Skeletons at the Feast
Chris Bohjalian
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Buy *Skeletons at the Feast* by Chris Bohjalian online

Skeletons at the Feast
Chris Bohjalian
Three Rivers Press
400 pages
February 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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In a novel of blood and anarchy, destruction and devastation, Chris Bohjalian cinematically brings to life the waning months of the Nazi empire, focusing on one aristocratic German family as they are swept up in the tide of history. Skeletons at the Feast is a blinding testimony to the cruelty and barbarism during these years, but what makes this story so unique is its haunting perspective of telling the story from a distinctively German point of view.

Although they have lived a privileged life on their estate in East Prussia, the Emmerichs are seeing the German Reich steadily collapsing around them. Not far away, the Russians, considered the juggernaut of barbarians, are advancing from the East, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Patriarch Rolf Emmerich and his eldest son, Helmut, leave to join the German resistance, although Helmut is too young and brash to understand for certain that he might die if he joins the fight against the Russians.

The rest of the family flees, embarking on a desperate trek across the German countryside in order to reach the presumed safety of the British or American lines. Making this desperate march is eighteen-year-old Anna, who together with her mother, "Mutti", and her younger brother, Leo, is left in the care of a twenty-year-old POW, a giant Scotsman by the name of Callum Finella, sent to the Emmerich family estate from a prison camp just outside of Thorn to help with the harvest.

Although Rolf and Helmut disapprove of Callum's affair with the perpetually nave and young Anna, they hope that the Scottish paratrooper will be their goodwill ambassador, their currency and proof that they are "not your average Nazis." So Anna, Mutti, Leo and Callum embark on their dangerous march, ducking and weaving as they hear the shriek of yet another approaching Soviet shell, while the German killing machine is set even further in motion with the accompanying evacuations from the Jewish enclaves in the towns deep within Eastern Poland.

When Uri Singer is deported, he spends three days in a cattle car before escaping, hurling himself along with a slop bucket out the door on one balmy night. While he wanders the land desperately searching for his sister, two French Jewish girls, Cecilia and her friend Jeanne, are marched from their concentration camp, terrified of the German guards who could at any moment fire a shot into the back of anyone's skull just because a prisoner can no longer stand.

Struggling to find a memory they can share, all these people can do is associate with want and sadness and loss. Trapped in a daily battle for survival, their lives are persistently saturated in blood and death, the sounds of screams, missiles, and the diving airplanes a constant threat as the Emmerichs continue to trek across country with old people, young children and crippled soldiers, all surging forward with just their household possessions in ramshackle carts.

Each character carries the weight of his or her burdens: Callum, who accompanies the Emmerichs, always fears he will simply be shot on the spot as an escaped POW; Uri is determined to act out one final repayment for the deaths he witnessed in the cattle car and the myriad afflictions and indignities he has endured; and Anna is torn between the reality that her Callum is a prisoner and that she's actually violated her family's trust by inviting him into her house and her bed.

Trodden down by never-ending Soviet and Allied bombings, a sudden twist of fate that finds the Emmerichs battling to survive as their limited resources dwindle and the violence of the Russian forces become an ever more frightening prospect. Help arrives in the form of the ever-resourceful Uri, who until now has refused to be subjected to the humiliations and threat of certain death in the hands of the relentlessly vindictive Nazi officers.

Although the pace is a bit slow in the middle section, Skeletons at the Feast is mostly a compelling account of the cruelty and barbarism committed during these years. Bohjalian is unyielding in his refusal to shy away from the carnage committed by both the Nazis and the Soviets.

Surprisingly, in the midst of all this hellish destruction, many of his major players manage small acts of kindness, which shows that even in war, the courage of people and their goodness can shine, giving them the strength to persevere and hopefully stay alive a little while longer.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2008

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