Tag Archives: family history

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!


Love of Food and Family: A Midwestern Memoir

Book Cover
Destination: Michigan and Anna Maria Island, Florida

Book: Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good: A Memoir of Love from an American Midwest Family by Kathleen Flinn.



I’m always happy to find a book that sheds life on real life in the Midwestern United States.  Too often those “fly over” states are ignored, or misunderstood. This food memoir understands life in Michigan–and as a bonus, life in Florida, too.

Since I grew up in Ohio, Kathleen Flinn’s life sounded might familiar to me.  She says in the introduction that she set out to write her parent’s life, but along the way discovered other generations were woven in so tightly that she had to include her grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and siblings as well.

Quote from food memoir

Each chapter tells a story that illustrates the importance of a particular recipe. For instance chicken and biscuits follows the story of her mother and father’s attempt at poultry raising and the downfall of a nasty rooster. You have to read the whole story to appreciate the denouement with her mother, half naked, locked in a chicken coop on a cold Michigan winter day.

Later this conversation in the kitchen between Kathleen Flinn’s mother and father:

“Did you fix the coop?” Mother asked, stirring a pot of soup on the stove.

“Yes, and I fixed the rooster, too.” Dinner the next day was chicken and biscuits.

And you also have to read the entire story to appreciate a honeymoon spent fishing in an Upper Peninsula lake and hanging out with the bride’s parents. But it all makes sense when you get a look at Grandma Inez’ recipe for fried fish with almonds.

Kathleen Flinn had her grandmother’s recipe box, her mother’s notes and oral history, and her own and relatives’ memories to draw on. Additionally, she obviously has done a lot of research to provide the context for the life of her family who struggled to survive while living on a farm, thrived in town life, and finally lived part of their lives in Florida.

Because Flinn paints her family portrait with such telling details, we meet some very interesting people–some that sound familiar, because aren’t they in every family? and some that you’re glad were NOT in your family.

But her most potent memories involve food and the stories of why her parents and her grandparents and others cooked the way they did. Flinn realizes that her love of food and cooking comes with her genes.  Her parents had a restaurant in California for a time, both her grandparents (her mother’s parents) cooked, and her surroundings frequently influenced the food she ate growing up.

Flinn put a lot of thought into how circumstances influenced the food that her family ate.  When they lived on the farm and shopped at the Thrift Store (which her mother called a Department Store so her youngest daughter wouldn’t be ashamed) her mother raised vegetables and chickens and canned hundreds of jars of food each year.

When Flinn’s parents got better jobs and moved into town, they began to eat things that formerly had been considered out-of-reach luxuries, like frozen TV dinners, or meals at McDonald’s.

Because the family joined a German-American club, even though they were  not a bit German, sauerbraten and hot German potato salad  played a role on their menus.

As she grew up, much of Flinn’s cooking was influenced by watching Julia Child’s  shows on a black and white, snowy TV set with a hand-turned antenna and reading  Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Eventually she achieved her dream of attending Le Cordon Bleu in France. All these experiences taught her that the best food was not always the most trendy or the most expensive. Fresh caught fish would always beat out frozen fish sticks.

Each chapter ends with a recipe. After describing the origin of the recipe, she gives us a slightly modernized version. For instance, she skips a lot of the mushroom or celery soup that seemed to be a prime ingredient in just about everything in the 1960s.

On the other hand, she doesn’t fancy-up the recipes, these are American comfort food–Midwestern staples.  You are not going to find the latest  ingredients (no salted caramel or kale and blueberries) or fanciful presentations here.  Instead, you get homey recipes for dishes like stew (see the recipe for that one at Ancestors in Aprons), refrigerator biscuits, apple crisp, oatmeal cookies, panfried steak or spaghetti sauce.

Apple Crips Recipe

I love the way she recreates a time and place.  And I felt so connected to the people in her family that when I cook one of these recipes, it will be like borrowing from a friend.  Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good provides a great example for anyone planning to write a memoir or a family history–even if she is only intending to write it for her own children.

Two quotes from the end of the book sum up the author’s most important lesson.

Like Francie from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn I’m pieces of my parents, siblings, grandparents, and great-grandparents. 

 The people in my past helped make me tough, passionate, and endlessly optimistic.

And, she might have added, in love with food and family.


I have included links to Amazon for your convenience. You need to know that I am an Amazon affiliate, so any purchase you make through my links helps A Traveler’s Library. Thanks.

