The German Bride
Joanna Hershon
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Buy *The German Bride* by Joanna Hershon online

The German Bride
Joanna Hershon
Ballantine Books
320 pages
March 2008
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Set in the 1860s, this swashbuckling adventure novel crosses the ocean all the way from Germany to America and, in the process, tells story of a young woman who must confront her greatest fears while making peace with the ghosts of her past. Eva Frank lives a privileged life in Berlin with her sister, the beautiful Henriette, and her caring father, a successful Jewish banker.

From childhood, the girls have always been close, with Eva envying Henrietta's uncomplicated happiness and her ability to define her true path in life - that of pursuing a comfortable marriage and the willing desire to have lots of children. But this delicate dynamic changes when Eva meets the mysterious and enigmatic painter Heinrich, who arrives at their family home ostensibly to paint both the sisters' portraits.

Almost at once, the nave Eva is swept up by her swirling and uncontrolled desires. These feelings for Heinrich and the specific experience of being alive at precisely such a moment lead her to clandestinely visit him in the far reaches of the Tiergarten and off the twisting paths near the beautiful Charlottenburg Place.

Eva is especially grateful for Heinrich's attentions, but when he confesses his love and offers marriage, Eva knows that despite all of his posturing toward purity, this man is at once covetous and insincere. Although Heinrich is hardly upper-class, he would consider it a small sacrifice to marry a Jew, a sacrifice deserving of finer things.

Hiding her disappointment, Eva hastily marries the Jewish Merchant Abraham Shein of the Shein Brothers Trading Business. It is a marriage is based on a rocky premise: Eva's parents are far from pleased with her match, and even though he is from a good enough family, father and mother are both certain that the marriage will provide nothing in the way of social advancement for their daughter.

Abraham, however, remains enthusiastic about moving to the American West, guaranteeing that he can give Eva a good life and offer her countless riches. But even as they leave Bremen on an American ocean steamer, Abraham's gambling proclivities and propensity for wastefulness become ever more clear. Consequently, Eva finds herself gravitating between frustration and awe, and even on to tragedy, her life with Abraham unfolding in a strange new land across the sea with its sounds of Spanish and the constant smells of the flesh.

Travelling though the vast empty plains underneath the canopy of a wagon train, Eva and Abraham arrive in Santa Fe, "the sky vast and blank as a bare opera stage and strange red soil sprouting silver shrubs." It is here that Eva makes a new life for herself. Abraham proclaims with great self-confidence that their situation is temporary, lavishing the promise upon her of a beautiful new home to replace their ramshackle adobe hut, with its uneven whitewashed walls that look almost cave-like in the dark and perpetually dirty lamplight.

Far from being attentive to his wife, however, Abraham begins to drink and whore late into the night at Dona Cuca's saloon, racking up gambling debts, the chaos of the saloon and the unbridled sensuality of the prostitutes always safer than his cramped home where his unhappy wife always looks as if she wants to tear him apart. Eva prays constantly to Henriette, not so much for her own survival but as a way to speak her own language to someone who knew her well.

Eva struggles to find her way against the backdrop of the Wild West, desperate to get out from beneath her husband's philandering ways and make some sort of independent life for herself. The blood of slaughtered buffalos and the dusty chaos of the streets of Santa Fe are a constant scent in Eva's life, along with the ever-present fear of the Comanches in a place so wholly unfamiliar.

This novel absolutely bursts with kaleidoscopic descriptions of the 19th-century immigrant experience: the cigarette-smoking Mexican whores offering whiskey, and the drunkards moving through rubbish as if "wading through algae in the ocean." The climax comes when, after having her first child, Eva's maternal instincts finally kick into full gear and she must face her most perilous journey yet - that of coping with an increasingly blurred past.

Joanna Hershon also weaves into her story the conflict between Abraham and his brother, Meyer, a successful merchant in his own right along with a potential love interest for Eva who appears later, coming in the form of a handsome young German being cared for by a group of meddling nuns. In the end, it is Eva's own experiences maturing on the cowboy frontier, a society measured not by titles but by greenbacks, that propel this unique and truly enjoyable story forward.

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

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