Stones from the River

by Ursula Hegi

Paperback, 1995

Call number

FIC HEG

Collection

Genres

Publication

Simon & Schuster (1997), Edition: Later Printing, 525 pages

Description

A dwarf becomes the librarian of a small German town. The work makes her privy to many of the town's secrets and she uses them to set people against each other. It's her way of paying them back for the taunts and humiliations.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Tinwara
Trudi Montag is a special young woman. Resident of a small town along the Rhine near Dusseldorf, she grows up believing that she will never be fully accepted by the community, always remain an outsider, because she is a dwarf.

The story takes us through the 1920's, 1930's and 1940's. As a young child Trudi wants nothing more than be "normal" and have friends. After some traumatic experiences she turns away from the community, embittered, and sarcastic. As she grows up she learns that many people have their own way of being different (a lethal flaw in Nazi Germany). She discovers that there are actually people who can see through the barrier of her different body, becomes more self secure, and discovers her own place in the community, that in the end does seem to accommodate difference.

The story is set in difficult times in Germany. The loss of the first world war, the economic depression of the 1920's, the rise of Nazism, the holocaust, the second world war. The focus is on Trudi's personal story, however, in the background we get a glimpse of history. At times very much at the background, at other times more visible, as Jewish neighbours and friends disappear.

I thought that the story as a whole was a pleasant read. It was interesting to read about the rise of national socialism and about Germany in the second world war from a (more or less) German perspective. To see how communities were ripped apart, how people became involved in a freak ideology, how even in the heartland of national socialism, some people were brave enough to resist. Besides, the story of Trudi, that develops from trying to adapt, to trying to resist, to believing in herself was convincing. Convincing, yet a little sentimental as well.

So, I liked the story, however, I was not very impressed by the style of writing. It seemed to play on easy sentiment. Poor outsider Trudi, betrayed by all, yet a silent heroine during the holocaust. It seemed a bit too easy and one dimensional from time to time. At times, I also thought that some editing would have been a good idea. Just a little less words, to have a more compact story, less repetitive.

I would also like to remark that the design of the cover (I own the 1995 Scribner paperback edition) is one of the ugliest book covers I have seen in a long time! That didn't influence my rating, but needs to be said! I want beautiful books!
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LibraryThing member mzonderm
Some books disappoint on a second reading, but not this one. When it came time for my book club to read this book I was very excited, because I remembered that I really liked it the first time I read it. And I was not disappointed. I think I liked this book at least as much the second time around as the first.

This is a story with two contrasting themes. One is difference. Told mostly from the perspective of Trudi, a dwarf, who feels how different she is from the members of her community on a daily basis. And she sees how difference in others is persecuted under the Nazis.

The other theme of this book is community. One thing I really liked about this book is how we come to know so many members of Trudi's community throughout their lives. We understand as well as Trudi does why certain members of the community do certain things, because we have known them almost as long as she has. Hegi does a wonderful job of bringing the whole community to life.

And she is more than equal to the task of describing what the advent of Nazism does to this small German community. She does not shy away from the people who enthusiastically embrace Hitler and his party, but she does portray in a more sympathetic way those who at least question Hitler's policies.

Rather than making a judgment call, though, based on how her characters respond to the Third Reich, Hegi seems more interested in demonstrating the range of responses that existed in a small town, and how those differing responses change the character of the town itself.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
An interesting and different perspective on the horrors of WW2. Beautifully written.
LibraryThing member billie601
I read this book a few years ago. It haunted me for a while, I kept thinking of the characters and the events that happened. A very good book. I would read it again.
LibraryThing member redhaircrow
Intro

Although I often read history, especially books regarding World War II and Germany, memoirs, collected memories, analysis into the various horrors and sheer arrogant stupidity of what the Nazis and others did, I seldom, if ever, read fiction books about those times.

