Tag Archives: book review

What is This American Woman with 6 Children Doing in Nazi Germany?

Where: Germany before and during World War II

Book: A World Elsewhere: An American Woman in Wartime Germany by Sigrid MacRae (First published in 2014. NEW in paperback, August 2015.)

The year is not over, but I am already betting this will be near the top of my Best Ten Books at A Traveler’s Library for 2015. Pardon me if I gush, but Sigrid MacRae won me over beginning with her prologue, which describes the challenges of writing family history. As you may have noticed, I do a bit of that myself, and putting together oral history, documentation and letters into a real story can be quite a challenge. MacRae has written a family history that reads like a novel. Well done!

After explaining her sources, the questions she had about her young parents, and how different the woman in the love letters is from the mother she knew, she says this:

“What had brought such an unlikely pair together? And where did their eventual alliance leave me? Accidents of history had joined them, and the entangled mysteries of love, sex, and money.  How they had shaped me was yet to be determined, but where should the story of two lives whose strands ran separately far longer than they had been knitted together begin?…Tangents , vagaries, shifts, and turns are uncomfortable in the tyranny of chronology, yet history is tyranny too, and the convulsive history of the century that shaped my parents’ lives refused to obey any other imperative.”

These thoughts are familiar to anyone who is dealing with his or her own family history. But I had more questions about her family. Was love so blind that her mother did not understand what a dangerous place Germany was becoming in the 1930’s?  How does one continue to love a father who is a Nazi?  What prepared her privileged, upper class mother for the incredible struggles she would have trying to leave Germany after the war–particularly with six children? Why did she not leave earlier?

Sigrid MacRae's parents
Aimee and Henrich–the “unlikely pair.” Photo from author’s website.

I won’t try to outline how MacRae answers my questions, but she does answer them as well as her own, at least to her own satisfaction.  Some may think she is a little too easy on her father, but I admire the non-judgmental way she presents history. Since “history is written by the victors”, we rarely get to read about the life of the dispossessed aristocracy of Germany who had settled in cosmopolitan St. Petersburg. Those people suffered the same destruction of their lives as the Russian nobility. (Read about the Russian emigres in this book review.)

Sigrid Macrae's father's family
Some of the family of Heinrich, Sigrid MacRae’s father, in Germany in 1907. Photo from author’s website.

MacRae’s father, Heinrich von Hoyningen-Huene, came from that line of German aristocracy. Some reader’s reviews at Amazon complain about too much time in the book being spent on the von Hoyningen-Huene family–I think of it as the begats–but I was fascinated by the enormous family with its conservative traditions and enthusiasm for learning and culture. They certainly shaped the handsome Heinrich into an intelligent man with a restless, searching mind and a sometimes overly optimistic view of the world. After all, their family had survived upheavals of history before, so surely they could survive the Russian Revolution and the rise of Nazism.

We also rarely hear about the people inside Germany–even in government positions and in military offices–who hated Hitler and all he stood for. Heinrich fell into that category and allied himself with others of like mind. This follows a theme in an earlier book that MacRae co-wrote. That one, about the Germans who resisted–and worked with Americans to defeat– Hitler is called, Alliance of Enemies: The Untold Story of the Secret American and German Collaboration to End World War II.

Aimée seemingly has more concerns about the Nazis than her optimistic husband, and mentions their treatment of Jews,  but MacRae drops the subject of the persecution of Jews after the original mention. Of course, she would have no way of knowing what her father thought, how much he knew, whether he was guilty of at least complicity by silence. He was, after all, an intelligence officer–and that means propaganda. Perhaps she is wise to stick to describing the places she knew her father was, the battles she knew he took part in, than speculating about his part in the more publicized result of Hitler’s regime.

Her mother’s life, which started out so ideally–American with wealth travels as she wishes, meets a handsome–well, not a prince, but close– and falls madly in love. They marry and repair to an idyllic farm in the German countryside where they have five children. Then Hitler, World War, Heinrich a soldier, and economic disaster. On a leave, a sixth child, the author of the book, is conceived.

Sigrid MacRae as child
Left, eldest brother Friedrich, youngest child, Sigrid and Aimee in 1940s. Photo from author’s website.

