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REVIEW: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

Dear Mr. Bohjalian:

book review When I first got a copy of this and read the dust jacket, I thought “A story of the end of WWII. A book about a family’s flight through the horror that was the collapse of the thousand year Reich. I bet that’ll be uplifting.” And though I didn’t immediately put this in my “why did Jane send me this because I’m never gonna read it” pile of books, it lingered on the “I’ll get to it sometime. Maybe.” stack until something made me pull it out. Why? I really don’t know but once I got started, the pages flew.

I did worry that I would lose track of the various protagonists and characters. Because let’s face it, there are a lot. The Emmerich family – those five who start the journey and the brother fighting on the eastern front, the Scottish POW who got placed on their Prussian sugar beet farm as a laborer, the Jew who decided he wasn’t going to stay on the train to Auschwitz and who’s spent the past two years shifting like a chameleon based on which soldier’s papers he can find, the work camp prisoners slowly being walked to death as they’re herded back into the German heartland and the various people met along the desperate flight west ahead of the Russian army and towards the British and Americans. But there’s enough time spent with most of them to see each as an individual. To get to know their thoughts and fears, to notice the differences between them as well as the similarities.

Some things that happen I might not have believed but for the number of movies I’ve seen and books I’ve read and accounts I’ve heard from people who lived through these times. Truth is stranger than fiction and you’ve probably toned down what you chose to include or blended together from the narratives you’ve read. Uri’s ironic and usually black humor leavened the darkness of the deeds he did to stay alive and take what revenge he could for the family he’d lost. Thank you for not making the Emmerichs the shining exemption among Germans. Nor having Callum stand for righteous indignation.

As I read the story, I did debate the questions of guilt and responsibility. Are all countrymen to be held accountable for what others have done? If horrors are done by a government, are the people it governs equally to blame? Is there a point at which collective guilt becomes personal guilt? How can atonement be made for things so far reaching and horrible that the world pulls back in disgust? Unfortunately these are questions that still need to be decided and discussed even today. And thinking back on what has happened since 1945, have we learned anything? Gotten any better? Made better choices? Sometimes I wonder.

I will confess to sneaking a peek at the epilogue to make sure I wasn’t going to invest hours of my life in a book where everyone was going to die – nobly, tragically, senselessly or in true historical fictional manner regardless. I’m not that much a martyr to think that every character has to bite the bullet in order for a book to thought provoking enough or whatever enough to be regarded as serious fiction. Screw that. Though I realize that to have had all the initial characters survive would have been incredulously unbelievable. I think you struck a balance that I can accept. All the things I’ve heard about war – that it’s luck, chance, being in the right place or not being in the wrong one – that determine who lives and who dies play out here. It’s not a matter of who deserves to make it to the end of the story, who has suffered the most, who worked the hardest – it’s the luck of the draw. Life sucks at times and rains beauty on us all at others.

The epilogue is a little sappy. Though in your defense, I don’t think there would be an easy way to get us caught up with the surviving characters given the dispersion that followed the war. There are two characters who suddenly make their next appearance who I wondered why we didn’t keep up with during the book. I suppose they stand for those who miraculously survive such conflagrations of nations.

I know some people won’t want to read about war or headlong flight from what might be seen as justice and due process. That the violence and graphic descriptions of the many ways people can die will turn others off. That the indignities suffered by the concentration camp prisoners and general ghastliness of the conditions they were reduced to will put paid to others. That some readers will say, haven’t we read enough about the subject or what else can be said? My answer is no, we need to keep being reminded to be better people, to watch out for what is done in our name, to strive to be even a little bit kinder. B+

~Jayne

This book can be purchased in hardcover from Amazon or Powells or ebook format.

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

27 Comments

  1. Marg
    Aug 20, 2008 @ 15:24:24

    This definitely sounds like something I would enjoy!

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  2. Jayne
    Aug 20, 2008 @ 15:53:43

    Marg, when I read it, I thought you’d like it. Hopefully it’ll be available in Australia soon if not already.

