At last, I finally get to revisit this old favorite. I've been wanting to reread it for years, but the “To Read” stacks just keep growing, and overflowing.
Spanning the years 1915 to 1952, this novel tells the story of Trudi Montag, a Zwerg (dwarf) woman, and collector of secrets, in the little German town of
, who, with her father, runs the
library, and hides Jews in the cellar during World War II. Burgdorf
Not only is this book a heart wrenching portrait of what it is like to be different, to be disdained and discounted because of one’s physical appearance, to want love but always be denied it, it also has a cast of the most vivid, memorable characters. There’s Trudi’s friend, Georg, whose mother will never forgive him for not being born a girl, and the mysterious Unknown Benefactor who leaves gifts for the townspeople, Frau Simon, the red-haired milliner who will never sell anyone a hat unless it looks good on them, and Frau Doktor Rosen, a female doctor whose husband, no one can ever decide, is either too lazy or sick to work, and her daughter, Eva, who is Trudi’s friend, but only in secret, and Emil Hesping, the manager of the gymnast club who has the wonderful gift of being able to make anyone smile, laugh, and feel better. Tragic, beautiful Ingrid. And many more. They’re wonderful, unique and special characters, it’s a treat to learn about and get to know.
When she is thirteen, Trudi goes to the circus and meets Pia, a dwarf woman like herself, but a beautiful, stylish one. She teaches Trudi not to feel so alone, and to embrace being special. It’s a life changing encounter. Trudi begins making changes, first with her clothes, she stops wearing the children’s clothes her father buys off the rack of local stores for her and instead learns to sew, making dresses that show her off to best advantage, she chops off her blonde braids, and affects a stylish bob, and begins to wear chic hats and high heels. She begins to exude a new confidence. And we see her first disillusioning brush with love and feel every bit of her pain at knowing she will never be a wife and mother, or belong to someone, like most women. Her loneliness touched me so deeply that many times I cried, both for her, and for myself, because I know what that’s like.
As Hitler becomes increasingly dominant, more and more the people seek solace in the library, finding comfort in books about handsome doctors and pretty nurses, cowboys and Indians, stories where love conquers all and good always triumphs over evil. It’s a terrifying time of suspicion, paranoia, book burning, Nazi youth groups, anti-Semitism, and Nazi propaganda. People Trudi has known all her life begin to disappear because they disagreed or dared to criticize the new regime.
As a person who knows what it is like to be different, Trudi understands better than most the plight of the Jews and helps those she can.
After the war, when so many people she knows, or knew, have been lost or changed, all anyone wants to do is go on, forget, and rebuild. But amidst the hope, as life goes on, there fresh tragedies, some of which will break your heart if, like me, you've come to care about these characters.
I love this book so much. It’s one of those stories where, reading it, I wanted with all my heart for it to have a happy ending, for everything to turn out all right, even though I knew it probably wouldn't ring true, life just isn't like that. I've read a lot of books over the years, some I’ve forgotten, some I've remembered, but this is one that has always stayed with me. I recommend it to everyone who loves historical fiction or any kind of novel with characters so real they reach right off the page and touch your heart.