This book, however, caught my eye because the central character was a Zwerg, or dwarf, one of the many groups considered “unfit to live” which were summarily done away with under the Nazi regime. Secondly, this character, Trudi Montag’s best friend as a child was a boy named George whose mother dressed him as a girl and kept his hair long. Naturally, I being I, was intrigued. Without reading anything further into the short synopsis on the back of the novel, I thought it might be about their personal interactions, regarding their “disabilities”, with those who meant for them to die. In the end, the book is about far more.

Background

Germany is a country I love. It’s my favorite place in the world, and I never truly feel peace or relief or joy unless I am there. This is quite shocking to some people, those who still look on Germany as Nazi, intolerant and ugly. It is infuriating to others who insist on judging a whole population by their former government or by certain groups. Subjectivity without objectivity. Whatever one thinks of modern Germany and its population, whether one is insistent on their culpability and propensity to commit evil acts, or is merely doubtful in some way, few people know the depth of the self-loathing, national examination and fury of descendants of “those ones” who participated, “looked the other way” or somehow minimized what happened. Though it is considered a more “unreligious” Christian country, there is a national insistence almost nearing religious fervor, that one be tolerant of all peoples, all thoughts, all desires and lifestyles, etc. and I share that fervor.

First of all, it’s a subject few Germans except scholars or other academicians will discuss with “outsiders”. It’s a subject if brought up, the faces shut down, become wary or misdirective, or if they are the outspoken sort, they will question why you are pursuing the topic. Some, usually the younger generations, don’t want to hear about it anymore because they are sick and tired of the still accusatory comments or jokes made towards them, their people and country. In reality, no nation or peoples on this earth now living are free of some sort of holocaust or attempted massacre of another people. Australia, Spain, England, the USA, Russia…each and everyone. It is still happening in areas of Asia and Africa. Read this objectively, please.

Review

I initially found the book difficult to get into, not because of topic, but because of style, which was choppy and sporadic, with a POV which toggled between an omnipotent viewer and the main character as an infant and toddler who made observations about individuals and situations that would be impossible for a child of that age. Often there were snippets of thoughts or memories provided as if from old age looking backwards, yet it was in early childhood details. Many other facts are merely implied. You have to ascertain a conclusion from information presented, and you’re often left doubting or wondering if you understood something correctly.

The setting is a small village in Germany, one of the many burgs which often surround or are near a larger, cosmopolitan city. Hegi is excellent at setting a mood so you can “see” and feel what it’s like to live in such a place: the little relationships, the jealousies, the short-lived boasts and affairs which kept everyone just a certain distance apart yet always together. There are good people and bad people, ones you ultimately as a reader can judge as such, yet the author makes no such attempt. She gives you the information, you can draw your own conclusions.

You are drawn into the world of Trudi Montag, her father owns a book circulation library and is a former injured veteran of WWI. She is visibly different, painfully and emotionally aware of the fact, yet with ingenius courage survives and keeps a dignity so many thoughtlessly attempt to brush away. That very difference, Trudi’s birth, her dwarfism is yet another trigger into her mother’s slow descent into madness, and poignantly we observe the bittersweet nature of a child’s desire to please and make happy a parent who soon is helpless against their own compulsions.

As other peers grow taller, grow up and pursue the nature courses of life, Trudi feels trapped yet determined to also grow in all ways, but her obsession with being “normal” teaches hard yet important lessons which keep her alive during the years to come. Unrequited love, secret abuse, solitary agony and loneliness. Trudi is small in stature but hugely spirited, fierce and passionate in her hates and personal battles.

Characterization is extremely important to this writer, even if the amount of names and descriptions can be confusing at times, with each person Hegi shows aspects of the German character, its idiosyncracies, faults and positives. About midway through, Hegi finally hits her stride, as the inevitable events we now know as history, begin to unfold. Almost frenetically we are drawn along in the emotional flood knowing what is going to happen, but as we’ve been made to care for each person, reluctant to progress already realizing the inevitable.

Conclusion

For some who are more narrow-minded, they will not take away from the book the knowledge Hegi is trying to impart: that although virtually all Germans of that time knew and felt something very wrong was occurring, and they knew the basis on which it was focused, the ridding of the fatherland of Jews, many resisted and helped those Jews or others as they could with risk to their own lives. Some more than others. Others not at all, but many in some way or another did. It’s very easy with hindsight or a superior attitude to proclaim what one would have done in such a situation, but Hegi excels at showing just how normal people can change, and how the world around can change you.