The rest of the story I leave to you to read. The writing is intelligent and lovely. As you read passages from the letters of Heinrich and to a lesser extent from Aimée, MacRae’s father and mother, you can see where the writing genes came from. Heinrich is poetic (in several languages) and as a student of history, his letters are packed with references to important people and events of the past. Aimée writes with a lively, enthusiasm that makes you love her from the start.

Maps and family pictures complete the book’s ability to bring to life this unlikely family in a very unusual time and place. And I found those maps to be calling me to visit some places in Germany that I did not previously know about.

Note: The publisher provided me with the paperback of this book for review. That is standard practice, and has no influence on what I recommend to you.

There are links here to Amazon.com for your convenience. You need to know that although it costs you no more to order items through my website, I am an Amazon affiliate and make a few cents on each order. Thanks for your support!


Summer Reads: New Treat for Fans of Emily Dickinson

Book: Miss Emily (NewJuly 2015)by Nuala O’Connor

Destination: Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.

One more summer read before you put away your summer whites and get back to the work-a-day-world.  What could be more appropriate than a book about a woman who famously decided to wear white every day?  In Miss Emily, Nuala O’Connor a writer well-known in her native Ireland as Nuala ní Chonchúir, makes her American debut with a book about the quintessential New Englander, Emily Dickinson.  And a stunning debut it is.

Emily Dickinson HOme
Emily Dickinson Home Museum, Amherst Massachusetts. Photo from Massachusetts Office of Tourism via Flickr.

As I started reading, I realized what an enormous challenge O’Connor had taken on.  First, she’s Irish, creating the Amherst of late 19th century New England–a very different place than her native land and time.  Second, inevitably people will compare her style to the poetry of a renowned poet.  Third, Emily had a notoriously reclusive life, making her life a difficult subject for story telling.

Where’s the drama in the life of a woman who sits in her room, peers out the cupola window on the roof, and occasionally ventures into the kitchen to bake? (I have written about the Emily Dickinson Black Cake that I make every year.) A zillion or so biographies of Emily have familiarized us with her uneventful life.  Some spiced it up with speculative love affairs–with men or with women, and indeed Miss Emily leaves us wondering about the nature of the relationship of Emily and her beloved sister-in-law, Sue.

O’Connor, I quickly learned, is up to the task of juggling a challenge. First, she creates a fascinating character as a foil for Emily’s sedate life. The young Irish maid, Ada, not only breathes life into the Dickinson manse, but her quick mind and poetic expressions make her a worthy  companion for the odd buy kindly Emily. In fact, Ada quite upstages Emily throughout the book.

The writing is delicious. O’Connor steeped herself in Dickinson’s poetry, so that we here the poet’s thoughts expressed in scraps that sound familiar. Fully formed they will become the poems we already know.

Matching Emily’s rather airy philosophies, we have the down-to-earth poetry of Irish sayings passed on by Ada from her grandmother or mother.

One that was very meaningful to me, because I express similar sentiments in my other website, Ancestors in Aprons, is the way that everything Ada does reminds her of her “Mammy” and “Granny.”  As she greases her boots with butter, she thinks,

Even the smell of the butter brings her near to me; it was she who taught me to churn and it was Granny Dunn who taught her before that. The butter I make is the daughter of Mammy’s butter just as I am hers.

In another place, Ada is sitting with her boyfriend.

We sat on, and the sky grew black, as if all the crows of the world flew wing on wing together, a dark gathering to blot out the moon and stars.  The wavery whistle of a gosling carried up from the farm below….The young goose went on to speak as all geese do, in gabbles and blasts and strings of sentences, and we listened to its chatter for a long time before it fell silent and the night was ours alone.

It is passages like these that make you begin to wonder just who is the poet and who is the unschooled Irish maid.

O’Connor, writing under her Irish name Nuala ní Chonchúir has written poetry as well as fiction, so she seems to have a visceral understanding of the way that Emily thinks and how to squeeze the most out of every word and sentence.

Because the focus here is more on words and thoughts than action, the book goes slowly. The middle section bogs down a bit and I wondered if anything was ever going to happen to either woman. But excitement breaks out in the final third of the book.

