Book Review: Motherland by Maria Hummel
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Inspired by stories of her German father’s childhood and letters written between her grandparents during WWII that were rediscovered after fifty years, author Maria Hummel’s historical novel, Motherland, tells the tense and turbulent survival tale of a Third Reich family in Germany near the end of the war.
The story begins in December of 1944 in the small spa town of Hannesburg, Germany. The brutal conflict has discovered this once peaceful community and transformed it into a ravaged and fearful skeleton of its former self.
Food has become a luxury. The housing authority is stuffing refugees into residents’ homes until they look like human anthills with walls, and Allied air attacks are regularly destroying anything that is left of the recognizable landscape.
For Liesl Kappus, life in Hannesburg has become terrifying. Newly married to Frank Kappus, a local doctor and recent widower with three young sons, Liesl has been alone with the boys since Frank was drafted into medical service. While in her care, the middle son has contracted a mysterious illness that is only growing more severe.
Stationed as a surgeon in Weimar, Frank spends much of his time worrying about his family, and after receiving a desperate note from Liesl about his child’s debilitating condition, he deserts his post and attempts to make his way home.
As Motherland’s story anxiously unfolds and alternates between Liesl and Frank Kappus and their ultimate outcomes, you slowly begin to view them as people more than characters. You experience their fears, their bravery, what brought them together, and what they are willing to do to survive.
What gives this book an additional interesting layer, too, is that the Kappus family is Mitläufer, meaning “Germans who went along with Nazism.” This is an issue that Hummel pondered deeply when she was writing Motherland. Her own grandparents — whose letters partially inspired Motherland — were Mitläufer and always good, decent people, but still she wondered to herself, “What did they know about the Holocaust and other Nazi war crimes and when did they know it?”
Eventually, Hummel pared that question down to its bare bones, and instead of asking what did they know and when, it became, “What did they love and what did they fear?” Stripping that question to its basic core changed Motherland from a novel about guilt or innocence, knowing or not knowing, into both a dark and hopeful story about personal and political choices and consequences.
So, why is the book named Motherland? For one, mothers are a strong symbol in the novel and Liesl is by far the strongest character. Additionally, when Hummel was writing the book, her own child became sick with a mysterious illness, later diagnosed as an autoimmune disease. As a mother, this gives her a special maternal connection to Liesl and her inability to help her stepson with his strange sickness.
Motherland was also partly inspired by a poem of the same name by Rose Ausländer:
My Fatherland is dead
They buried it
In my Motherland—
(translation by Eavan Boland)
This poem signifies that women and mothers must rise up and create a new world out of the ashes from what men lost and destroyed, even if it is only in the mind/word – very similar to Hummel’s book.
Motherland is definitely worth reading. Published in January 2014, the historic novel moves quickly, has an engaging writing style, presents solid characters, and best of all, it that takes a familiar subject and looks at it from a slightly different perspective, one that ultimately reaches into the depths of your soul looking for answers.
About the Author
Amy Morris is a senior library technical assistant at the Westport Branch. She earned a B.A. in English, with an emphasis in creative writing, from Avila University. Besides reading and writing, Amy enjoys traveling, art, being creative, playing the piano and spending time with her family. She also writes her own blog at livingkansascity.blogspot.com