Coming of age stories almost always interest me, no matter the country or the period of time. The Life of Objects, by Susanna Moore, is an extraordinary coming of age novel about an Irish girl, Beatrice, who wants nothing more than to escape her cruel and restrictive mother and her Irish village. She is seventeen when her story starts, but in most ways a very young seventeen due to her mother’s tight, cold rein on her life. A Protestant girl in a mostly Catholic town and not allowed to associate with any Catholics, her single outlet (both emotionally and intellectually) is the Church of Ireland cleric, Mr. Knox, who keeps a small school and who has a passion for birds. There being no lending library in Ballycarra, it is through the books loaned her by Mr. Knox that she learns of the larger world.
Mr. Knox liked to say that novels help to show us that the world is a place of strangeness, ruled by chance, which makes it difficult to maintain our certainties. I had no certainties other than my desire to leave Ballycarra.
And leave she does through a series of happenstances she could not have foreseen. She says of her mother: “her disappointments had rendered her bitter and unkind. My father and I were in constant dread of her. I lived in a chaos of desire and disappointment.” Her mother takes her out of school at fifteen, thinking that Mr. Knox is filling her head with ideas that would do her no good in the world of haberdashery, and installs her in the small shop owned by the family. She is not allowed to read in the shop, “lest it appear that I gave myself airs,” and so, using materials stolen from the shop, she teaches herself to crochet, and then to make lace. Eventually, her father not only secretly provides her with thread, but begins to display pieces of lace she has made in the shop; the fine lacework is seen by a wealthy woman, who gives her two books of lace patterns, and this in turn leads to an encounter with a foreign woman, Countess Hartenfels, and finally an invitation to escort the Countess to Berlin where Beatrice will live as a lace-maker in the house of a wealthy family, the Metzenburgs.
What I have not yet mentioned is that this move, so thrilling for the young Beatrice, occurs in 1938, just as Germany has launched its aggressive campaign across Europe. Felix Metzenberg, besides being a wealthy collector of art, has been a politically influential force in Germany who served in the Great War, and whose memory of that time makes him extremely skeptical of the Nazi party and its campaign. Having refused a foreign ambassadorship position in the new regime, he is looked at with suspicion, and soon decides to leave Berlin and take his treasures to a country home where he will be less scrutinized. Although he offers to pay Beatrice’s passage back to Ireland, and warns her that he may not be able to protect her in the uncertain future, she elects to remain with the family.
I’ve told this much of the story, which the reader gets in the first thirty pages or so, simply to set up the dangers and moral dilemmas that face the family as the war continues and enlarges. While the Metzenburgs oppose the tactics and ambitions of Hitler and the Nazi party from the beginning, they obviously have to do so with great care. All during the war, they harbor Jews and others who are perceived as enemies of the regime, and return to a kind of feudalism with regards to the villagers who come to depend on them for produce, employment, and various forms of protection from the authorities.
What I found particularly fascinating about this book was the view of it from inside Germany and through the eyes of a family whose sympathies lie with the allied forces of Europe and who rejoice at the bombing of Berlin even when the bombs are being dropped on them.
Not only the rich and powerful in Germany, but even many of the poor villagers still close their eyes to the rumors of the murder of Jewish prisoners, and at least pretend that “the humiliation and misery inflicted on the country were in part the fault of the Jews, who had forgotten their place…” Felix argues against such views, both with the villagers and his rich friends.
Felix said that he once believed that humanism had been founded on the shared need to know. It had grown more and more apparent to him, however, that the opposite was true—we were united by our shared need not to know. ‘By the time that we understand what is happening,’ he said, ‘we are already complicit.'
In spite of the fact that I was born in 1941, the year America finally entered the war, I continue to be astounded by my own ignorance of the immensity of loss, the unbearable hardship of so many from so many countries. My view of Pearl Harbor was that of a few Japanese planes somehow reaching Hawaii to sink a few ships, not of the nearly four hundred planes that flew in three waves to sink eighteen ships and leave three thousand dead. And although I have read about the firebombing of Dresden, I had no idea that in March of 1945 a thousand B-17 bombers destroyed the center of Berlin.
Perhaps reading novels is a lazy way of learning history, but I am so grateful to novelists like Moore who do such meticulous research and then so skillfully put into real flesh and blood stories about the suffering and bravery of millions of Europeans, Russians, and yes, Germans.
As the tide begins to turn and Germany begins to lose the war on many fronts, the lives of the Metzenburgs and the villagers become even more difficult, and unfortunately, even with the surrender of Germany and the advancing armies of Russia and America, the lives of Germans who had resisted the Nazi’s and at least covertly aided the allies do not magically become better. Whether it is German soldiers looting and ravaging the land as they retreat, or the victorious Russians doing about the same as they occupy, the lives of rural farmers and thousands upon thousands of refugees fleeing first one way, and then the other continue to spiral out of control. This is a searingly sad story, but told through the compassionate eyes of Beatrice, there is something beautiful and profound about it. I leave you with her words:
During the war, we had scavenged at night and slept in the day. Children had not gone to school. Animals had not foaled. Thre’d been no appointments to keep or to cancel, no market days, weddings, or funerals, and no cars, buses, trains, or horses to get us there, had there been someplace to go. There’d been no telephones, electricity, petrol. No medicine. No money and no food.
We had survived, but we were different people.