Final Discussion of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

those-who-save-usWelcome to the final discussion of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. We’ve had a tough time keeping on schedule for this one.  For this discussion, we’ll be focused on Chapters 46-the end. Please chime in below in the comments.

Were you surprised that Trudy and Rainer’s relationship moved beyond friendship?

SERENA: That was a surprise. I mean I saw the connection between them with the teaching and the history and her apologizing, but I had no idea it would go that far. It almost seemed like Trudy was looking for comfort and understanding from someone and since her mother didn’t give her those things, she turned to him. I didn’t think it would last long, though.

ANNA: It seems that they both needed comfort and understanding. I didn’t think it would last long, either, though I didn’t expect him to flee like that. I was heartbroken when Rainer said, “I am not meant to be this happy.” And following the story of his brother, that really drove home the point of how the past can sort of paralyze people. It was more poignant for me than with Trudy because Rainer describes how he consciously made the decision not to act, though one can hardly blame someone in that situation and especially not a child, whereas Trudy was too young to really remember what happened during the war, other than those small flashbacks of the bakery.

Ranier and Anna both carry guilt with them from WWII.  What are your thoughts on their efforts to deal with it? And do you think one is better off because of how they have chosen to cope?

ANNA:  Neither of them seem to have coped well. They seem to be getting by, but the guilt prevents them from truly moving on, as neither will allow themselves to be happy. Rainer may be able to talk about his trauma, but he runs away as soon as he feels the slightest bit of happiness with Trudy. And Anna has closed herself off from everyone, especially after not being able to explain her feelings about the Obersturmfuhrer to Jack.

SERENA: I agree, it seems like neither has been able to move forward.  I’m a little more hopeful where Rainer is concerned, since he at least is going to see his daughter.  I think Trudy definitely helped him.  She got him to talk about the past with someone, and that enabled him to seek comfort in her, someone who understands.  He does leave Trudy, but I think that’s for the best as she seems to need more time to get past all that she has learned by the end of the book.  Anna is still not talking, and I think that’s going to be bad for her in the long run.

What do you think Anna’s inability to put her feelings about the Obersturmfuhrer into words meant? Do you think she did love him in a way because he saved them? Do you think Jack did more to save them?

SERENA:  Anna’s inability to put her feelings for the Nazi into words is sad but definitely due to the trauma.  She was forced to be with him. While he helped them survive and live better than others, I’m not sure she loves him so much as she is grateful to him.  It’s also hard for her to reconcile what she knows of his behavior toward the prisoners and others and how he treated her — though there were definite times of nastiness between them.  Did Jack do more to save them?  Hmm, not sure.  I think he saved them from a life of being run out of town as conspirators and maybe possible action by the authorities that took over after the war, but it’s unclear whether that would have happened.

ANNA: I agree. Her response to Jack really did seem to be a response to the trauma, especially since she both “save” and “shame” are both on the tip of her tongue at the time. And the fact that it was related to trauma was all the more evident when the scenes she imagines of the Obersturmfuhrer when she and Jack are being intimate are the more violent episodes she experienced with him, not the few times it seemed the Obersturmfuhrer was playing house with her and Trudy.

I felt bad for Anna in that moment. It seemed Jack had legitimate feelings for Anna, but it also seems as though a lot got lost in the translation, that he either missed or ignored what Anna had experienced during the war and continued to struggle with. When Anna couldn’t give him the answer he needed to hear, he put the nail in the coffin of their marriage and shut Anna off forever. I wonder if he had been more understanding toward her in that moment (which of course would have been difficult for him, but we don’t know much of what he experienced), would Anna have been more open and had an opportunity to heal?

I do think it’s possible that Jack did more to save them. Even with the Obersturmfuhrer’s gifts of food, Anna and Trudy were still starving and barely surviving. He did save her in that he allowed them to live, but Anna would not have had much of a live in Weimar after the war, especially given the animosity of her neighbors.

Do you think Anna’s inability to talk about her resistance activities, her heroism, is a “punishment that fits the crime”?

SERENA: I’m not sure it’s even punishment or that she even sees it as such. Maybe others would view it that way.  I think her silence is just a way for her to leave it all in the past.  She doesn’t want to think about the resistance activities because that will only lead to thinking about the Obersturmfuhrer and all that occurred because of him and with him.  I think her punishment may be her broken relationship with her daughter.  By not talking about it, she’s created a prison through which her daughter cannot even reach her.  She’s alone even when she is with her daughter.  She’s willing to sacrifice her own happiness for that of her daughter, hoping that her own silence will enable Trudy to be free of the guilt and shame.

ANNA:  I agree, I think the punishment was her inability to experience happiness in her marriage and in her relationship with Trudy, and that staying silent is a means of leaving it behind. Maybe she thinks what she did in the resistance was so little in comparison to her shame? It’s hard to speculate since we see little of Anna in the last chapters of the book.

Mr. Pfeffer’s testimony helps Trudy in many ways, but how do you think it will affect Anna? Is there a brighter future for her?

ANNA:  I hope that Mr. Pfeffer can lead Anna toward healing, and I think there’s hope for anyone, so why not Anna? Of course, there is more pain she will have to face, namely the Obersturmfuhrer’s role in Max’s death. But maybe she will see how Mr. Pfeffer perceived her and understood her sacrifice and she can begin to forgive herself.

SERENA:  I’m hopeful about Anna’s healing if Mr. Pfeffer can reach her.  I think his perspective from that time would help her see how helpful her resistance efforts were.  I do agree that the death of Max and how he died will be tough for her, but it would likely provide her closure and might even help her reconcile her confused feelings for the Obersturmfuhrer.

What did you think about the end of the book?

SERENA:  The end of the book seems to leave so much open-ended. I’d like to think that it is open that way because there is hope for everyone in the future. That the opportunities for happiness are still there and that they are empowered now to reach out for them.

ANNA: I did like how the ending left the possibility of hope in place for both Anna and Trudy. However, I think Trudy’s meeting Mr. Pfeffer was a little too convenient in that Trudy was given the answers she needed without Anna having to tell her. I would’ve been more accepting of that had there been some kind of resolution between Trudy and Anna, even if Anna was still silent and Trudy talked to her about what she’d learned. I think that bit of interaction between mother and daughter at the end was missing, since their relationship was central to the entire story. But overall, I thought the novel was very well done given the enormous ground it covered.

SERENA: I do agree that some kind of interaction between mother and daughter would have been preferable, but I think it still enables Anna to keep her silence until she’s ready to move forward.

