I cranked up Bruce Cockburn’s Bone on Bone this morning, washed up the stack of dishes sitting in the bottom of the sink and thought about the possibilities of the day. The words of a meditation that was sent to my mail box was sitting with me, “For Bonaventure, the perfection of God and God’s creation is quite simply a full circle, and to be perfect the circle must and will complete itself.” Bruce Cockburn’s words to Looking and Waiting.
Having recently suffered the loss of a friend…having written yesterday about being a grandmother…I do firmly believe that the Alpha and Omega bring us to a place in our journey where there is no distinction, anymore, between the two. The circle.
What does any of this have to do with Ursula Hegi’s novel, The Vision of Emma Blau? Previously, I have read Stones From the River and Floating in my Mother’s Palm and in my mind, the same themes are fundamental to all three books.
In Hegi’s writing, there is an unbelievable attention paid to the development of the pysche for each character. It is as though she builds each person from the inside-out. We know all of their fears and motivations, their crushing blows to the soul, before we know how this, then, is expressed through the events of the narrative. If the reader is an empath, this is a deepening experience and the reading becomes rich and heart-rending. Some of my friends would put the book down for this very reason.
This particular story takes us on a journey with Stefan Blau, a protagonist who teaches us as much about his lineage in the past as in the future, all the way forward to Emma. Hegi writes this story’s beginning in the same fictional town as this reader encountered in both Stones From the River and Floating in my Mother’s Palm. About this, I dig to learn more about the author and where better, but on Oprah.com…
About the Author
“When I came to this country as an 18-year old,” Hegi reflects, “I found that Americans of my generation knew more about the Holocaust than I did. When I was growing up, you could not ask about it; it was absolutely taboo. We grew up with the silence.” For this reason, when people asked Ursula Hegi where she was from, she used to wish she could answer Norway or Holland. Hegi soon discovered that it was impossible to leave behind one’s origins. “The older I got, the more I realized that I am inescapably encumbered with the heritage of my country’s history.”
While her first two books, Intrusions, and Unlearned Pleasures and Other Stories, were set in the U.S., it was with her third book, Floating in My Mother’s Palm, that Hegi took the important step of exploring her conflict over her cultural identity. As she explains: “My own acute discomfort at being German is very much at the core of my writing.”
In Floating in My Mother’s Palm, Hegi first introduces readers to the inhabitants of Burgdorf, a fictional German town loosely based on her hometown during the 1950s. With her “prequel,” Stones from the River, Hegi extends her portrayal of Burgdorf’s characters, and the exploration of her own heritage, by including the several decades preceding World War II and its immediate aftermath.
Stones from the River is Hegi’s attempt to understand the silence of towns throughout Germany that tolerated persecution of Jews during the war and enabled a community to quiet its conscience once the truths of the Holocaust were revealed. Hegi immersed herself in historical material on the Holocaust to write the book. “It was an important part of my journey, of integrating the past within myself.” She also asked to interview her aged godmother about the period, who, to her surprise, complied. Hegi is pleased that Stones from the River will be published in Germany next year.
The winner of numerous honors and awards, including an NEA fellowship and five PEN syndicated fiction awards, Hegi is an Associate Professor at Eastern Washington University where she teaches creative writing and contemporary literature. She lives near Spokane, Washington with her partner Gordon Gagliano and has two sons, ages 21 and 24.
To arrive at Emma Blau, readers must find themselves in the ‘magical’ creation of Wasserburg in New Hampshire. The settings, with their intricate detail and description, come alive for readers and their beauty and mystery somehow create relief from the painful loss within the family, the separation, the hard work and the challenges of being German in a small community before, during and after World War II.
Of such experience of disconnection, Hegi writes, “To detect rot is often impossible in its early stages,” German-American novelist Ursula Hegi warns in “The Vision of Emma Blau.” “It starts beneath lush surfaces, spreading its sweet-nasty pulp, tainting memories and convictions. It entangles. Justifies.”
It is a marvel how Hegi gets us to America. We do the ocean crossing with Stefan. We anticipate the marriages, the losses. We sometimes feel bitter about what seem to be selfish dreams. His Wasserburg becomes an opulent return to the best of Germany, on the humble and wild setting of the American countryside. Hegi writes about the ‘real’, not the imagined. Wasserburg becomes a living, breathing presence that evolves over a century and with Emma, Stefan’s grand daughter’s birth, becomes an extension of her very soul.
If one is not concerned with ‘spoilers’ and doesn’t mind a lot of injected advertisements, this is my favourite review on the book. If you take on this book, I’d suggest beginning with one of the other two; they have become known loosely as the Burgdorf Cycle. I would also like to hear from my readers about how you feel about dear Helene Montag, a female character who is insanely frustrating.
This book was intended to be my ‘escapist’ novel over the Christmas holiday, but it turned out to be another connection with the abhorrent racism that lurks in the muck of the human spirit…just another expression of the same.
Inscription inside my second-hand book copy of Stones From the River by Ursula Hegi…love books that include an inscription…this one, perfectly, a sister to her brother, Gabe.
And my own writing in the front cover of Floating in my Mother’s Palm by Ursula Hegi.