For those who’ve studied socialism or communism, you’ll clearly see the examples of what type of attitude a police state creates in its populace. One most notable is the willingess to turn in others to prove their own loyalty, even children against parents, sibling to sibling, old friends of old friends. And later, to minimize or justify those acts. To conveniently forget what roled they played.

Yet the book is not a political statement. It is not a justification. It is not a mediation. It is starkly plain as seen through Trudi Montag’s eyes what people are and can be. As a little person who was often ignored or dismissed, her insight is brutally honest yet acceptable as truth. It is a character which I often find in Germans today, the willingness (if they allow you in) to harshly examine self, to admit to weaknesses or wrongdoing of thought or deed, but with a pragmatism which accepts those facts but is unwilling to be dismayed by them. Life goes on. Some people call that arrogance. For myself, I would much rather be with someone or among a people who admit wrongdoing and go on with life, instead of those who apologize profusely yet don’t mean a word of it. If a German says something, they mean. If they don’t mean something, 9 times out of 10, they are not going to say it. It might be said hard, but the intention is not to hurt. But my commentary is listing to the side….back on track.

As an editor, I would have been compelled to “clean up” Hegi’s writing, make it more coherent and flowing, yet it would have lost the sparkle which makes unique her voice. As a reader, I found it challenging, but overall this book is extremely successful. I would strongly consider it one not to be missed. Although they make hundreds of films these days about anything and everything, this is a book I would love to see adapted for film. With its snippet like quality, it would be perfect for the big screen.

A bittersweet and wonderful gem. I am glad I didn’t put this one to the side simply because I don’t often read contemporary fiction or because the stamp on my copy proclaimed it a “Oprah’s Book Club Selection”. I would have been much less having not read it. It really is perfect in it’s view of German life of the era, the complexities underlying an entire country and people’s past which continues to haunt with a darkly golden light.

Originally posted on my review site Flying With Red Haircrow
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LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
“...much of what the church calls sin is simply being human.”

This novel is a fascinating piece of historical fiction set around the lives of the people in a small town in Germany from 1915 until 1952 during some of the most turbulent years of German history. The story centres around Trudi Montag, a Zwerg, dwarf, born in the fictional town of Burgdorf, close to the real-life city of Dusseldorf. Trudi’s world is made up of the people of Burgdorf, Catholic and Jewish. She is short in stature but full of spirit.

Due to her physical appearance Trudi is something of an outcast, often a loner. However, her father, who owns and runs the local pay-library, is a popular figure within the town liked by virtually everyone. Due to his popularity and her inquisitiveness Trudi becomes the town's repository of gossip and natural storyteller, whose stories encircle the residents of the town. Trudi's stories become both her weapon and her charm against the townspeople drawing them in like a moth to a flame.

Trudi’s father, Leo, is injured during WWI leaving him with a painful limp for the rest of his life. His wife Gertrud is beautiful but also a little crazed. She initially shuns her dwarf baby but finally comes to accept her. Gertrude would often run away from home or hide in an earth den under the Montag home and as Trudi grows older it is only her stories that will coax her mother back into the house. Gertrud was in and out of a sanatorium dying there making Trudi feel responsible for her mother’s “illness.”

As a child Trudi thought everyone knew what went on inside each other but as she grew older she began to understood the power and the agony of being different. For years she prayed to grow but comes to the realization that praying for something did not make it happen and that if she wanted anything to happen then she would have to be the one who makes it happen.