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  3. Shannon Stacey
    Aug 20, 2008 @ 16:52:28

    I hadn’t heard of this one, so I’m glad you reviewed it. Chris Bohjalian’s book “Midwives” was so moving I actually had my second son with a nurse midwife and zero drugs because of it. (When I made that decision I had no idea his head resembled a cubed basketball.)

    Brilliant writer (especially since I’m definitely a genre-fiction kind of girl and don’t usually read “literary” books for pleasure.)

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  4. Charity (a different one)
    Aug 20, 2008 @ 18:19:28

    Here’s a case of review = instant sale. I can’t wait to read this and just ordered it. Thanks for reviewing it.

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  5. Sarah
    Aug 20, 2008 @ 18:30:44

    This sounds really good! Thanks for reviewing it.

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  6. Jayne
    Aug 20, 2008 @ 18:30:51

    Wow Shannon. That book must have really moved you! “Skeletons” was just released in (I think) July. I recall seeing it in my local Waldenbooks and remembering I had it at home on a TBR pile somewhere. ;)

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  7. Jayne
    Aug 20, 2008 @ 18:32:31

    Let us know how it works out for you Charity. I just went over to Amazon to check out his book “Midwives” and looked at the reviews for this one. Most of them are good but there are a few 1-2 star reviews scattered amongst them.

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  8. Susan/DC
    Aug 20, 2008 @ 22:49:15

    If you decide to read “Midwives”, it’s very good but know that it also was upsetting in some ways. The character’s motivations are sympathetic and, in the end, events spiral beyond their control, but if I’d had my middle son at home he would have died — the pregnancy was totally normal but he had an undetected congenital heart defect. If he weren’t born in a hospital there’s no way he would have survived. So I’m a bit biased about the topic and had less sympathy than I otherwise might have otherwise. But that’s just a case of personal experience coloring my worldview, so you’re mileage may vary.

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  9. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 05:01:31

    The first thing I thought of when I read the blurb for “Midwives” was a book I read and reviewed earlier this year called “Baby Catcher: Chronicles of a Modern Midwife” by Peggy Vincent. In it Mrs. Vincent, a former L&D nurse, tells of how she decided to take the classes needed to be a certified midwife then set up her own practice in conjunction with an OB-GYN group. She loved it. She lived for it. And her clients adored her. Until one night when a client she’d tried to talk out of a home delivery called her. Suffice it to say things went horribly wrong. It was a total clusterf*ck with several people adding to the disaster.

    When the dust settled, the lawsuits began. It was horrible to read how quite a few people, who only wanted to make a living helping women deliver babies, had their lives changed. And of course there was the baby and his family who would have to live with his health problems – and they were severe.

    I have a great deal of respect for those who decide that a modern hospital isn’t for them. Some of my friends have had awful – in terms of how satisfied they were with what went on during their stay – deliveries. One decided to have her second child at a birthing center because of it. The main thing I took away from the Vincent book is that each woman is different and trying to stick them all in the same mold won’t work. I think this is something that midwives can help with – making each woman’s experience what she wants it to be. But the thought of having a baby at home – with all the things that can go wrong (a friend of mine would have bled to death if she’d delivered at home) scares me witless.

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  10. Marg
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 05:13:18

    It is available in my library in both book and audio form! I have requested it already!

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  11. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 05:17:51

    Excellent Marg! Glad to hear you won’t have to wait months.

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  12. Shannon Stacey
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 08:13:34

    Well, I compromised by having the nurse midwife, rather than a midwife. I gave birth in the hospital and the doctor that group of nurse midwives worked with knew I was there. Emergency help was a pager buzz away.

    The underlying theme I got from the book and what I was missing with the first child and found with the second was embracing childbirth as MY amazing moment rather than being a victim of it.

    Anyway, definitely a your mileage may vary sort of thing, I guess. The book touched me at a certain time in my life. Maybe I’d pick it up today and find it a DNF.

