CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 17. . . .January 8, 2016
In Gabriele Goldstone's new novel, Broken Stone, the sequel to Red Stone, readers pick up on the story of Katya Halter, now 12, and her younger brother and two sisters. In Red Stone, the family was forced to give up their property in Ukraine to a collective farm project in the Soviet Union. Her father's (Franz's) resistance landed him in prison while his wife and the children were sent to a forced labour camp where she and the baby died.
In Red Stone, readers learned that the Halters are "German Russians" or "Russian Germans" as their grandmother was born in East Prussia and later settled in Russia, which, after 1917, became the Soviet Union. At the end of Red Stone, the children had just been rescued from the work camp by Uncle Leo, a member of the Communist Party, who is married to their late mother's sister, Aunt Helena.
While Broken Stone can stand alone as a novel, full appreciation of Katya's story requires that the two books be read in sequence. Broken Stone begins with the children travelling by sleigh with Aunt Helena to her home in the town of Zhitomir, not far from their old farm. Uncle Leo travels from one work camp to another and isn't home much, but he has provided them with a ration book that lets them buy food. En route, the sleigh is pursued by a pack of homeless dogs. Among them is their old dog, Zenta, who recognizes them. They reclaim him, but they cannot reclaim their old farmhouse as it is now occupied by people who work on the collective farm. Later, Katya and Aunt Helena go to the Zhitomir jail to see Papa, but they learn that the "kulak" prisoners (former independent farmers) have been shipped away to camps.
Old enough to grasp the enormity of these changes, Katya feels very alone, and this isolated feeling continues throughout the novel. In Zhitomir, she spends time sitting outside with the dog, waiting for Papa to come. One day a man appears in the shadow of Aunt Helena's doorway. It's their father who escaped from the train to the prison camp and is in hiding. He tells the children that they are German citizens and will be going to East Prussia in Germany with Aunt Helena, who will accompany them and be their mother. Otherwise, if he is found and executed, they could end up in a state orphanage. The red granite stone from their windmill is Katya's talisman, and when Papa must leave, she gives it to him as a memento. He breaks it in two, with a piece for her and one for him - thus the title.
The train trip to East Prussia goes on a little too long, with too much predictable reflection (e.g., "We still have Papa", and "I didn't appreciate [good milk] back then, but then, I took a lot of things for granted.") The novel keeps the reader's interest because each development adds to Katya's misery. At the border, a devastating event occurs. Despite her German passport, Aunt Helena cannot proceed with the children because Uncle Leo has officially ordered her back to Zhitomir. After a fast and emotional farewell, Katya finds herself in charge of the children, their documents, and the address for Uncle Reinhold Halter, her father's brother in East Prussia. The unpleasant letter, sent to Aunt Helena with Uncle Reinhold's signature is fresh in her mind.
The passages showing the children's arrival at Konigsberg, East Prussia, are superbly presented. They show how not to treat exhausted, frightened refugee children. Uncle Reinhold and his daughter, Anni, who is Katya's age, are nowhere to be seen when the children disembark, so Katya has to leave her younger siblings and roam the station trying to find someone who could be their uncle. Worse, Uncle Reinhold hasn't told Anni why they are at the station except that it is a "surprise". Expecting something nice for herself, well-dressed, spoiled little Anni comes face to face with four shabby and dirty cousins whom she has never met, and her initial revulsion can never be eradicated. Next, instead of feeding the tired little newcomers and taking them home, Uncle Reinhold takes them with Anni all to the Konigsberg Zoo where they meet yet another stranger, Aunt Hannelore, sister of Uncle Reinhold's wife. Katya identifies with the captive animals.
More unpleasant experiences follow. Aunt Elfriede, at the farm, is so unpleasant to the children, particularly Katya, that an insightful reader will realize that she authored the hostile letter. She makes the children bathe for fear of lice, and Katya has to expose her thin body and almost bald head to her cousin. Aunt Elfriede insults the children's late mother and Aunt Helena, saying that they "thought they could live off their good looks". A stream of local ladies comes to look at the Russian "orphans", a term that Katya hates because their Papa is still alive. All of them urge Aunt Elfriede to put Katya to work in the home.
