, that kept the story from becoming too unwieldy. Also, by focusing on just three days, I was able to present a more detailed picture of day-to-day life in Blumental—what might market day have looked like during the war? What kinds of games might the kids have played?
In my mind, there is a distinct structure to the book, beginning with Erich’s arrival in town (quickly followed by Oskar’s arrival), leading up to the tea with the Führer, and culminating in the assassination attempt at the concert and its aftermath.
It is noteworthy that you have many different narrators throughout the course of the novel, from Rosie to Marina to Johann to Erich. Why did you decide to tell the story from so many points of view? Ultimately, whose story is this?
My hope in using a multitude of points of view was to present a realistic picture of the different attitudes and perspectives of different Germans toward the war, and toward the regime that governed them. In particular, I wanted to focus on the complex questions confronting people who opposed Hitler’s policies in principle, but found themselves constrained by the deadly threats of his police state. Marina, Johann, Erich, and even Edith, all oppose the Führer, but they face different obstacles in deciding what to do to voice their opposition, or whether to voice it at all. The only character whose viewpoint we never hear—and I knew from the beginning that he would remain silent—is Oskar. By not giving voice to Oskar’s thoughts, I wanted to put the reader in the position of myself and countless other Germans who never really knew what people like Oskar were up to. I wanted to make Oskar as likable as I knew my great-grandfather was, someone who was loved and respected by his family members and neighbors. What does it do to your image of such a person when you learn that they might have been involved in a reprehensible and horrendous crime? And do you temper any censure you might feel when you remember the context of Hitler’s police state, and the fact that people during that time weren’t really free to make decisions as we are today?
Ultimately, although The Good at Heart tells the story of the Eberhardt family, I hope it tells a larger story as well: that of the average German person living under the Nazis during World War II and confronted with harrowing rumors about the activities of that regime; the story of someone who may have wanted to help the oppressed, but might not have known how to do so effectively, or how to do so without bringing danger to herself or her family. And beyond that story lurks, for me, an even bigger principle, applicable to so many other situations—that we really can’t judge the actions of other people without imagining what it is like to be in their place, considering the totality of all the influences surrounding them. Even then, we can’t judge others, I think, because everyone has different instincts, values, and priorities.
Do you relate most to one character? If so, who is it and why?
I probably relate most to Marina, though I can identify with aspects of all the characters. I know what it is like to raise three daughters and to experience the intense fear that some of the decisions you make might cause them pain. I also believe, like Marina, that it is possible to love deeply more than one person in a lifetime, even at the same time. I’m not sure that I would have had the courage—or bravado—that Marina has, in bringing refugees to her house at the same time as the Führer is coming to tea, especially where that action puts the lives of her entire family in danger. But I admire her for it.
Author Susan Meissner wrote that The Good at Heart offers a “fresh perspective on what we are willing to surrender for the greater good.” What are the characters in your novel asked to surrender? In the end, does good triumph over evil?
In the end, two of the characters, Erich and Oskar, surrender their lives for what they see as the greater good. Erich risks his life in order to try to kill the Führer. Although the assassination attempt fails, and Erich is executed, the fact that there even existed an internal resistance group trying to remove the Führer is a triumph of good over evil, in my mind. Ultimately, too, Erich has to act in accordance with his conscience. As a single man, he has a certain freedom to engage in risky activities, without implicating family members. His participation in the resistance is an internal moral triumph; he can go to his death knowing that he was true to certain principles he believed in.
As for Oskar, he ultimately sacrifices his life so that his family can remain safe. (As a side note, my mother was very angry with me for killing off Oskar. She kept asking me to find a way to let him live.) At the time Oskar goes with Captain Dietz, he does not know that Marina has already removed the refugees, so he is trying to avoid a house search. In that sense, Oskar’s sacrifice is more heartbreaking, because the reader knows it was unnecessary. Nevertheless, I consider it a triumph, because it’s a demonstration of a father’s overwhelming love for his daughter, and his willingness to do anything to protect her, his wife, and his grandchildren.
Although I love Erich and Oskar, and I love dear, gentle Sofia, and they all die, I cannot say that evil triumphs. What triumphs, in my mind, is life. That was the revelation of Rosie’s pregnancy in the epilogue: life goes on, life endures. War takes its victims, but there are survivors, and they can be strengthened through their suffering, and they can march forward to create something new.
Discuss the title. Would you say that all the characters—and maybe by extension, all of us—are truly good at heart?