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  13. Sandra Schwab
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 09:40:12

    Jayne, have you ever read Anna Seghers’s The Seventh Cross (aka the Book Sandra Mentions Whenever Somebody Mentions Nazi Germany)? It’s one of the best novels that has ever been written about the Third Reich, imo. It’s set in the mid-1930s and deals with the flight of seven men from a working camp and with the reactions of the public, their friends and families.

    It’s not only a gripping story, but the novel is also interesting because it presents a cross-section of society and shows a range of different attitudes towards the Nazi regime. It gives a very good insight into the everyday life in Germany in the 1930s. It definitely helps that the author was German herself — she gets all the details right modern authors often don’t even know about. Due to her Jewish background and socialist politics, she had to flee to France in the early 1930s, and then later on, to Mexico, where Das siebte Kreuz was first published. When it first appeared in English in the USA in 1942, it became a bestseller. There was even a special Armed Services Edition and a comic strip based on the novel.

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  14. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 11:30:00

    Sandra I’ve never even heard of this author or her novel so major thanks for mentioning it to me. One book I highly recommend is this one called “Berlin Underground: 1938-1945.” I also enjoyed “The Long Walk” by Slavomir Rawicz about a Polish Cavalry officer who was captured by the Red Army, sent to a Siberian Gulag then escaped with other prisoners and walked to freedom in British India. Absolutely amazing.

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  15. Sandra Schwab
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 11:55:29

    The Seventh Cross was also made into a Hollywood film (starring Spencer Tracy as Georg Heisler, the main character). I’ve always felt a special connection to Seghers’s story, not only because I helped to prepare the critical edition of 2000 as a student assisstant, but the story is also set in the area where I live and work, that is, in the area around Frankfurt and Mainz. Even if Seghers’s Frankfurt is in large parts no longer recognizable (the old medieval city was completely destroyed during the war), there are still many familiar landmarks, like the hills of the Taunus or the factory in Höchst, where so many members of my family used to work.

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  16. LizA
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 12:23:22

    I second Sandra’s recommendation of The Seventh Cross, it is an amazing book. Very powerful!
    I think I might search out “Skeletons at the Fest” too, it sounds interesting….

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  17. MCHalliday
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 13:05:12

    Both World Wars were discussed as I was growing up and my elders relayed their experiences: the horrendous conditions and terrible atrocities on the front lines; the bombing raids and sirens, the sound of explosions and people wailing in the rubble, the bomb shelters; gas masks with mickey ears for each child at school; consistent scarcity; children shipped off without their parents, not only to the countryside, but in ship loads to Canada. We listened many times to the messages of courage from Winston Churchill, played on the hifi while gazing a bust of him (cigar in mouth).

    I became a great lover of history and fiction based on historical accounts. In my mid teens, I felt compelled to discover the reasons for war in Northern Ireland and thus began my interest in researching and reading of war. My first experience of perception from an ‘opposing’ side was Crack of Doom by Willi Heninrich. It is still on my keeper shelf after thirty years.

    Thank you so much for this review, Jayne. I absolutely must read Skeletons at the Feast.

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  18. TracyS
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 16:04:17

    with all the things that can go wrong (a friend of mine would have bled to death if she'd delivered at home) scares me witless.

    I’m one of those that would have bled to death. Heck, 50 years ago I wouldn’t have survived my first labor, even in a hospital. Second one, baby was stuck, almost a C-Section but he decided to turn his huge shoulders and make his way down. Yeah, that didn’t hurt! (I can’t get an epidural because of the blood clotting disorder we found out about after birth #1).

    aAAAAAAAnyway, TMI, I know.

    The main thing I took away from the Vincent book is that each woman is different and trying to stick them all in the same mold won't work.

    I agree with that. I’ve known women who have had beautiful home birth experiences and some of my friends are of the “give me the drugs right now” variety ;o) We are all different and we need to make the choices based on our own life and experience.

    Personally, I liked Shannon Stacy’s compromise~the nurse midwife with emergency help a page buzz away!

