Fifteen years have passed since Ursula Hegi's bestseller, STONES FROM THE RIVER, depicted life in Burgdorf, Germany prior to World War II. Hegi's dwarf, Trudi Montag from STONES, lives in CHILDREN AND FIRE as a reference point for the fictional town's reality to the reader.
CHILDREN AND FIRE is both a statement of history and a warning to all who teach young minds.
The story begins in the winter of 1934, in Fraulein Thekla Jansen's classroom, with her all-boy class. They discuss a happening one year before, in Berlin, when a fire destroyed the parliament building. Speculation has been rampant; one theory is that communists torched the building, while another is that Nazis did the deed to frame the communists. Burgdorf is alive with whispers that the same accident can happen in this village. Jansen's students voice their fears, with possible solutions for flight to safety. The teacher feels it is her duty to settle wild imaginations, yet remain within the rules set forth for her profession by the government. She admits to them that she, too, was afraid on the nights following the Reichstag's burning.
Jansen has grown up in this village, has obtained the credits and education to become a teacher and now stands in the convent classroom, which has long been her dream. But her job has come at great cost to someone she loves and admires. Fraulein Siderova's position is compromised because the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, has decreed that Jews can no longer hold such a position. Jansen is offered her mentor's job but is embarrassed to visit the woman. She is conflicted by the changes she sees in her country, but cannot rise to object. Her job itself may be at risk for the least impropriety.
Jansen rents a room in the home of one of her students, Bruno Stosick, landing in the middle of family turmoil. Gunther, Bruno's father, is violently opposed to the rallies orchestrated by Hitler's command, which plant strong political emotions in Germany's youth. Bruno is forbidden to attend these youth rallies. His mother, Gisela, walks him to school and picks him up afterward, to his chagrin and embarrassment. Brutally heckled by others in his class, Bruno circumvents the problem by sneaking out at night when he feels his parents are asleep. His teacher observes the nighttime escapes and is conflicted. Jansen knows that she should intervene and let the parents know. But she prefers to ignore the purpose of these youth meetings, thinking that Bruno will become accepted by his peers if allowed to attend.
The 1934 chapters of Hegi's novel deal with the fears that ordinary citizens in a small town confront when strapped by rules and regulations from their central government. Their Fuhrer has grasped a sputtering country from deep depression, bringing in new mandates that they may not understand but fostering hope that a renewed and stronger Germany will evolve. On a daily basis, propaganda from radio broadcasts, tireless salutations to the Fuhrer, changes in administration of daily workplace duties and endless animosities against Jews keep the people in emotional upheaval. Jansen loses several students when their families pack and move to America. But Bruno and the others defy logic and don the uniforms that give them unity.
CHILDREN AND FIRE takes place in 1934, but backstory chapters revert to earlier times, beginning in 1899. There, Jansen's background is written. Her beloved father has married her mother, a girl pregnant with another's child. She has known only these two loving parents as her own, joined by two brothers. The boys resent the fact that she travels with her mother to be a housekeeper for the wealthy Jewish businessman, Herr Abramowitz, and his wife, Ilse. The family spoils her with manners, clothing and education that her father cannot afford. Behind her back, the rumors fly about how spoiled she has become. Later, she accepts courtship from Emil, who is known for his revolutionary thinking. He tries to enlighten her about their government, but she ignores his unconventional statements, terrified of losing her job.
Hegi, a native German writer, makes heavy use of German quotes throughout her story. Jansen teaches poetry to both inform and influence thoughts. She's careful not to introduce books on the banned list. But the German phrases, without translation, can be annoying to readers. The teacher figure appears wooden at times, taking overt measures to avoid conflict.
The world Jansen believes to be her truth, however, crashes when she confronts a tragedy with her students. Hegi funnels historical moments through the eyes of her characters. Jansen is the embodiment of a young woman who discovers that her life is truly dependent on both her own actions and those of others. She is but one woman who believes one truth about her country and is stunned by a broader picture. CHILDREN AND FIRE is both a statement of history and a warning to all who teach young minds.
Reviewed by Judy Gigstad on June 27, 2011