Years ago I used to participate on a book discussion forum that had a board called “Great book! Too hard to read.” It was devoted to books that were smart and well-written but hard to read because their subject matter was so disturbing. I thought of that board as I tried to process the second book in the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection, Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. This is a powerful, compelling, beautifully written book. It is also incredibly upsetting.
Warning: This review contains spoilers.
Those Who Save Us opens in 1997. We are introduced to two women, Trudy and her mother Anna. Trudy is a history professor; Anna is recently widowed. Anna and Trudy came to the US at the end of World War II when Anna married Trudy’s stepfather, an American officer. Otherwise Trudy knows nothing about her life or Anna’s during the war. And Anna has good reasons for never wanting to speak of those years, as the reader learns through a series of flashbacks told from Anna’s point of view.
In 1940, Anna is a beautiful young woman whose father is grooming her for marriage to one of his Nazi contacts. But lonely, isolated Anna is drawn to a cultured local doctor who happens to be Jewish. The fallout from their relationship sends Anna to live and work at a bakery — a bakery whose owner makes regular secret deliveries to the prisoners at the concentration camp outside their town.
In 1997, Trudy undertakes an oral history project, interviewing Germans who lived through the war about their actions and regrets. The project forces Trudy to confront long-ago memories of a pale-eyed man in a Nazi uniform who she thinks may have been her biological father.
The book changes dramatically when Anna meets the Obersturmführer, an SS officer who runs the concentration camp. The Obersturmführer becomes obsessed with Anna and draws her into an emotionally and sexually abusive relationship. Anna, desperate for the Obersturmführer‘s protection — and for food to keep herself and her daughter alive — submits to his abuses. Blum does an incredible job of showing us Anna’s guilt and shame; the book gives us a very nuanced portrayal of a battered woman. But oh, wow, was the material about the Obersturmführer hard to read. I think it was necessary to show us exactly what Anna went through in the 1940s in order to make us understand 1997 Anna, but that doesn’t make it any easier to experience.
I had a hard time putting this book down. I wanted to find out what happened to Anna, whether Trudy would ever get her mother to tell her the truth about what happened to them during the war. The ending relies a bit on coincidence, but the coincidence feels earned, if that makes sense. The final scenes are deeply moving without being too tidy. I finished this book feeling like I’d read a powerful, smart story about the price of being powerless in an awful situation.
Then I downloaded a two-for-one deal on Jennifer Crusie books I’d already read. Moving ending aside, after finishing Those Who Save Us I needed the literary version of a hug.
Rating: Buy It — but go ahead and buy Welcome to Temptation/Bet Me (or another book by a favorite author) to read afterwards