I have to say that I am in awe of Anne Frank’s ability to believe that people were basically good at heart, in light of everything she had experienced in her life up to the time she made that statement. Every time I reread her diary, I am struck by how beautiful and insightful the writing is, for a girl only thirteen years old. I can only imagine—and mourn the loss of—the extraordinary writer Anne would have become, had she not been murdered.
Yes, like Anne, I do think people are basically good at heart. As a Quaker, I believe there is “that of God in every one,” and it is relatively easy for me to equate the concept of a God with goodness and love. Of course, it is difficult to reconcile this belief with the historical reality of a person like Adolf Hitler, who truly seems to have been evil incarnate. With respect to Hitler and other people who sow fear and hatred, I think that the inherent goodness of a person can be overwhelmed or shackled by negative human instincts, developmental circumstances, and/or societal forces. The light of goodness in such people has been extinguished, in some cases permanently, in others, hopefully not.
Because this novel was inspired by events in your own family, did you encounter any particular challenges in telling this story? Or, did the personal aspect of the novel give you better access and insight into the lives of ordinary Germans during World War II?
My mother was very concerned about factual accuracy in the book. Her family, the Posses, was the model for the Eberhardts, and she still lives in the town that Blumental was based upon. I kept trying to remind her that the book was fiction and that Oskar was not really Hans Ernst Posse, Edith was not Margaret Posse, etc. But it was hard for her to embrace that fictionalization, particularly when she was worried about the reactions of people who might see themselves as characters.
I recently visited my mother in Germany, and we were invited to have coffee with a family in the neighborhood. At one point, we began talking about the novel, and our discussion evolved into a rich and fascinating recitation of events in the town during the war. It was there that I learned for the first time about a rumor that Hitler had visited the town several times, because he was friends with the wife of a composer who lived just down the street. I thought that I had completely fabricated the Führer’s visit to Blumental, but apparently, there might be some truth to that story! I also learned that our neighbors hid a Jewish family in their house overnight so that they could be smuggled over the border to Switzerland. These were stories I had never heard, and I hope that this novel will foster similar discussions, especially as the generation of people with firsthand knowledge of World War II is growing older.
If Franz and Erich had not died, what do you think Marina would have done? Would she have stayed married to Franz or run away with Erich? Along similar lines, does the end of the novel imply that Marina and Johann are together?
Ah, well, in my mind, this question touches on the much bigger topic of whether authors create and control their stories, or whether the stories and characters take on lives of their own. A few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Kazuo Ishiguro speak about his writing, and he said at one point that nothing any of his characters did was a surprise to him, that in his experience, the author was always firmly in control of the story and its details.
That, however, is not my experience at all. There were several points during the writing of this novel when I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. I had to step away from the writing for a time and let the story reveal itself to me. And it always did, usually while I was on a walk or running through the forest with my dogs.
So I can’t really say whom Marina would have chosen, because only she can know that. But I like to think that Edith’s statement to Marina in chapter 18—that Franz deserved to be married to someone who wanted to be married to him—might have allowed Marina to leave her marriage without too much guilt.
Similarly, I can’t say for sure that Marina and Johann end up together. In fact, the ending came as a complete surprise to me. I had no idea Johann was going to pop up again in the epilogue. I had just put Edith and Marina in the garden, talking about forget-me-nots, when Rosie came out of the house, and lo and behold, there she was, pregnant! And next thing I knew, Johann was heading through the grass to officiate at her wedding.
There is a subtle kind of feminism in the novel as Edith and Marina—and Marina’s three daughters—form the central focus of the story and represent the stronghold of the family dynamic. Was it your aim to offer a female perspective on the war? How do you think their gender contributes to the choices the characters made—or do you?
One of the reasons the novel is dominated by female characters is because the Eberhardt family is based upon my mother’s family. The Posse family is predominantly female: my maternal great-grandparents had two girls and a boy; my maternal grandmother had three girls; my mother had two girls; my sister and I each have three girls. There are very few boys or men in that family tree, and those who marry in usually divorce, back out, or die off relatively young. There was a moment during one of my family visits to my mother’s house when my husband was getting a bad cold and my mother brought him some Echinacea oil, claiming it would minimize his symptoms. He took one look at the dark brown fluid in the tiny vial and pushed it away, shaking his head and saying, “This is how the men in this family disappear, isn’t it?”