ANNA: That’s a good point. It’s just a tough topic to write about, and even if I wanted more closure, the ending was true to the characters.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your thoughts on the final section of the book.  Please chime in below and stay tuned for our next read-a-long in September.

Week 3: Discussion of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Welcome to the discussion of week 3’s reading in Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. Sorry for the delay in posting our thoughts. It’s one of those cases of real life simply getting in the way. For this discussion, we’ll be focused on Chapters 30-45. Please chime in below in the comments.

What do you think of Anna’s reactions to the black car and the trip?

ANNA: I’m sure the opulence of the vehicle amidst the squalor of war drew more attention to the bakery, and their arrangement, than Anna wanted. I think being so isolated and not allowed to leave the bakery allowed her to pretend that none of her neighbors were aware. It was interesting that this bit of freedom takes her back to her childhood, and then the reality sets in and gives her an uneasy feeling.

Once they arrived at the inn, I wonder if Anna thought about how easy it could have been to be the young girl acting recklessly with the young officer. And it is telling when the Obersturmfuhrer scolds them as though he is an exemplary, moral figure when in fact he is lying about Anna being his wife.

SERENA: I think Anna’s trip down memory lane is the first time she’s not thought about starvation, scraping enough together to feed her child, or how she has to sacrifice herself to feed her child.  I liked to see her thinking of her past with at least a little bit of fondness, even if she couldn’t exactly remember if her mother and her had been on such a trip.  The luxury of the car must have been a welcome change, and although I don’t think she was thrilled about this trip and how it would look to others in town, I think she enjoyed it to an extent.

I also found it funny that the Obsersturmfuhrer was acting so moral when he’s having an affair with Anna.  He’s a bunch of contradictions.

Do you think Anna is developing feelings for the Obsersturmfuhrer, given that she surprises herself by wanting to know whether he has a wife? Or do you think her curiosity is something else entirely?

SERENA: I think she’s merely curious about the man who basically holds her in his power.  She spends a great deal of time observing him and trying to figure out his moods and motivations, and I think that her asking is just part of that process.  She’s trying to figure out where she fits into the equation.  What level of importance does she have and maybe how far she can push him to get what she needs for her daughter.  I also don’t know that she was really surprised by his answer.

ANNA: I thought that, too. Though I’m still wondering why she bothered to keep the picture that has Trudy so obsessed with the past.

Do you think that Frau Buchholtz’s reaction and behavior toward Anna when she picks up Trudie would mirror what the others in the town think of her?  And do you think the trip in the car exacerbated those reactions since Anna was likely seen with the Obsersturmfuhrer?

ANNA: Anna senses more fear from Frau Buchholtz than anything, but I wonder if some of her other neighbors would be less fearful and more disgusted by her actions, especially those who didn’t believe Mathilde’s story about her pregnancy. I’m not surprised by Frau Buchholtz’s reaction, as she seems to be barely keeping her family fed and doesn’t need Anna to find something amiss and ruin that. I do believe that the presence of the Obersturmfuhrer’s car would generate fear, even if they learn that he’s only there to see Anna.

I think it was an important scene, Anna realizing that she and Trudy are much better off in terms of basic necessities. Maybe it helps her justify the arrangement with the Obersturmfuhrer in her mind, that it was truly a means of survival.

SERENA: I agree, I think this scene with Frau Buchholtz serves to demonstrate just how well off she is, even if she has to do unpleasant things to remain so.  Does it make it worth it to her, I’m not sure, but it certainly helps her find peace with what has happened.  Things could always be worse.

I’ve been wondering about that little family portrait myself, and I hope we get to hear why she did keep it all these years.  I think if she hadn’t kept it, she might not have the issues she does with Trudy now.

Why do you think Anna is drawn to the interview materials for Trudy’s project and why does she watch the videos?

SERENA: I think she wants to see what others experienced during the war, especially since she was so isolated in the bakery.  I think she also wants to know what others have told her daughter and whether anyone knows them or their situation.  It seems like she wants to keep the past in the past and doesn’t want it to resurface at all, though the likelihood of it doing so is remote unless she tells the story.

ANNA: I agree, Anna is curious but definitely wants to keep her own story untold for various reasons we can only speculate about at this point. I’m curious to see how Anna’s wartime story plays out in order to finally shed some light on why she refuses to tell Trudy her story, even when Trudy catches her watching the videos and it is understandable why she would press the point with her mother at that point. I hope this is a foreshadowing that they eventually will have their much-needed heart-to-heart.

What do you think about the interview with Mr. Goldmann? Do you think he is right that Trudy is looking for a way to exonerate the Germans, namely her mother, given what little she knows and speculates about Anna’s past?

SERENA:  I don’t think Trudy is looking to exonerate anyone.  I think she merely wants to understand what happened to her (stuff she doesn’t really remember) and her mother during the war.  She cannot get it from the source, so this is a roundabout way of her seeing the war through German eyes.  She still doesn’t know her own heritage from Max, so she’s assuming that she’s only German and wants to know what happened to these people that made them overlook so many atrocities.

ANNA: I agree that it don’t think she necessarily wants to exonerate anyone. Of course, I think she’s hoping to find that her mother had no choice to do the things she did during the war, and I wonder if the possibility that Anna may have had ulterior motives (like some of the other interviewees interested only in money) is part of the reason why these interviews hit her so hard. And hearing the story from Mr. Goldmann’s point of view and his justifiable anger is hard to come to terms with, especially for Trudy, who is German and thinks her father was a Nazi officer. It’s hard to wrap your head around as a reader, never mind as someone who actually had to deal with it.

It seems when Anna and Trudy go on that picnic with the Obersturmfuhrer that Anna sees the more “Nazi” side of him for the first time.  He fires his pistol without a second thought for Trudy. What did you think of her reaction and then her subsequent request that he release the 23 prisoners at the camp?

SERENA: I think this scene in which he fires the pistol and could have shot her daughter without a second thought is very telling.  She hasn’t seen this detached, mechanical man much, and she’s forced to reassess her position.  There seems to be greater fear from her in the subsequent chapters after this incident.  It’s clear that he doesn’t care for her child at all, despite the kindness and the gifts, and when she asks for the prisoners to be set free, I wanted to slap her.  Did she just want to invite more trouble or was she really just looking for it all to end for both her and her daughter?  It was crazy to me.

ANNA: This seems to be the first time she really has feared him, and maybe that’s because she cares more about Trudy’s life than her own, I don’t know. All of her other interactions with him seem more controlled, like she knows what he expects from her, but this time it was different: a spontaneous picnic, a sort of scene like they were a regular family. I’m not sure why she thought it was a good idea to ask him to release the prisoners. Was it a test to see how much power she had over him? Even if she really didn’t know the extent of the Nazis’ evil at this point, she’d seen what they’d done to Mathilde for trying to arm the prisoners, so you’d think she’d realize this would be pushing the boundary a bit far.