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  19. Susan/DC
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 16:25:08

    As for midwives, I agree with Shannon Stacy that using a nurse-midwife in a hospital setting appears to be the best of both worlds – a way to keep control over the process but with immediate back-up should it be necessary.

    As for books about WWII, my two recent favorites are Martin Zusak’s The Book Thief and Anthony Capella’s The Wedding Officer. Very different books (the Zusak sounds a lot more like the Bohjalian whereas the Capella is more of a fairy tale) but both are excellent.

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  20. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 17:57:53

    Sandra, when I was checking to see who had a copy of the book, I noticed something about Spencer Tracy and assumed there must have been a movie made. I should have a copy of the book coming to me soon. Don’t know when I’m going to get to it but I will have a copy!

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  21. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 18:00:06

    Susan I loved “The Wedding Officer.” Hasn’t someone optioned this for a movie? I’ve got our copy of his next book sitting beside my computer. It’s about coffee. MMmmmmmm.

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  22. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 18:08:36

    MC, after looking at your website and given what you said here, it sounds like you’d probably enjoy “Skeletons.” I certainly hope so.

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  23. Sandra Schwab
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 18:09:17

    Jayne, when you’ve read it, let me know how you liked it. And feel free to give a shout if you’d like an explanation for stuff like Stew Sunday. :)

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  24. Jayne
    Aug 21, 2008 @ 18:26:00

    Oh cool! My own personal “go to” girl. I remember needing the help of an English friend of mine to wade through my first British Chick Lit book.

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  25. MCHalliday
    Aug 22, 2008 @ 12:05:23

    Jayne, I did want to mention my viewpoint on some of the questions you posed regarding guilt and responsibility in war. I could write a rather lengthy essay but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll keep it short.

    Are all countrymen to be held accountable for what others have done? Absolutely not. No one has power over the choices of others. Every nation has some despicable history, even when not in a state of war.

    If horrors are done by a government, are the people it governs equally to blame? In the past century, much was not revealed by governments and news was difficult to access. If people are not informed, they cannot shoulder blame. More so, predominently all cultures taught obedience with the mindset extending into adulthood and creating an absolute acceptance of authority.

    Is there a point at which collective guilt becomes personal guilt? I’m not certain if guilt solves anything but awareness of wrong doing and events that led to atrocities, hopefully prevents future reoccurrences.

    How can atonement be made for things so far reaching and horrible that the world pulls back in disgust? It would seem there cannot be amends for terrible, life altering deeds. Prison appeared to be the solution at the end of WWII but was it atonement or an example of punishment?
    A personal vow not to tolerate evil would be a good start, so history does not repeat itself.

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  26. Sandra Schwab
    Aug 22, 2008 @ 14:26:06

    In the past century, much was not revealed by governments and news was difficult to access. If people are not informed, they cannot shoulder blame.

    Of course, it’s also a matter of wanting or not wanting to know. And then there’s the question what to do with this knowledge. After all, any form of protest could easily get you killed, too (e.g., the members of the Weisse Rose were executed). But people certainly knew that their Jewish neighbours were disappearing and they knew of the existence of working camps and concentration camps. Most probably didn’t know of the extent of atrocities that were going on in there.

    It would seem there cannot be amends for terrible, life altering deeds.

    Therefore it’s important to understand history and to remember history. And to remember the victims of genocide as well as the victims of war, on both sides.

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  27. MCHalliday
    Aug 22, 2008 @ 16:29:35

    Sandra, I really appreciate your comments. I am of the belief that people do the best thay can with the knowledge they have at the time.

    I have the luxury of not being involved in war and born in an era of awareness, and blessed with a mother who encouraged thought beyond norms of the day. Her presence was short, she died when I was young, but her influence has lasted. I was taught to embrace all stances and cultures, all faiths and doctrines, unless I felt them inherently wrong.

    There were also millions of Catholics slaughtered in German camps, with no outcry from the Pope. As the supremely annointed head of the RC church did not speak out, what hope is there for the common man to be courageous?

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