So I don’t think I consciously set out to present a female perspective on the war, but in retrospect, there may have been some unconscious instincts toward that end. While I have read enough memoirs by male (and more recently, female) soldiers to know that the reality of fighting in any kind of war is horrendous, I think that there are unique hardships in being left behind on the home front while your loved ones are off at war. I wanted to give voice to some of those difficulties—maintaining a façade of hope and cheer for your children, even as fear and anxiety over the safety of your loved one gnaws at you day and night; offering your loved one unequivocal support by phone or telegram or mail, even as you yourself might desperately need comfort or reassurance; struggling to keep a household running during a time of rationing or shortages so that life seems as normal as possible.
I think the women of The Good at Heart make some of their choices not so much because they are women but because they are mothers. It is the nurturing instinct to take care of another human being, to put his or her well-being ahead of their own, that informs many of their actions. I don’t believe that kind of instinct is necessarily limited to women. But I do believe that if ninety percent or more of the earth’s leaders had the instincts of mothers, we would live in a vastly different world.
What would you name as the major theme(s) of the novel?
I have no doubt there are many more themes in the novel than the ones I might identify, but one of the major themes in my mind is the strength of family. All the adult Eberhardts—Edith, Marina, and Oskar—cherish their family and prioritize its cohesion and safety. Edith focuses on maintaining domestic stability during wartime. Marina struggles mightily with the passion she feels for Erich, which pulls her away from Franz, her parents, and her children. And Oskar offers his life as the ultimate sacrifice to keep everyone else in the family safe. The importance of family ties during war is, of course, nothing new. But I do think that keeping that theme in mind gives us some insight into the conflict many Germans faced when they considered what actions, if any, they might take to oppose Hitler and his policies.
Which brings me to another concept that I hoped to express in the novel: the shortsightedness of a black-and-white approach to history. When you really look at historical situations closely, trying to consider all the circumstances surrounding difficult questions, I think it’s almost impossible to view them in sharp contrast. From the distant perspective of the future, looking backward, historical questions always appear more black and white than they actually were at the time. I don’t mean to deny that terrible incidents of hatred and violence—by both actors and onlookers, Nazis and ordinary Germans—took place in Nazi Germany. Undoubtedly and tragically, they did. But I think we should be careful before we assume that all Germans were complicit in and sympathetic to such incidents.
My novel suggests that history’s truth, if it can ever be determined, is more gray. That’s one of the reasons I love visiting my mother’s home in southern Germany in the winter: gray is the predominant color over the Bodensee in November and December, and there are countless shades of it. The gray reminds me to keep my judgment in check; to temper my preconceptions about other people; to slow down, look, and listen to everyone and everything, because in fact we all know so little.
Anne Frank’s quote provides a lens through which the reader can come to understand the characters and their motivation to do good. Was the Diary of Anne Frank an inspiration for you in writing this novel? Can you tell us other novels or memoirs that inspired you as you wrote?
I had read the Diary of Anne Frank long before I wrote the novel, but what I am struck by, each time I read it, is what I suppose I would call its relative “ordinariness.” Here is a young girl, forced during wartime into hiding in a relatively cramped space with seven other people, under constant threat of discovery and either execution or deportation to a work camp—and she still fills her diary with humor, complaints about the foibles of others, and run-of-the-mill adolescent angst and self-analysis. That human ability to create normalcy, even in the context of an ongoing fearful and uncertain situation, shaped how I wanted to present my story. Because in the midst of the war—Captain Rodman’s haphazard firing of machine guns through the streets, an underground effort to smuggle refugees into Switzerland, and a plot to assassinate the Führer—the people of Blumental are living their lives as normally as possible. They are going to market, they are inviting each other for coffee, they are gossiping, they are going to choir practice. I consider that instinct to establish normalcy part of our survival instinct, and it is an amazing demonstration of the adaptability of the human spirit.
There were many books and memoirs that informed and inspired The Good at Heart. I read numerous biographies of Hitler, which so cluttered the bookshelves next to my front door that I began to fear what people would think of my politics when they entered my home. More inspiring were the biographies and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (upon whom Johann is very roughly modeled), whom I consider one of the most admirable men in history. And I was fascinated to learn about the activities of the German resistance, especially as recounted by Joachim Fest in Plotting Hitler’s Death and Peter Hoffmann in Stauffenberg: A Family History. Also, Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy, about life in North Korea, was an invaluable resource for understanding the reality of life in a police state.
Are you working on a second novel? Can you share any plans with us for future projects?
The project I am currently working on is a mixture of memoir and history, a story of growing up in South Florida in the 1970s—a tale fraught with backyard alligators and flying cockroaches and sudden thunderstorms spawning waterspouts around a small family sailboat. One future project I am particularly excited about, but for which I have yet to do an enormous amount of research, is a historical biography of a well-known biblical figure.