This is another important scene in which she sees the evil underneath the feelings of inadequacy. And when she learns that he was with the Einsatzgruppen, the division that Rose-Grete talks about in the video Anna was watching of Trudy’s interview, that definitely could play into why she wouldn’t talk to Trudy right then.

SERENA: I agree that Anna might not want to talk about him after viewing that tape with Rose-Grete.  I can see why she wouldn’t.

Do you think Anna’s thoughts about the film hidden near the quarry at the camp indicate that she is working with the resistance again? And if so, why do you think her involvement not mentioned more explicitly?

SERENA: I wondered about her thoughts about that film, but it seems that it was glossed over and we really don’t know why she even mentions it at this point.  I hope that she’s been working with the resistance, though I really cannot see how she would be given her isolation and the fact that the town knows about her relationship with the Nazi.

ANNA: I agree, it doesn’t seem possible that she would still be working with the resistance. So I wonder if the film is something that was left there a while back, and she is remembering it now? Or if she somehow managed to keep working with the resistance and that twist will be revealed later on? Or is the complicated story of her time with the Obersturmfuhrer simply what we’re meant to be focused on right now?

Anna wonders, as the time passes and things look worse for the Nazis, whether the Obersturmfuhrer cares for her. Given his shifting moods, what do you think? And do you think he actually cares for Trudy? Why do you think he gives her the “family” portrait?

SERENA: As for the Obersturmfuhrer, I think he only cares for them inasmuch as he can get from them.  We know that his wife doesn’t leave the house, so Anna has a definite role for him — satisfying him and placating him, etc.  Trudy’s role (though we don’t know if he has his own kids) seems to be that of the child.  He gets to borrow her so-to-speak, though he doesn’t have to do the hard work of caring for her daily or disciplining her all that much.  He also appears to be grooming her with all that marching.  But it’s really like he’s play-acting.  This is what he thinks life would be like if there was no war.  They would be there to please only him.

ANNA: I agree. I think he cares for them in his own twisted way, for what he gets from Anna and how Trudy’s presence makes it seem like they could be a real family in another place and time. It’s almost like the photograph is meant to be some sort of memento of their time together, that it wasn’t meant to last and eventually that will be all there is. I still wonder why Anna kept the photo. She seems to have forgotten it when Trudy mentions it to her, but there must’ve been some reason she didn’t leave it behind in Germany.

What do you think of Trudy’s new friendship with Rainer?

SERENA: Trudy and Rainer seem to have an uneasy friendship, and I think for her part, she likes that he challenges her.  She doesn’t really have anyone doing that to her — just her challenging her mother.

ANNA: I agree that their friendship is an uneasy one. He seems to see more of Trudy than the rest of the world does, though that unnerves her. And since she doesn’t seem to have anyone else to talk to, at least not someone who has some idea of what she may or may not be trying to accomplish with the interview project, Rainer seems to fit the bill. The fact that he was also a history teacher helps her bond with him I think.

What are your thoughts about the final chapter in this section, mainly Anna’s reaction to Trudy’s probing questions about the officer?

SERENA: Anna seems appalled that Trudy knew about the “family” portrait and she refuses to acknowledge anything about him or its existence.  But she really gets mad when Trudy may have suggested that Anna loved him.  To me that seems like her conflicting feelings about him remain unresolved.  She did seem to get used to him, but she was not some doe-eyed woman in love with a Nazi either.  I think until Anna deals with those issues, it will be hard for her to talk about that time.

ANNA: Anna certainly has a lot of unresolved issues, and I think she is blindsided by Trudy’s comments that she actually remembers him. That and the fact that Trudy has seen the picture must unnerve her because things she desperately tries to keep hidden are coming closer to the surface. She does seem quite upset by the suggestion that she loved him, but I wonder if that’s just because the suggestion horrified her or maybe she did have some sort of feelings for him. I think she is sincere when she says she did it all for Trudy, and she would be appalled at any suggestion otherwise. But we’ll see how this all plays out.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your thoughts on the second section.  

Please join us for our fourth and final discussion on Monday, July 3 for Chapters 46 – The End.

Week 2: Discussion of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Welcome to the discussion of week 2’s reading in Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. For this discussion, we’ll be focused on Chapters 16-29. Please chime in below in the comments.

In this second section we see that Anna only thinks of Max when she’s most vulnerable, and when Mathilde questions her about her lack of care toward the prisoners, her answers are very matter of fact.  Do you think she’s shielded herself too well? Was it necessary for her to continue on when Max was taken and she has a daughter to raise?

ANNA: I think she definitely is thinking about how she has Trudy to care for. I think that really comes through in her dealings with the Obersturmfuhrer. But with Max, in addition to having to go on for their daughter’s sake, I don’t think she’s very optimistic about his chances of survival. He was in bad shape when he taken to the camp, and she’s had a glimpse of what life is like in the camp. Plus the fact that she hasn’t had any word of him in a while adds up to be bad news. She also seems to be very matter of fact elsewhere in her life, like at the beginning when she realizes no one is coming to the farmhouse after Jack’s funeral.

SERENA: I agree, Trudy seems to be her sole reason for going onward, and a lack of news about Max coupled with his condition when he was arrested, doesn’t bode well.  She’s a very practical young lady, she seems very mature for her age in that respect.  She’s had to grow up rather quickly.

I do think given her relationship with her daughter that she may have shielded herself from pain too well.  It’s almost like her daughter does not even understand her mother a little bit.  She’s so closed off and the lack of communication between the two is stifling.

Were you surprised by Mathilde’s revelation about her husband? And do you think seeing Trudy has stirred old hurts with her?

ANNA: I don’t know if I was really surprised. She seemed kind of harsh toward Anna about her relationship with Max, so I had been wondering a bit about her personal life. However, I think her agreement to that marriage, and it possibly being why she wanted to help the prisoners, said a lot about who she was as a person and why she joined the resistance. She was very motherly toward Trudy, even if a bit harsh and distant, so it seemed clear to me that her desire for a child was pushed back to the surface. It might even explain why she was so willing to help Anna after she left home.

SERENA: I love that Mathilde seemed to be motherly in a way, though a bit rough around the edges.  I liked that she took the initiative to join the resistance, but it’s sad that she didn’t include Anna in her plans, at least to prepare her for possible consequences.

Having seen Anna’s “relationship” with the Obersturmfurhrer, why do you think Anna is so closed off toward her daughter?