By the end of World War I there were few men in the town meaning that the women had to make all the decisions and were the backbone of their community. Yet when the men slowly return to the town the women reluctantly give up their independence returning to their place in the household from where they see Hitler and the Nazi Party rise to pre-eminence. The people are drawn in gradually, almost imperceptibly. Many of the men of the town join the Nazi Party believing that Hitler will return the country to prominence but Leo along with Trudi remain outside. When WWII begins Leo states “To win this war would be the worst possible fate for the Germans.“ Trudi and her father never forget their friendship with their Jewish neighbours and even become part of a network that hides and tries and gets Jews out of the country when the internments begin. However, even at the end of the war many of his 'German' neighbours refuse to admit that they did anything wrong or even knew about the atrocities taking place in the larger country no doubt mirroring many of the beliefs of the time. It is interesting see how generally good people allowed Nazism to happen despite seeing with their owns their neighbours being persecuted. I'm reminded of a couple of Edmund Burke quotes "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing" and "The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse".

Trudi is envious of the other girls believing that they have it easy because they are regular size but it is not only her stature that makes her different. She does not look like the other girls she also refuses to abide by the norms of the town. At school the nun teachers are exasperated with her she constantly raises her hand whereas the other girls keep silent even if they knew the answers, while the boys demanded to be heard. Trudi refuses to conform to other peoples' expectations of her. When she is young she uses her stories as currency but as she grows older she realises that her stories can do good as well as harm, that they can keep the memory of those who have died alive. Trudi's presence in the town and her stories means that no one can completely gloss over their past.

This is a beautifully crafted novel despite its terrible historical background. It has touches of some of the epic Russian novels and come the end you feel that know the people in her world as you might your own. I would recommend this novel to anyone but especially anybody who interested in seeing this traumatic period in world history from a German civilian point of view.
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LibraryThing member juniperSun
Excellent book. Dwarf storytelling woman in Nazi Germany learns to use words wisely.
LibraryThing member bataviabirders
We grow up reading history about World War II and the Holocaust, some of us had relatives who survived and talked about their experience - or said nothing at all. This novel tells of a woman who came of age between the wars. Trudi's experience was extraordinary and every-day. A little person, Zwerg in German, her otherness sets her apart. She tries as a young girl to grow - praying, stretching from any place she can hang by her hand or her knees. She dreams of growing during her sleep, and awakening transformed. At age 13, she meets, for the first time, someone like her, a Zwerg who is comfortable in her life and her own otherness. Gradually, Trudi realizes that her difference is part of her strength.

Trudi is also a story gatherer, and story teller. People seem to feel comfortable sharing their stories with her, possibly because she is "not like them." Her gathering and sharing of stories becomes a focus and a purpose in her life.

She witnesses the changes and absurdities of life in the years between the wars, the decisions that make the difference between life and death, guilt and redemption. The small town of Burgdorf serves as a microcosm of the changes that occurred throughout Germany - the lives of those supporting Hitler, those going along in order to feel safe, those ignoring the changes - in order to feel safe, those trying to escape by one means or another, and those who sought or fell into a role of resistance.