Emily describes her usual life compared to an uncharacteristic morning run through town with Ada in an emergency situation.

I remain sequestered at home by my own choice or by some reason that is mine but lives outside me.  But oh, the morning air fills the lungs with such vigor when you move through it at a pace.  The street air holds Ada and me, and it passes us along with a high energy, handing us from one step to the next.

It makes one wonder if Emily ever had the opportunity to do something similar, and question her reclusiveness.

Perhaps not. Here is something I wrote a few years ago with Emily’s thoughts on travel.

Ada’s character also serves to inject the dramatic (and romantic) moments into the story that a novel about Emily alone would fail to provide.  Ada falls in love with one man and is injured by another. Emily is drawn out of her retreat from the world in an attempt to help the maid who has become indispensable, not just for housework, but also for companionship.

Although this is a novel, and not a biography, the reader gains a lot of insight into what makes Emily Dickinson tick as we meet her family and see her town through both her eyes and Ada’s. I began the book thinking what a large task O’Connor had undertaken, and finished with gratefulness that she manged it so beautifully.

By the way, if you’ve never visited Amherst, and it is too late for a summer jaunt, remember that the fall leaves are glorious in New England.

Note: the publisher provided a digital book for me to read and review.  This is standard operating procedure in publishing, and has no impact on what I recommend to you.

I have links to Amazon in the post. You need to know (so says the FTC) that although it costs you no more to shop through my links, I earn a few cents for anything you buy. Thanks for the support.

Summer Read: Page Turner Novel Takes Us to Australia–Then and Now

Destination: The Blue Mountains, Australia

Book: Evergreen Falls by Kimberley Freeman (New in paperback, first published in 2014)


This book was just plain FUN!  Not that the characters were always having fun.  Au contraire, the life of an heiress in one of the parallel plots, set in the 1920s, was not as carefree as you might imagine. And the love story of the waitress in the tony resort where the heiress, her brother and her finance and his thugish pals were spending some away time, becomes a nightmare before the novel ends.

In the second plot, set in 2014, a young woman trying to escape her smother mother, flees to the same Blue Mountains where the heiress had vacationed. There she gets a job waiting tables in a cafe. The old resort is in ruins, but is undergoing restoration, so as the present day waitress fires up her own romance, she also finds hints of a 1920’s love affair that make her want to find out who was involved and how it turned out.

Just as in Lighthouse Bay, (the earlier book by Kimberley Freeman that I reviewed here), the two interwoven plots have us bouncing between the past and the present in one place.

While I recommended Lighthouse Bay for a summer read, I like this one even better. And talk about a book making you want to GO Somewhere, how would you like to stay at a glam resort in this location? (Just remember Australia seasons are reverse of U.S., so go in THEIR summer. Winter could be brutal (see the book.)

Blue Mountains Australia
Blue Mountains of Australia. This gorgeous picture is by Tony Fernandez, found at Flickr.com

We want to know to, and that’s what kept the pages turning, and the vacuuming undone, as I read-read-read about these delightful characters.  Australian writer Kimberley Freeman has a way with creating likable and interesting characters–each distinct–never sliding into romance novel stereotypes.

The setting is charming, and made me do a bit of research to find out where these remote Blue Mountains of Australia are. Turns out they are not so remote after all, their foothills spilling into the suburban enclaves of Sidney.  However, the area is huge and you can definitely get away from civilization–even living the life of the wealthy in the early 20th century in classic old resorts.

So dive in.  You don’t have a lot of time left for summer reading–but this romance- adventure-mystery visit to Australia is just the ticket for a fun read.

Here Kimberley Freeman talks about her inspiration for the book.

Note: This post contains links to Amazon, in case you’d like to buy one of these books. You should know that I am an Amazon affiliate, so anything you buy, although it costs you no more, earns me a few pennies.

The publisher provided me with a paperback copy of this book for review, which is standard practice, and in no way influences what I recommend to you.

COMING SOON: A book for Emily Dickinson fans and a book set in Germany during World War II that is possibly my favorite of the year. Stay tuned. Tell your friends they can subscribe for free updates, just like you do. You DO, don’t you? And you know that I would NEVER use your information for anything other than this subscription?

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