SERENA: I think Anna’s relationship, if you want to call it that, with the Obersturmfurhrer has forced her to do the unthinkable and she wants to shield her daughter as much as she can from it.  In many ways, she seems to be trying to keep her daughter away from him altogether.  She wants her to be as untouched as possible.  I think the consequence of this is that their relationship when she’s older suffers.  But also, Anna doesn’t really remember her own mother and has nothing to base her own motherly relationship on.

ANNA: I wonder why, if Trudy already knew Jack wasn’t her father, she allowed Trudy to think the Obersturmfurher was based on that picture. I feel bad that Trudy is trying to come to terms with that photo and the role her mother played during the war, wondering how she could have been involved with him but not knowing that she was forced to, that she was part of the resistance in a small way, and that he wasn’t her father. I’m sure that would have been a series of events Anna would like to forget, and it would be a really hard thing to bring up in conversation. However, I’m sure it’s also difficult for Trudy to try to come to terms with having a Nazi officer as a father, or so she thinks. I wonder if seeing those books about Nazi Germany in Trudy’s home will spark some kind of discussion.

SERENA: I think Anna’s situation would be hard to talk about no matter what, especially her daughter.  We’re still not sure how young she was when this relationship ended.  Trudy also doesn’t seem to remember much about that time at all, just snippets in dreams.  So that seems to signify that she was young when that arrangement ended.

Why do you think so many Germans are interested in telling their stories?  Is it the money or something more?

ANNA: I think for Frau Kluge in particular money was definitely a motivating factor, but she also seemed to want to justify why she turned in the Jewish families she knew were in hiding. For Rose-Grete, I think it was a way to express the guilt she felt about having done nothing during the war to try to save the Jewish families in her village. Those were the only interviews we’ve thus far, but based on Frau Kluge’s need for reassurance that she didn’t want to be portrayed in a bad light, I wonder how many simply wanted the opportunity to explain their reasons for action or inaction, right or wrong, and to be absolved of any guilt.

SERENA: I tend to agree that Kluge wanted the money, but it seems that so many Germans are looking for absolution of some kind or at least an understanding from those that may just assume that they are Nazis and evil. I also think that Trudy’s little project is part of her attempt at reconciling her mother’s relationship with her Nazi “father.”  I wonder how her mother could have let her go on thinking that for so long.

ANNA: Maybe Anna feels embarrassed about it all, wonders that if she says anything she will be judged for being weak or for not finding another way out of her situation.

What do you think about Trudy’s dreams and what appears to be her descent into drug/alcohol dependency?

SERENA: I think the drugs and alcohol are helping break down internal barriers for Trudy, though it may not be her intention.  It seems to enable her to break through to her past – the memories she has buried for a long time in her subconscious.  I hope that she’s able to stop before she goes to far with those types of crutches though…I also hope that Anna sees those books and realizes that the past is not in the past and that she needs to set things right for her daughter’s sake.

ANNA: It has to be difficult for Trudy to sit across from these people and hear their explanations and then think about what her mother may or may not have done during the war. It emphasizes how the things that aren’t said can do a lot of damage as well. I hope Anna sees the books and the class Trudy teaches as a sign that Trudy really wants to understand.

SERENA: I agree.  I hope that Anna comes to that realization.

What did you think about Roger, his wife, and Trudy? That seems like a mess of a triangle.

ANNA:  I don’t know what Trudy thought she was going to get out of that visit to Roger’s restaurant, aside from a free drink. There’s a reason he’s her ex, after all. But I think it shows how Anna’s isolation has affected Trudy in that she has also isolated herself. Aside from Ruth, she doesn’t seem to have anyone to talk to, and Ruth isn’t the person likely to understand Trudy’s feeling about the German Project.

SERENA: I have no idea what Trudy thought about when she went there, although it is telling that she has no other friends she can turn to.  She can flat out list them on one hand.  She loves to point out how her mother is isolated, but she is as well.  No matter how many students and colleagues she surrounds herself with — no one is let in.

It also seems like Roger’s wife is happy to hold over her happiness with Roger and the success of the business over Trudy.  She seems very conniving.  I wouldn’t want to spend time with either of them.  Then again, I think Roger has a couple of points about Trudy being like her mother.

ANNA: Yes, Roger does have a point there!

Am I the only one wondering what Anna plans to do with the information she learns during pillow talk?

ANNA: Me, too! It seems that she still wanted to have a part in the resistance, particularly in delivering bread to the prisoners, but after that incident where he came to her house a day early and then ordered her to stay at home and be available for him at all times, I’m curious as to how she’d even have the chance to use the information. And it doesn’t seem like she knows any of the other resistance contacts now that Mathilde is gone. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

SERENA: It does seem like Anna wants to be part of the resistance, but there really isn’t any way or her to do it unless someone comes to her at the bakery when he is not there.

Have your feelings changed about Anna and Trudy upon reading this second section?

ANNA: I still feel like I’m being kept at arm’s length from them, though I am beginning to understand their motivations a bit more now. I’m not sure I can say I like either one of them at this point, but they definitely are interested and complicated characters.

SERENA: I think I can get a better feel for Trudy here, but I’m still feeling disconnected from both of them.  They are intriguing and damaged, which has held my interest.  That hasn’t hampered my interest in the story, though.

So do you think that cameraman and Trudy are going to get involved?

SERENA: I think they might, which could complicate the story further.

ANNA: It looks like it might be headed in that direction. That would be good for Trudy, since she is lonely, but I just hope it doesn’t detract from the overall story.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your thoughts on the second section.  What do you think of Anna’s story of survival? Trudy’s research project? Feel free to pose your own questions as well.

Please join us for our third discussion on Monday, June 26 for Chapters 30-45.

Week 1: Discussion of Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

those-who-save-usWelcome to the delayed discussion of week 1’s reading in Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum. We apologize, but sometimes real life just gets in the way.

For this discussion, we’ll be focused on Prologue through Chapter 15. Please chime in below in the comments.

When we meet Trudy and Anna there seems to be a significant distance between them. What were your initial impressions of their relationship?

ANNA:  They do seem like people who haven’t talked in years, maybe not ever. The fact that Trudy was so glad to leave the town where she grew up says volumes, as does the fact that no one came to the get-together after Jack’s funeral. It’s hard to reconcile the older, silent Anna with the young Anna who chased and hid Max and happily dreamed about their life together. It’s obvious that whatever Anna had endured during the war (and what we’ve read so far only scratches the surface of her experience, I’m sure) was devastating and took its toll. I’m curious as to her relationship with Trudy as a child and why they seem so distant from one another, whether it’s just that her mother kept things from her that she was too young to remember or if they had a falling out of some sort in the past.

