I have read quite a few of Chris Bohjalian’s novels. I absolutely loved The Double Blind and enjoyed Midwives a few months ago. I thought Before You Know Kindness was just mediocre, though. So, I was hopeful when my neighborhood book group chose Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast for our February selection. This novel set at the end of World War II was completely different from any of his other books but with his typical writing talents shining through.
Skeletons at the Feast is one of those novels where the story is told from multiple points of view, most of which eventually come together. In this case, the reader sees the end of the war and the revelation of the Holocaust through several very different characters. One of those perspectives is that of a Jewish man who has escaped from a train bound for one of the concentration camps and has spent the past two years surviving by wearing the uniforms of various dead soldiers and hiding in plain sight.
Contrasting that, and perhaps most surprising, is the perspective of an ordinary German family. With the father and older sons off fighting the war on the eastern front against the Russians, the mother, teen daughter, and younger son are forced to flee their ancestral family home in northern Poland (then a part of Germany) as the Russian army advanced. They are good people who have Jewish friends, but they are startlingly unaware of what is happening to Jews under Hitler’s command. They feel pride in their German heritage and are just trying to survive.
Complicating matters is the family’s Scottish POW, Callum, who was moved from a work farm to help on their family farm when their sons had to leave to fight the war. Callum and Anna, the eighteen-year old daughter, have secretly fallen in love. Other characters move in and out of the story, including a young Jewish woman struggling to stay hopeful and survive in a concentration camp. All of these characters come together in a mass exodus, as the brutal Russians approach from the east.
I knew nothing at all about this aspect of World War II – the varied refugees marching slowly westward, starving, freezing, and facing pockets of soldiers bent on killing them at the end of the war. I had also never considered the plight of ordinary German citizens who hadn’t done anything wrong but whose whole national identity had been destroyed without their knowledge. So, for me, this was a fascinating historical novel, written by an excellent author.
My book group was oddly split about this novel. Most of us loved it and rated it between 8 and 10 (on a 10-point scale), but a few people disliked it and one didn’t even finish it. Those who didn’t enjoy the novel cited too many different perspectives, including some that were not central to the story, or simply a sort of weariness of novels set during World War II. One person thought that both the violence and the romance in the novel were too graphic. Despite the differing views (or perhaps because of them!), we had an excellent discussion about the book, covering many varied topics.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel that combined historical fiction with a bit of romance. I always enjoy books where disparate characters’ stories eventually come together in unexpected ways; I guess I like that bit of serendipity. I also like books that make me think about things from a different perspective, and this novel definitely did that.
400 pages, Broadway