REVIEW: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
Dear Mr. Bohjalian:
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+