SERENA: I agree that it seems like they haven’t talked in a long time, and it is clear that Trudy is not very fond of her mother. It also doesn’t seem like she’s fond of her father, Jack, right from the outset. It makes you wonder what the family dynamic is here. If her mother never talked to her, then what was her relationship with her father like. I love the scene where she’s speeding out of town — seems like she’s still running from her family and the past.

I was sad to see that no one came to the house after the funeral, but that seems very telling about what kind of life Anna has lived in the United States with this husband, Jack.

Do you think that no one showing up at the funeral was expected by Anna?  How do you think she feels about it?

ANNA:  It probably was frustrating for Trudy not to be able to get any answers about the man she assumes is her father based on the picture. It obviously means a lot to her, considering that she takes the photo with her when she visits her childhood home for the last time. I’m sure the secrets surrounding the photo didn’t help her relationship with Anna and Jack.

Neither Anna nor Trudy seemed overly surprised that no one showed up at the post-funeral gathering. It’s hard to say how Anna felt about it at this point, as we haven’t yet seen how Jack fit into her life. But it seems as though she was resigned to it at any rate.

SERENA:  I agree.  I don’t think either of them was surprised by the absence of the town at the gathering following the funeral.  I don’t think Anna felt much about it.  It seems like she’s disconnected from the town and her daughter.

What did you think about Anna and Max’s relationship? Did it feel genuine to you?

SERENA:  As for Max and Anna’s relationship, it seemed odd at the beginning, but I reminded myself that the Nazi crackdown on Jews had already begun and that Anna was not even supposed to visiting Max’s business, let alone playing chess with him. I’m not sure what the attraction between the two was initially, except maybe the forbidden nature of the relationship. It really seemed like a frenzied lust to me, particularly the kisses and the other goings on behind the stairs.

ANNA:  To me, it seemed like Anna did like him, but I wonder how much of her wanting to further their relationship was about defying her father or gaining some independence. Max was resistant to their relationship, (coming from an older and wiser perspective, maybe) but I agree that the sexual aspect of their relationship seemed more about lust, as well as their isolation and loneliness.

SERENA:  I agree, it did seem like Anna wanted to move that relationship forward in defiance of her father and to gain some independence.  She’d basically been her father’s maid and cook since her mother passed away.

What do you think about Trudy’s reaction in her class to their discussion about the German women consorting with the Nazis because they had no choice? Do you think Trudy believes this about her mother, that she had no choice?

SERENA:  I think Trudy finds herself in a trap of her own making.  First she doesn’t share personal stuff with students, but here she has done it subconsciously.  Second, she’s forcing her students and herself to see what the other side of the collaborator equation might be like.  I’m not sure she believes this was her mother’s situation or not, but I think she would like it to be.

ANNA:  I’m inclined to believe that the core of the story will be about the secret surrounding the picture and Anna’s motivations in whatever situation resulted in that picture being taken.

SERENA:  I agree; it will definitely be a main crux of the story.

Why do you think Anna believes her own bedroom to be impersonal and not her own? Do you think the absence of her mother has made her feel like a stranger in her own home?

ANNA:  It seems like nothing in Anna’s bedroom was hers, that it’s full of memories of the past. Maybe Anna’s mother’s absence has made her feel like a stranger in her home, but I think it might have more to do with the fact that Anna’s father doesn’t view her as his child so much as his maid and caregiver. He doesn’t show her any love or affection, other than when he is pleased with what she has done for him. And his focus on her future and marriage seems to be in what an alliance could do for him. Plus, she pushed away all of her friends after her mother’s death, as she took on the care of her father. Her isolation and loneliness seem more tied to him than her mother, in my opinion.

SERENA:  I think you’re probably right that it does have more to do with her father, but I wonder about her comments about the stuff in her room.  It seems to show that her relationship with her mother was distant too, just like Trudy’s with Anna.  Many kids will look on their childhood bedrooms with fondness and memories, but you don’t get that sense here.

ANNA:  I think you have a point there. The little that has been said about her mother didn’t seem to indicate that they were really close.

Do you like Anna and Trudy at this point?

SERENA:  I honestly don’t like either one yet.  They’re both mysterious to me.  I need to know more.

ANNA:  I agree. I can see some intriguing qualities about Anna, especially when she takes care of Max and wants to help with the resistance. I feel bad for Trudy in that her mother is so distant and there are so many things she’d like to know about her past. But at this point, I don’t feel an emotional attachment to them.

We’d love to hear from you in the comments about your thoughts on this first section.  What are your impressions of Anna and Trudy?

Please join us for our second discussion on Monday, June 19 for Chapters 16-29

June Readalong: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

We’re altering our readalong schedule a little bit and making Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum our 2017 World War II Challenge Readalong for June. We hope you will join us for discussions each Monday starting June 12.


For fifty years, Anna Schlemmer has refused to talk about her life in Germany during World War II. Her daughter, Trudy, was only three when she and her mother were liberated by an American soldier and went to live with him in Minnesota. Trudy’s sole evidence of the past is an old photograph: a family portrait showing Anna, Trudy, and a Nazi officer. Trudy, now a professor of German history, begins investigating the past and finally unearths the heartbreaking truth of her mother’s life. Those Who Save Us is a profound exploration of what we endure to survive and the legacy of shame.

Discussions will be held every Monday as follows, and as always, we encourage you to share your thoughts and even pose your own questions.

June 12: Discussion of Prologue – Chapter 15

June 19: Discussion of Chapters 16-29

June 26: Discussion of Chapters 30-45

July 3: Discussion of Chapters 46 – End

We look forward to reading what sounds to be a fantastic book, and hope you will join us!

Week 6: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Serena and I would like to welcome you to the sixth and final discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

Were you surprised that Volkheimer encouraged Werner to save Marie-Laure? What did you think about Werner’s actions in the Le Blanc house and the time he spent with Marie-Laure?

SERENA: I wasn’t surprised by Volkheimer’s encouragement. It seems that he always looked out for Werner and wanted the best for him. He seemed to know that saving Marie-Laure was important to Werner.

I didn’t actually think too much about Werner’s actions in the house other than hurry up and save Marie! I was glad that he made it in time, even though there was some big tension there with von Rumpel. I also think that in times of war, emotions are heightened, and his connection with Marie-Laure is something that can’t be explained too rationally.

ANNA: I agree. I’m glad that Werner was able to do the right thing when it counted. Overall, I think he was just a kid who grew up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He really wanted to become something, and his intelligence was twisted by the Nazis and used in deplorable ways.

