Thursday, September 9, 2021

Book Review: The Living and the Lost

By Jami Denison

Just as traditional romance books have a prescribed ending—the Happily Ever After—historical fiction novels also have their own pre-conceived conclusion: The War is Over! But just like a wedding doesn’t end life’s complications, the end of a war doesn’t stop the misery and suffering. Historical fiction author Ellen Feldman’s latest release, The Living and the Lost, takes place in post-World War II Berlin. The war may be over, but no one is happy. What’s left when the bombs have stopped dropping? 

Millie (Meike) Mosbach and her younger brother David are both posted to Berlin in late 1945, as U.S. soldiers serving in the American occupation. Millie, a Bryn Mawr graduate, is working to keep Nazis out of the media, while David is helping to settle displaced persons. But Millie and David aren’t Americans—they’re German Jews who escaped Berlin shortly before Kristallnacht. Millie, especially, finds it hard not to judge all the Germans harshly, especially the “Frauleins” in her office who trade favors with U.S. soldiers for lipstick, nylons, and chocolates. “Fraternization” is strictly prohibited, and when Millie spies David out with a German woman one night, it breaks her heart.

Most wartime novels tend to be plot-driven with an obvious structure and conclusion. The Living and the Lost, which takes place in pre-and-post war Berlin as well as the United States, isn’t quite so linear. The story, told in third person, is almost all Millie’s, with only occasional segues into David’s point-of-view. Millie is haunted by how she and David left Berlin, and what happened to the parents and younger sister they left behind. Shortly after the story begins, Millie is confronted at work by her long-lost cousin, Anna, who begs Millie to help her find the daughter she left behind with a German Aryan neighbor. I thought this plot would feature heavily throughout the book, but it’s wrapped up rather quickly. 

Episodic and atmospheric, The Living and the Lost is less about what Millie does and more about who she becomes. Can she find it in her heart to forgive Germans who did what they had to do to survive? Can she find it in her heart to forgive herself? When does the quest for justice become a thirst for revenge? 

The setting also works to challenge expectations. Readers first see Millie as she’s picking out an apartment in Berlin. But that apartment is already occupied by a woman and her young daughter; Millie is requisitioning it, and the tiny family is forced out of their home. I’d read such scenes many times in World War II fiction taking place in France; I never expected to find an American army officer doing the same thing. Similarly, Feldman peppers the book with scenes of desperation in black markets and among the ruins of Berlin, while U.S. officers and their friends and family get everything they need in the PX. The juxtaposition is jarring.

Why is World War II fiction so popular, especially among American readers? I think there are two reasons in particular: One, we are the “good guys” who saved France and England, defeated the Germans, and liberated the camps (even if we didn’t join the war until 1941), and two, the assurance that “it could never happen here.” I read The Living and the Lost the same week Tucker Carlson broadcast from Hungary, praising the country’s authoritarian leader for his approach to immigration and calling recent arrivals to the U.S. “chaos and filth and crime growing all around us.” 

Carlson has the most-watched cable news program in the country. 

I no longer believe it could never happen here. Rather than a comfort, books like The Living and the Lost feel like a warning. 

Thanks to St. Martin's Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Ellen Feldman:

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