Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Book Review: The German Wife

By Jami Denison

Most vociferous readers have favorite authors whose books they’ll read without question. For me, Australian writer Kelly Rimmer is on that list. With varied interests, Rimmer’s books have touched on adoption, drug abuse during pregnancy, and other women’s fiction subjects; her latest books have been in historical fiction. Always meticulously researched, Rimmer’s new release, The German Wife, may be her most encompassing yet. And it raises moral questions the author admits she wasn’t sure how to answer. 

The German Wife is the story of two women: Berliner Sofie von Meyer Rhodes and Texan Lizzie Miller. It begins in Huntsville, Alabama in 1950, where Sofie and her children are finally joining her husband Jurgen after a lengthy separation. Lizzie is married to Calvin, Jurgen’s boss in the United States space program. It’s a complicated connection – Jurgen ran the Nazi’s rocket program and invented the V2 rocket. When the war was over, the American government decided that Jurgen and his co-workers were just the ones to help them land on the moon. So many of them came over that their street earned the nickname “Frankfurt Hill.” But the Americans who already lived there—especially the ones who’d fought in World War II—weren’t happy about their new neighbors. Lizzie and her brother Henry are particularly incensed. 

How did these two women get to this point? Rimmer brings us back to 1930, when Sofie is a struggling young wife married to an academic in Berlin. She and Jurgen are worried about what Hitler and his supporters mean for Germany, especially for Sofie’s Jewish best friend, Mayim. Meanwhile, Lizzie lives on a farm in Texas with Henry and their parents. As the drought dries up their farm and their income, her future seems just as bleak.

Rimmer takes us through both main characters’ lives, as Sofie and Jurgen are forced to make moral compromise after moral compromise to support their family, and Lizzie and Henry become victims of the Dust Bowl. Even knowing that both women end up safe and healthy in Alabama after the war, Rimmer successfully increases the tension and raises the stakes in every chapter. 

The author does an admirable job putting readers in a difficult position – being asked to sympathize with the fictional version of a key member of the SS and his wife. Jurgen is based on a real person--Wernher von Braun—and a real government program, Operation Paperclip. Rimmer has the couple suffer tremendous guilt over his work for the Nazis, and Sofie does everything she can to help Mayim. But is it enough to excuse his job? Lizzie, meanwhile, faces her own moral quandary later in the book, when it becomes clear just how much Henry was impacted by World War II experiences. 

Although Lizzie is given her own background chapters and point-of-view, the book is much more Sofie’s (hence the title). Even so, Rimmer’s scenes of a dying farm and dust storms are gripping and revelatory. Lizzie herself remains a bit of an enigma; I felt she had a secret that Rimmer didn’t want to tell.

It is hard to read about Germany’s descent into fascism and genocide without finding parallels in the United States. As the country passes laws targeting Jewish people, Sofie and Jurgen assure themselves that it can’t get any worse, that rational German minds will prevail. In Florida where I live, the governor has just signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which will allow parents to sue teachers who talk about their personal life. Republicans call the bill’s detractors groomers and pedophiles. Texas parents with trans children are being accused of child abuse if they help their kids transition. In Brooklyn, the LGBT bar Rash was burned down by an arsonist in early April. The rest of us wait to see if rational minds will prevail. 

In her author’s note at the end of the book, Rimmer admits she had mixed feelings about her characters’ endings. And any attempt to humanize German soldiers in fiction often creates a tremendous backlash. In the end, though, Rimmer’s work does what great fiction always does: Makes us question our world and our actions in it. 

Thanks to Graydon House for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Kelly Rimmer:

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1 comment:

The Reading Frenzy said...

This sounds really good, I love historical fiction especially when it relates to WWII and Graydon House is fast becoming one of my fave publishers. Great review Thanks for sharing