STONES FROM THE RIVER, for which author Ursula Hegi received a PEN Faulkner award nomination, is the story of an unusual child who grows to womanhood in Nazi Germany.
Trudi is born in 1915 to Gertrud and Leo Montag, who own a pay-library business on the first floor of their home in Burgdorf, Germany. Gertrud dies when Trudi is but four years old, and neighbor Frau Blau steps in to help Leo raise his daughter.
Trudi Montag is a zwerg, or dwarf. Rejected by the town children because of her small stature, Trudi attempts to stretch herself by hanging from a door jamb until she drops to the floor. But no amount of body stretching will overcome her plight as a dwarf. When she is humiliated by a group of boys who taunt her when they catch her swimming alone in the river, she hurls stones against the riverbank in revenge. From that time on, she seeks not to blend into society but to survive with her handicap.
The author uses the pay-library setting as a vehicle for Trudi to mingle with the townspeople. There, she absorbs gossip, everyday life stories, events, and truths. She embellishes the stories and becomes a source of information; Trudi is a loyal friend and a sympathetic listener.
Trudi is especially drawn to underdogs like herself, like the now persecuted and hated Jews. When politics of the larger German society filter into the small town and young people become members of Hitler's student movement --- invading Trudi's life the night their bonfires burn all banned books in Germany --- Jewish friends, now marked, become Trudi's passion.
Hitler's rise to power, its effect on the lives of ordinary people, and the chances Trudi and her father take to right their society's wrongs are the fabric of this book. Trudi's stories mend differing political realities and change lives. When she seeks meaning, relationships, and wholeness, she befriends Pia, an adult zwerg working for a carnival and Max, a man who accepts her as an equal. But Georg, a boyhood friend, ultimately betrays her.
Hegi's characters are "German" to their roots, believable and understandable, because she develops her story in real German history. Trudi's character as a dwarf gives the added dimension of the perspective of a handicapped person living in a time and place of great persecution. Her transformation from child to adult is symbolized when she builds with stones from the river rather than throwing them away.
Of loneliness, Pia tells her, "None but you can change that."
This book is a must read for students of history and personality; one small individual opens our eyes to history with a worldwide view.
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Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on January 23, 2011
Stones from the River