In addition to the heightened emotions that accompany war, Werner was really just a child, and Marie-Laure’s connection to his childhood and a less complicated time played into his feelings as well. He wanted to be done with the war, and he wanted something good to come out of it, and a love story would be one way that could happen.

I was torn about Marie-Laure’s reaction to finding out about Werner years after the war. It seems that she meant so much more to him than he meant to her. That broke me up, but of course, we saw both sides to the story. Marie-Laure was grateful for Werner saving her, but when it boils down, he was a German and she’d lost her father, so it was so much more complicated than that. Also, Marie-Laure has decades of hindsight and life that Werner was never able to have.

SERENA: I think because he heard her great-uncle on the radio, Werner’s connection to her is stronger. Really she doesn’t meet him until he saves her and he only tells her of what he has done to protect her afterward, so it’s hard for her to feel the same connection. I wasn’t surprised by her reaction because she’s so removed from it now and the loss of so many has left her with little connection to the past. Her only connections now are her work, her lovers, and her daughter, so much more of her life is grounded in the present than in the past.

It’s sad we don’t get to see what would have happened had Werner lived. I wonder if the war would have broken him so much that he had given up his dreams, but he was so creative, maybe not.

ANNA: I wasn’t surprised by her reaction, really. Just knowing how much she meant to Werner from following his thoughts and being sad about his death made me wish it could be that way.

Unfortunately, I think he was already broken by the war. Frederick and the little girl affected him so deeply that he was haunted by them. Maybe that would have lessened over time, and his saving Marie-Laure seemed to redeem himself in his eyes a little bit. His death shows just how sick and beaten down he was, the visions he was having, and his longing for home, the light, etc.

What did you think of Jutta’s meeting with Volheimer and with Marie-Laure?

ANNA: I think Jutta needed Volkheimer’s visit and her subsequent visits to Saint-Malo and to Paris to see Marie-Laure for closure. Werner’s notebook brought her back to the happier, simpler times when they were children, and her visit to Saint-Malo helped her try to understand Werner’s last letter to her about the sea. And I think knowing that he had fallen in love, whether it was real or not, whether it was just for a moment, made her feel as though Werner had lived and done something good despite having gone to the Hitler Youth school and fought for the Nazis, which were things she couldn’t talk about after the war.

SERENA: I think the meeting with Volkheimer was so odd, but he never really talked much. He sort of just drops the duffle off, eats food, and then spends some time with Max before leaving. It’s funny that the husband doesn’t really interact or think much of the meeting…like its normal. But we also get a much more internal story here from Jutta, who has been so much out of the story. It’s good to see her reflect on her brother.

I love that the meeting between Jutta and Marie-Laure is not overly emotional; it seems that they both have moved beyond the past and have their own lives. They have moved on but this gives them the closure they need.

ANNA: It seems like Jutta and her husband had the kind of relationship where they respect their wartime experiences and whatever ways they’ve used to move past them. He seemed to know about Werner but also that Volkheimer’s presence upset or at least jarred Jutta. A lot of the WWII novels I’ve read that focus on Germans in the aftermath seem to portray them as stoic and not overly emotional. Not sure how accurate that is or whether it plays into Jutta’s reaction here.

What do you think about what happened to the diamond, in terms of its overall importance to the story?

SERENA: That diamond…I want to believe that Werner released it into the sea and that he saved the house model to remember Marie-Laure. I want to believe that he let that go for something much more precious — a symbol of the boy with the hopes and dreams he once had before the war tore it up.

ANNA: I wish we’d been given a glimpse of Werner fishing the house out of the ocean and what his thought process was there. Von Rumpel seemed to think Werner was at the house for the same reason he was, but Werner didn’t know anything about the diamond. So it’s likely that he didn’t grasp it’s value, especially not in the midst of the chaos of the cease fire, and that he would believe the house that Marie-Laure set free and the key she gave him to be more precious.

SERENA: Von Rumpel had a one track mind where that diamond was concerned. I’m glad he was dispatched and not by his disease.

ANNA: I agree. He exemplified the Nazi greed and superstition.

What did you think about the scene with Frederick, three decades after the war?

SERENA: As for Frederick, I love that his mother — even though she seemed like she was a social butterfly and not really connected to her son before — continued to care for him after the war. I wonder what happened to his over-bearing father. I love the symbols of birds and how that seems to bring Frederick back to life even if for an instant. His love of birds seemed to be something that was really ingrained in him. It makes sense that a bird would awaken him, even if it wasn’t the picture Werner kept for him.

ANNA: I didn’t know what to think of his mother at first, but she turned out not to be so bad. She truly seemed to care about him, especially when she gets the picture of the birds Werner had meant to send him all those years ago. I thought it was telling that in the midst of getting Marie-Laure out of the house, amid his hunger and thirst, he saw the book of birds and pulled out a specific picture for Frederick. I know Werner felt guilty about what happened with Frederick, but he also was his friend first.

SERENA: I loved that he still thought of Frederick as a friend even though he was guilt-ridden about what happened. I was glad to see that the mother was not that high-society, stuck on connections, and not-caring mother that I thought she was.

I wonder if I would have just been satisfied with the scene where you see Marie-Laure and Etienne reunite and not all this decades later stuff.

ANNA: I don’t think the very last scene in 2014 was necessary, but I’m glad for the ones in 1974. I myself found some closure in learning what happened to Marie-Laure, Jutta, Volkheimer, and Frederick in the years after the war, what they had accomplished and learned. I think for some it is important to how those who survived moved on, whether they made something of themselves, etc.

Do you think the book was deserving of the Pulitzer Prize?

SERENA: As I didn’t read any of the other finalists, I can’t really say. I do think this is a good read and very well done. Is it my favorite in WWII historical fiction, probably not. Not to say that I didn’t find it engaging from start to finish.

ANNA: I agree. Without having read the other contenders, I do believe it is worthy. It is well written, complex, and seems well researched. I really liked it — I think it’s worthy of a 5-star rating — but it isn’t my most favorite novel set during that time.

We hope you enjoyed the book and our discussions as much as we did. Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

We’ve made a slight change in our readalong schedule for the rest of the year. We will announce the next readalong soon. Stay tuned!

Week 5: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-seeSerena and I would like to welcome you to the fifth discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

For this week, we’ve read sections eight and nine. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

What do you think the purpose of the “Fort National” opener is at the beginning of Section 8?

ANNA:  Well, we know from the very beginning of the book that that’s where Etienne and the other Frenchmen  were taken. And now we have to wonder whether he has been killed. It’s looking pretty bleak all around. What do you think?

