Historical Fiction

A Book I Didn’t Finish: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

I felt a little bad putting this book down halfway through — it is, after all, a book about the Holocaust.  But I will just say this: even if a book is about the Holocaust, it still ought to be well-written.

Those Who Save Us is about Anna and her daughter Trudie, and begins in the mid-90’s when Anna’s husband dies in small-town Minnesota.  As a young woman, Anna lived in Weimar, Germany during World War II.  Trudie knows nothing about her father but believes he was a Nazi officer, from a photo hidden in Anna’s drawer.

Anna is now in a nursing home and still silent about her history.  In flashbacks we learn that in 1940 she meets and falls in love with Max, a Jewish doctor.  She hides him in her house and bears his child.  The rest of the story (as far as I read) is about how she lives through the Holocaust, trying where she can to help Jews and keep her daughter safe.

In the 1990s, Trudie is a German history professor.  She struggles with not knowing anything of her birth, and resents her mother for refusing to speak of it.  She is — according to her ex-husband — unfeeling and in serious need of therapy.   Trudie teaches a class on what non-Jewish women experienced during the Holocaust. She designs a project to interview non-Jews to find out more about their experiences during the Holocaust, and how those experiences have influenced their lives.  She hopes to find out whether most Germans were villains, victims, or something in between.

This book reminded me of Sarah’s Key and People of the Book.  Both books had a lot of strengths but I was ultimately disappointed.  Both tell dramatic historical stories about the Holocaust (although I should note that People of the Book goes beyond the Holocaust and back to Jewish oppression in the 15th century).  The historical portions were well-written, with interesting characters and vivid, compelling stories.

But in both books, the author uses a modern-day story to frame the historical story — and in both books the modern-day story was weak, with unlikeable narrators and unrealistic plot twists.  To me this modern-day story is at best unnecessary, and at worst it detracts from the historical story and keeps the author from fully developing characters in either setting.

Maybe it’s me — and maybe the frustration I had with these two books colored my reading of Those Who Save Us.

Blum raises an interesting issue, in that we don’t often think about the experiences of non-Jews in the Holocaust.  What deprivations did they suffer?  What did they do or not do, what did they know or not know?  How have they lived with the guilt of not having done more, or the condemnation of others?  What would it mean for someone to know her father was a Nazi?  How should we look at the actions of non-Jewish women during the Holocaust, knowing they were probably relatively powerless (having limited economic means and children to protect).

Unfortunately, this book felt trite and contrived to me.  Trudie is an extremely unlikeable narrator.  The side characters are worse, like her ex-husband and his standard-issue leggy and catty young blonde wife.  The dialogue never felt real to me.  Trudie’s life seems ridiculous and paper-thin, from her attitude towards her students to her seeming lack of knowledge about her own field of study.  She has studied German history her whole life but has never researched the identity of her father?

Anna’s story is much better but still written in very stiff prose.  I found the love story between her and Max to be unbelievable or at least, under-explained.  Annoyingly, everything seems to hinge on her physical appearance.  Max is an older doctor on the verge of being taken away and yet he enters into an affair with a frivolous (but beautiful) young woman whose father entertains Nazi officials every night?  The very idea of the affair is so disastrous for both of them, that it’s hard to believe.  Anna goes into it very thoughtlessly — of course she has no idea of the consequences, but she almost seems drawn to him because it’s forbidden, which makes her not very likeable.  It would have made much more sense had they become friends at an earlier time.

The writing felt very one-dimensional to me, and many things were not explained.  For example, the whole town of New Heidelberg, MN hates Anna and Trudie enough to ditch them after the husband’s funeral.  Why?  Trudie carelessly puts her mother in the nearest nursing home and leaves her — then is surprised when the nursing home seems to be borderline abusive.

I realize as I’m writing this review that some of the problem for me was the lack of detail.  The book is written in a made-to-be-a-movie style.  The characters act rather than think.  For example, we know that Trudie knows about the SS officer because she pulls open her mother’s drawer and takes out a photo — not because the author describes anything about how Trudie is feeling.   We also get very little historical detail.  I prefer long, detailed, epic novels like Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge.  I know some found this book to be long and plodding, but I loved learning so much about Hungary in the 1940s, and seeing the Holocaust on so many different fronts.

This is Blum’s first novel.  According to Amazon, Blum worked for the Shoah Foundation and has interviewed Holocaust survivors.  She is clearly very close to her subject matter and I don’t doubt her knowledge of the events of the Holocaust.  But the story felt contrived and the writing was distracting.  And I still don’t understand the need to jump from historical to modern-day.  If Blum really wanted to call attention to the plight of every day Germans during the Holocaust, it would have been better if she’d concentrated on developing a story set during the Holocaust, rather than jumping back and forth.  I wonder if this is a publisher’s suggestion as a way to make the story more “accessible” — if so it’s hardly necessary.

5 thoughts on “A Book I Didn’t Finish: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

  1. Pingback: When do you give up on a book? « The Book Stop

  2. I’m glad that I’m not the only one who felt like not finishing the book and feeling slightly guilty about it. I had always wondered though why the town didn’t show up after the funeral (hating Trudie and her mother so much) so I decided to find out if there is a synopsis of the book somewhere explaining that mystery. Sounds like it never gets resolved based on your review.

  3. I cannot agree more with you. I finished Those Who Save Us but did not like it at all. However, I reviewed this book along with another book, The Plum Tree by Ellen Marie Wiseman, that had a similar setting but was a much better book. Have you read it? You can read my review here if you want (http://miathereader.com/the-plum-tree-vs-those-who-save-us/).The Plum Tree is an enthralling narrative about a young German girl, and it’s not one of those back-and-forth between now and then stories, which I find disruptive. I like to be absorbed by a book, and unless the writer is truly a master of that format (Kate Morton, for instance), the switch between historical and present day is jarring. The Plum Tree was a great book with well developed, likable characters and a detailed plot. I think you’ll enjoy it if you haven’t already read it!

  4. First off, I disagree with all of your comments. Yes, this book took a little bit to get into, but once I read more, I could not put this book down. Blum’s description of characters and their development is absolutely amazing! If you would finish the book instead of putting it down when you did not even get to the main part of the book, you would understand why it’s a great book. As you stated in your review, you see that Trudy has not researched her father when indeed it states later in the book she tried to look him up on several occasions. And that does happen in funerals… welcome to small town Minnesota… those passive aggressive people. And she jumped to the present because if you read close enough, you would discover that the story picks back up in Trudy’s nightmares. Excellent novel!

  5. I read this book twice, that is how much I liked it.
    Jenna Blum really let readers know how intense the suffering was that jewish people
    and non jews had to endure during that time period.
    Especially the part where the little boy runs outside when he sees his mother
    marching and the nazi shoots him.

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