Younger brother Albert becomes the protege of Uncle Reinhold, who always wanted a son, and the little girls, Marthe and Sofie, win the heart of Aunt Hannelore, a widow with a grown son, who sees them as replacements for her own lost twin daughters. Both Aunt Elfriede and Cousin Anni run hot and cold in their treatment of Katya, but they never accept her as one of the family; her bedroom is the barn loft, and her clothes are Anni's castoffs.
Some readers may find Katya's perpetual unhappiness tedious. At school, for example, she feels acutely alone because Anni is distant and the other children regard her as a foreigner. Yet, her teacher, Herr Meisner, is on her side. He has made a home visit to meet Katya, has loaned her books, admires what she has learned on her own, and believes she has great potential. A teacher's support can make a world of difference to a child who doesn't fit in, but Katya remains unhappy. Overworked at home and traumatized by her past experiences, she has every reason to feel depressed, but this reader was impatient for the clouds to lift. In fact, school is short-lived for Katya; Aunt Elfriede lies about the girl's age, claiming that she is 15, school-leaving age, and pulls her out to do housework.
Along with the symbolism of the red stone, Goldstone brings back the linden blossom image to Broken Stone. The children's mother made tea from blossoms of the linden tree in their yard. At Aunt Helena's house, when Katya gathers linden blossoms to carry on this tradition, her aunt says that the dust and dirt of the town make them too dirty for tea. Still later, at Aunt Hannelore's house in Konigsberg, Katya sees linden trees outside her younger sisters' window, but the little girls do not remember the lindens at home, or the tea. Katya is alone in her memories of their vanished life.
Making one element in a novel serve more than one function is a sign of authorial skill. Goldstone demonstrates this skill in a scene where Katya asks Aunt Hannelore for a housework job, for pay, to earn money to send to Papa in the USSR. Aunt Hannelore agrees. As a seamstress, she prefers sewing to housework, and she intends to get a contract to sew brown shirts worn by the Hitler Youth group. While adding to the theme of Katya's father's plight, Goldstone provides a detail about political developments in Germany.
Later, Katya and Aunt Hannelore's son, Wolfgang, discuss Hitler's rise. Wolfgang is enthusiastic about the Fuhrer, convinced that he will make Germany the best country in the world. Katya, having experienced one totalitarian regime, replies simply that she doesn't trust "anybody with big plans... I want governments to leave people alone."
Though Katya feels alone with her memories, it is these memories, in addition to some other developments, that stir her out of her depression and make her change her situation. Remembering Sasha from the work camp, who made fun of the guards, she imagines him mocking Aunt Elfriede. She recalls, thinking of their former milkmaid, that humming makes chores bearable. She feels less solitary on learning that not all of her siblings have forgotten the past. Albert tearfully tells her that being treated as a son by Uncle Reinhold only makes him miss Papa more.
Other events impel her to make a change. Katya has dreamed that Papa will come and save them, but two letters from him saying that "things are bad" and signed with false names and different addresses make her realize that she must rescue herself. As well, Herr Meisner, who comes for the books he loaned her, sets an example for leaving a bad situation. He is emigrating to England because "it isn't a good time" to be a Jew in Germany. He tells Katya she shouldn't let her aunt control her life.
Broken Stone ends in March, 1934, with a new beginning for Katya but with many questions in the minds of readers interested in Papa, Aunt Helena and Uncle Leo. The author hints in her note that Papa meets a tragic fate. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Goldstone did research in Russia and read the secret police files about her grandfather. "They recorded the exact amounts of financial aid he received from his family in Germany," she writes. This money was labelled "spy money" and was used as evidence to convict him of "counter-revolutionary" activities.
European history of the 1930s and '40s provide rich, though horrific, sources for more of Katya's story. Though a fictional character, she and Goldstone's mother "shared a lot of similar experiences." I look forward to the next book in the series, a trilogy or perhaps a quartet.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.