Stones from the River tells a story of what can happen to a town - a country - when reason is clouded by extremes, and those who disagree find they have stayed quiet too long to avoid the storm.
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LibraryThing member AliceAnna
A haunting story - sad yet hopeful. Trudi was such an engaging character. The only person who doubted what she was capable of doing was Trudi herself. This is the second story this year that I've read that looked at WWII from the German viewpoint ... again I was taken by how many German citizens were victims too. If they spoke up or even showed doubt, they would become casualties as well. That they didn't band together before things got out of control was the only sin of many ... one that many tried to correct, only to become victims in the end.… (more)
LibraryThing member cmasson17
Those hidden things that linger just below the surface but can change the course of rivers despite their invisibility. WWII from the perspective of a non-political small German town as seen through the eyes of a dwarf. This novel has it all--plot, characterization and insight. Amazing.
LibraryThing member jbeth
This was an interesting read for me. I didn't hate the book, but I didn't love it, either. I think the most outstanding thing that keeps popping up in my mind is how much I disliked the main character, Trudi Montag. I sympathized with her many struggles, but found it hard to like her apparent sociopathy and neuroticism. My feelings for Trudi aside, the story (or stories, as there are many throughout) itself was thought-provoking. I couldn't help but wonder how I would have reacted to many of the atrocities and difficult choices that people of that era were exposed to. I'm glad I read it, but....I'm glad I'm done!… (more)
LibraryThing member kellynasdeo
This is one of my favorite books of all time.
LibraryThing member Nancy.Mosholder
Odd book about a dwarf growing up in Germany during WWII.
LibraryThing member carmarie
I couldn't get into this book. I couldn't fully grasp the setting and time frame of this story. Although it has recieved great reviews, it just wasn't for me.
LibraryThing member judydeb1
This book is a very powerful book. The idea behind it and the way the main character is portrayed is excellent. Hegi managed to write about a sensetive subject without taking a moralistic viewpoint, and trying just to give the facts.
LibraryThing member JGoto
This is the story of the life of Trudy Montag, a dwarf who lives in a small town in Germany in years that span both World Wars. She alternately loves and rages against people in her town as she yearns to be accepted for who she is instead of what she looks like. We see her observe the townspeople over the World War Two years. Many of her neighbors comply with the Nazi regime little by little in order to avoid trouble and confrontation. Before they know it, their compliance has become huge and it is too late for many to turn back. Stones from the River is a beautifully wrtten account of Trudy trying to understand and come to terms with her body, her life, and Germany.… (more)
LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
There is some sophisticated symbolism going on - themes repeated in different ways, in different textures. The rejection of the different, and the power that the different can claim. Interesting juxtaposition of Germany during WW II and the tragedies that occurred.
LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
Fabulous book, great author. I will read anything she writes as she has the magic of words. This novel was so hard to put down, I was drawn in by the characters and the settings. Trudi loves to unearth people's secrets and then use these stories where she sees fit. Trudi does not however, reveal her own secrets or stories. Trudi survives a tragedy when she was 14 years old, and the novel will reveal how this tragedy affects her and shape her throughout her life. Hegi takes us on a journey with Trudi into WWII and the Germans overtaking the small town of Burgdorf. Read this book!!! It is wonderful… (more)
LibraryThing member kelawrence
Although the premise may sound odd, this book was good - very touching.
LibraryThing member mojacobs
A very compelling story about Trudi, a dwarf girl growing up in Germany after the first world war, and ending after the second. Beautifully written, the hurt of being human and imperfect can be felt on every page. A very good book, but not very optimistic: keep it for when you are feeling well and strong!”
LibraryThing member mdonovan
Not only was this a compelling story of family, but it also gave me insight to how the average German may have felt leading up to WWII. Truly gives gravitas to the notion of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. Also be sure to read the follow-up book, The Vision of Emma Blau.
LibraryThing member ImBookingIt
This book was a book club pick for one of my book clubs. I probably wouldn't have picked it up if we hadn't been discussing it, particularly since I tend to think I've had enough of WWII through my other book club. In the end, I'm glad I read this one.The book is the story of Trudi, a dwarf woman in Germany before, during, and after WWII. She is an observer of her town, never quite fitting in. She collects the stories of the people that live there, making the book full of ripples of stories intersecting as she considers and sometimes tells them.We see a town that seems to be of good people, until Hitler comes to power. Some embrace Hitler as a savior of the German people. Others think it best to go along and not make waves, that everything will be better soon. And others do what they can to resist, either in the open (which quickly gets them captured or killed) or under cover of darkness.I had some minor problems that got in my way while reading the book, but they were the exceptions. The language in Stones from the River is beautiful. It is unusual for me to say that without combining it with a complaint that it got in my way while reading the book. It did slow down my reading. The book is a slow read, which helps explain why only two out of five of us at the book club meeting finished reading the book-- a first in over nine years of this book club.We still had a good discussion of the book, and everyone said they planned to finish reading it, even with what we gave away of the ending.… (more)
LibraryThing member jepeters333
WW2 story - slow in spots but good overall.
LibraryThing member CoffeePott
I loved this book, and I still think about it to this day. I wish that I had half the guts that that little girl did.
LibraryThing member erinclark
We read this book several years ago in my book group. After much discussion we all decided that we loved the story but didn't like any of the characters! Strange.

Pages

525

ISBN

068484477X / 9780684844770

Lexile

1140L
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