The insert with a quote form Grandma Inez and the recipe for Apple Crisp are used with the permission of the publisher,  Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Kathleen Flinn, 2014.

Mixed Results in new Diane Johnson Book, Flyover Lives

Flyover Lives
Destination: Moline, Illinois (kind of)

Book: Flyover Lives (NEW January 2014) by Diane Johnson

This book starts out to be a book about traveling back to family roots. But the journey, and the book, loses its way.

Reading the flyleaf or publicity material, the reader is led to believe that Flyover Lives is about an attempt by Diane Johnson to disprove a statement made by a friend in France (where Johnson lives half the year) that Americans are indifferent to history. The title promises that someone is going to take the Midwest seriously, and Diane Johnson has an impressive track record as a best selling and prize-winning author. I thought, “Hurrah! Flyover Lives will present a good picture of the Midwest to travelers from other countries or other parts of the United States.

Postcard of Moline bridge from time of Flyover Lives Memoir
Postcard of bridge from Moline to the Rock Island Arsenal about the time Johnson grew up in Moline. Photo from Boston Public Library

Additionally,  the description of Flyover Lives captured my attention, because I am immersed in a search for my family history at Ancestors in Aprons, and since I just finished The Spoon From Minkowitz that charmingly encourages both travel and family history searches.

Having read these books back to back, it is interesting to compare the story of Jewish refuges from pograms who settled in the East, to the story of Midwestern settlers.  Johnson complains about how boring the lives of her ancestors are in contrast to people from the East who all came through Ellis Island or escaped some “evil continent”. She is concerned that “Midwesterness might not interest people from other places.  New Yorkers, as we know, are really interested only in New York.”

“My parents didn’t emphasize ancestral myths, and as far as I could make out, our family was nothing at all; we had no ethnic or Old Country recollections to lend color to family reminiscences–how indeed could I ever become a writer?  We were Default Americans, plump, mild, and Protestant, people whose ancestors had come ashore God knew when and had lost interest in keeping track of the details…”

Happily, Flyover Lives starts out promisingly with Johnson talking about the lives of some of her ancestors, drawn from journals written by two women and a collection of letters from various people.  However, half way through, Johnson seems to run out of family material to talk about and jumps to her own life in the present.  Okay, a family historian should present her own recollections for future generations, and when she’s trying, her observations are sharp. However, too much of her story is punctuated with sweeping generalizations that turn out to be based on too little evidence.

I say this because I also grew up in the Midwest, about the same time that she did and in a family of about the same economic status.  Many of her assumptions about life at that time and place are only about her OWN life, and do not warrant expanding to include all woman or children or men of the period. Just a few examples: many women DID work outside the home; my ancestors back to the 1800’s DID travel around the United States, including to California and New York, and some even moved there; some of us WERE interested in faraway countries and took it for granted we would go there some time.

Having run out of real family history the author, and perhaps her editor, realizing that the book was too slim, start pasting in essays that she has published elsewhere whose only relevance is that they are first person tales.  While the longest, a recounting of her experience in Hollywood with famous directors, shares interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses of people like Stanley Kubrick and Mike Nichols, I fail to see the relevance to the rest of the book.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind reading a book of essays by a good writer. I don’t mind writers repurposing previously published material.  But if that is what the book is, the publisher should tell the reader rather than pretend that it is a family history/memoir.  I should have perhaps paid closer attention to the foreword which ends with an almost apologetic “In the interest of completeness I have added some contemporary stories, especially my own story of leaving and going back to have another look at the scenes I had not always remembered exactly.” In fact, the “going back” section is short and outweighed by other stories that do no relate to the search for roots and the exploration of how our ancestors and places in our history have shaped us.

You may enjoy parts of Flyover Lives and not care if it hangs together. After all the author, Diane Johnson has written several novels including the best selling trio of books L’ Affair, Le Mariage and Le Divorce.  She also co-authored the movie, The Shining and has been nominated for a Pulitzer and many other prestigous awards. Nevetheless, I could not recommend adding Flyover Lives to your traveler’s library. Maybe pick it up at your local public library if you are interested in one of the subjects included–ancestors lives in the 19th century Midwest, movie making in the 60s, Generals socializing, buying a car, getting a divorce and living in London with small children.  But don’t expect to learn much about the Midwest or a search for family roots.