SERENA: It’s almost as if the author wants us to buy into the legend of that diamond, and that Marie-Laure is only alive because she has it, but the consequence is that everyone she loves ends up dying.  But are they dead? Her father? Etienne?  We don’t really know yet.  But maybe that’s because my mind is skeptical about the whole curse.

ANNA:  I think the curse is only as real as they want to believe it is. It certainly is an interesting layer to the story. Life and death is, in many ways, a matter of chance, especially during war. The real danger is the von Rumpel believes the legend is real.

SERENA: I agree with you on von Rumpel.  And that is dangerous.

What did you think of the scene where Werner and Marie-Laure cross paths?

SERENA:  I think we knew that they had to cross paths, and I think it was in a way that was less intrusive to Marie-Laure’s story.  I think because he sees her and follows her, it builds a strong connection in him, especially after the death of the other young girl.  This is the thread I think he’s going to need to pull himself to safety or at least redeem himself before he dies.

ANNA:  I liked the way it was handled, and I agree that this connection is going to be the pinnacle for him. There were two things I was struck by most when reading these sections. First, when Werner hears Marie-Laure over the radio reading from her book, and then her fear about von Rumpel being in the house, and he wants to be able to save her. And in that moment, he thinks about the Nazi fervor and how all boys were caught up in it, but how Jutta saw through it all. And second, you realize this observation comes after his desire to save the professor, how hearing his voice over the radio again was “as if he has been drowning for as long as he can remember and somebody has fetched him up for air.” This is where Werner chooses to act, where he finally grows a backbone, where he finds himself again. Though whether he is able to help Marie-Laure seems improbable but still anyone’s guess.

What did you think about this line: “Frederick said we don’t have choices, don’t own our lives, but in the end it was Werner who pretended there were no choices…”

SERENA: I’ve thought long and hard about Frederick’s statement since the beginning because I’ve always thought that statement was a mild excuse for someone who is too scared or to paralyzed to make a decision.  People who passively make decisions, all the while claiming that they are not making decisions, are deluding themselves.  However, when Frederick said it, it gave me pause because he did make a decision.  He refused to dump that cold water on the prisoner, he refused to give into the bullies. I know he didn’t have a choice but to go to the school, but he was strong enough to make a decision or two on his own and stay true to himself — though with dire consequences.  So it makes me wonder why he would say it at all.

Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate to Werner that he had made a choice in not intervening and going along to get along with the others.  Or maybe he just wanted to make peace with his friend and keep him happy in his delusion.  If that’s the case, it seems he may have failed him a little bit as a friend.

As for Werner, it’s good that this has come to the forefront for him now.  It’s a critical time for him; he’s been going with the flow and ignoring what’s around him for too long.  He can only live outside reality so long.

ANNA: Yes, not doing something is a choice in itself. I think maybe the point was that part of their Nazi indoctrination was that they weren’t supposed to make choices, just follow orders. And Werner was so torn about what he was seeing and being told that it was just easier for him to say he didn’t have a choice.

Do you think his impending doom is what makes him take action? If so, explain?

ANNA: After what happened to Frederick and the little girl, and the memories brought back by hearing the professor’s voice, this time Werner has to do something. I don’t know whether it’s impending doom that compels him to take action; it almost seems as though he’d been in a sort of trance for so long, and Etienne’s voice seems to knock him out of it. It was something familiar and soothing, and it was an important part of his childhood, what gave him the ambition to want something more than a life in the mines. I think the professor symbolized light and hope for Werner and that was a driving force in his decision to keep quiet about the professor’s location. It’s almost like it made him forget the war for a minute, as he thinks about going to the professor’s home and having a conversation with him, and then realizes that can’t ever happen.

There was a definite shift in these sections, with Werner emerging from his fever and seeming to grow stronger, deciding to act for a change, and Marie-Laure showing signs of weakness. Don’t get me wrong, I still think she’s an extremely strong character, but we see the toll the war and her blindness and the loss of her father have taken on her. She is knocked off kilter by von Rumpel’s appearance at the grotto, the fear of being found out, and realizing that she gave him the bit of information he wanted. And then the lack of food and water in the attic, coupled with the disorientation of not knowing whether it’s day or night or whether von Rumpel is still in the house, and hearing her father’s voice…I was worried that she was going to do something foolish for a moment. What do you think?

SERENA:  I agree; the professor’s voice woke Werner out of a stupor.  He’s been in that too long.  And while he is haunted by the death of that other little girl, I think Marie-Laure’s fate would be more devastating for him because he feels as though he knows the family after listening to those recordings for so long.

Marie-Laure has similarly been awakened from a bubble.  Up until this point, she’s been strong because of her family’s faith in her ability to do anything even though she is blind.  She went about her business as if she were untouchable almost.  Not that she didn’t fear the Germans or what was happening, but that it really didn’t hit her just how vulnerable she is because she is blind.  Von Rumpel saw to that.  Her foundation was definitely shaken by his appearance in the grotto and his questions and insistence.

ANNA:  Speaking of Marie-Laure’s bubble bursting and the diamond, I was struck by her asking Etienne whether he ever felt like she was a curse, and his response that she was the best thing that ever came into his life was so touching. It’s as though he’s finally started to live again, even leaving the house, and then just as he seems to be getting the spring back into his step, he is arrested.

In the letter Werner writes to Jutta, why do you think he talks of his love of the sea and what do you think he is talking about when he says, “It seems big enough to contain everything anyone could ever feel”?

ANNA:  As soon as they arrive in Saint-Malo, Werner is drawn to the sea. It’s almost as if his eyes have finally been opened and he can truly see everything around him, and the sea is certainly a different, brighter view than he had in the drab mining town. I’m not sure exactly what he means when he writes that, but it reminded me of when he first heard the professor and thought about how many miles away his voice was and how far it was carrying, and the sea in its endlessness is a bit like that too. It also seems as though this could be connected to the diamond, the Sea of Flames, which has taken on an importance larger than its physical shape.

SERENA:  I agree, the Sea of Flames is taking on a larger importance.  It seems as though Saint-Malo has become that sea of flames — it’s where everything will come to a tipping point.

That’s it for this week. Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own.

We hope you’ll stop by next Friday, April 7 for the final discussion. Happy reading!

Week 4: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-seeSerena and I would like to welcome you to the fourth discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

For this week, we’ve read sections six and seven.  Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

Do you feel more hopeful about Marie-Laure or Werner making it out of the bombed ruins alive after reading part six?

SERENA: I’m not all that confident that Werner will make it out.  I still feel like he is trapped and will probably die there.  There is a little more hope for Marie-Laure as she seems to have found herself a place to hide, but we know von Rumpel is patient.  Patience can be a scary thing.

