Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian is an historical fiction novel surrounding the last days of World War II. Set in 1945, the remnants of a family of Prussian aristocrats flee from the Russian army and cross what is left of the Third Reich.

When the chaos of war looms close to their rural eastern farm, Anna's father and twin brother leave the family to defend "what's left" and insist that the rest of the family pack up and move west to either join up with extended family members in Kolberg or perhaps reach the British and American lines.

The group includes eighteen-year old Anna Emmerich, her ten-year old brother, her mother, and Callum Finella, a twenty-year old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought to her family's farm as forced labor.

In addition to the Emmerich's story is Uri Singer's, a young Polish Jew who was headed by train for the concentration camp, but managed to escape, only to lead a single focused-vigilante existence as he searches for what happened to his sister and parents.

Bohjalian also includes the story of Cecile, a French concentration camp victim, whose captors begin her and 125 other women on an undetermined march that effectively illustrated the unraveling of the German army, their leaders, and their attempt at the end to cover the atrocities of the camps.

As most readers would be able to infer, these stories eventually intersect.

Bohjalian delivers the goods in Skeletons at the Feast: well-drawn but flawed characters, the harrowing tragedies of war, strong plot, and the lyrical description of landscape. It's a winner.

Note: Bohjalian based this novel on the diary of a good friend's East Prussian grandmother... a diary that included the year 1945 and her "family's arduous trek west ahead of the Soviet army -- a journey that was always grueling and often terrifying."

Note 2: At my sister's today, I told my nephew James about how much I learn from well researched historical novels that cover smaller aspects of the bigger wars. As a history lover, he gave me a great overview of the last year of the war in Germany. :)


  1. Oh, if you love well researched historical stuff, you'd get a kick out of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Zoet. Sometimes it's so thick with history, it's a bit hard to read. :)

  2. Your comment on James cracked me up. My brother is a retired history teacher, historian and arms dealer. He can explain things for a couple of hours when you ask him the time.