ANNA: I’m trying to be hopeful that Marie-Laure will eventually be able to leave her hiding place and escape and that Werner can get the radio working and get some help. But like you, I am not that confident.

I’m especially curious about Marie-Laure and von Rumpel’s first meeting; it seemed that she knew who it was in the house by his walk.

Why do you think the death of Madame Manec spurred Etienne into action?

ANNA: Madame Manec is one of the few people Etienne was close to, and he was broken up over her death. Her reasoning for joining the resistance seems to have resonated with Etienne, and I think the more he thought on it, it prompted him to act. He also has plenty of other reasons to resist: his scars from the first war against the Germans, his hidden transmitter in the attic making it easier for him to take on the job, his desire to reach others through the radio waves.

SERENA: I found Madame Manec’s death to be a catalyst because he had been in his own world up until that point.  She was a buffer between him and the rest of the world.  He really didn’t need to fight the Germans because not only had he done that before and come out scarred, but also because she was already doing something and he didn’t need to disrupt his world.

Once she’s gone, the buffer disappears and he’s left with Marie-Laure, a niece whom he has sworn to protect.  But even as he has promised to protect her, he knows that she was already involved in the resistance efforts and he feels the best way to protect her is to become involved as well.

I found it interesting that he was no longer having his headaches and shutting himself away to rid himself of ghosts.

ANNA: I think he’s finally faced his ghosts head on. He sees the ghost of Madame Manec and doesn’t have to shut himself away.  And it’s almost like Marie-Laure and Werner are haunted now by the memories of their youth, Marie-Laure by her father and Werner by Jutta and Frau Elena.

SERENA: Werner and Marie-Laure do seem haunted by the past, those they have lost.  I’m wondering what has happened to Marie’s father and Werner’s sister.  I want to know that they are safe, but I fear, at least for her father, they are not.

Etienne’s vision of Madame Manec seems like a foreshadowing of how his actions are providing a kindness to the city he has shunned for his darkened rooms.  He’s become their protector now, and I wonder what she’s trying to tell him, or really what he’s trying to tell himself when he sees her with those birds?

ANNA: It said it’s something like three years since the last time Marie-Laure has seen her father, and it seems like the letters dried up. He may not have had a way to send them, but I fear it’s worse that that. I, too, am curious about Jutta and the other children under Frau Elena’s care.

I am not sure what Madame Manec is saying, what symbolism is behind the sparrows. Maybe the tucking of the birds into her coat represents that all of the people he has lost are fine and protected wherever they are? Or that whatever happens to him now that his transmissions are flying out into the world that he will be okay in the end? I don’t know; I’m probably overthinking that.

SERENA: I think you’re right about Madame Manec, perhaps she is telling him that he’s doing the right thing and that everything will be ok.

What do you think is the significance of him playing music after transmitting the messages? Do you think that will be his downfall?

SERENA: The music….I think serves as part of Etienne’s resistance.  I think he wants to connect with the others, even though he doesn’t know who they are.  He wants them to feel the threads connecting them in this battle against the oppressors, but he also wants to demonstrate how he is no longer hiding and cowering in his room.  He’s awake, he’s active, and he’s fighting.  It also seems to be a symbol of hope and the light of the past — it enables him to transcend his troubles past and present.

ANNA: I agree with you about the music, and I think it’ll have a lot to do with his arrest. That’s probably where the connection to Werner comes in as well.

What did you think of Werner’s first encounter with Volkheimer? How do you think the murder of the little girl will affect Werner going forward?

ANNA: When Werner is reunited with Volkheimer it seems like he will be ok, that he has someone to watch over him, and Volkheimer does. But it also forces Werner to face the brutality of the war head on, as Volkheimer takes boots from prisoners and assassinates the partisans without a second thought, leaving Werner to witness the aftermath as he salvages the radio equipment.

SERENA: I found their reunion to be right in line with how they were together at the school; the big hulking Volkheimer watching over him and Werner not really seeking answers or questioning his methods.  Who knows how he protected Werner from the same fate as Frederick at the school.  I loved the scene in which Volkheimer displays a bit of tenderness toward Werner, offering him an additional blanket against the cold.

Their lack of communication with one another makes them endearing but Werner must know that they are not the same.  Werner is very scientific and he tries not to move into situations thinking about the consequences, whereas Volkheimer seems to know that there are certain realities of war that cannot be avoided.  When faced with the death of the young girl, Werner is forced to see the consequences of his clinical actions.  Again he will be forced to reassess.

ANNA: I think Werner’s work had been methodical up until that point, finding the partisans, gathering up the equipment, and moving. He was disturbed by the bodies but able to overlook them. In fact, he hadn’t ever seen them until Volkheimer had already killed them. But with the little girl, he witnessed her in life, her innocence, and it could have been his sister. Then he realizes he made a mistake about the transmission, and this time the consequences are more readily apparent. I wonder if this will make him retreat more into his memories of his sister and the children’s home.

What about that scene with von Rumpel in Marie-Laure and her father’s apartment? He was a bit obsessed and nutty.  Do you think his disease is getting the better of him or is it the obsession with the stone?

ANNA: I think von Rumpel’s obsession with the stone has only grown stronger given his illness and poor prognosis. I think his never-ending quest for the stone at this point is about his desire to survive, and the smashing of the model in their old apartment could be a foreshadowing of what is to come with he and Marie-Laure finally come face-to-face.

SERENA: I agree, that smashing of the house is definitely a foreshadowing of things to come.  I also think von Rumpel’s desperation to survive has fed his obsession with the stone.

Part Seven ends with the telegram about terrorist broadcasts in Saint-Malo. How do you think this will play out?

SERENA: That telegram is what I think brings Werner to Saint-Malo and how these stories converge.  I wonder how he and Marie-Laure will meet and whether he will see her as someone akin to his sister, Jutta.  Will Werner become an ally or will he follow his indoctrination where she’s concerned?  I have hope that he will use his past experiences, particularly that little girl’s death, to guide his future actions where Marie is concerned.

What are you looking forward to in the next sections?

ANNA: I wonder if Marie-Laure and Werner will actually meet, or will Werner merely result in the arrest of Etienne. I’d assume they would cross paths at some point though. Mainly I am just anticipating their paths crossing and the story falling into place. I really want to know whether they survive in the end, but I also am scared for that part to come.

SERENA: I hope they cross paths, but I’m not sure they will.  I think perhaps that Werner will play a roll in Etienne’s arrest.  I do want to see how this concludes and what happens, but I hope there is some closure on Jutta at least.  I think that Marie-Laure’s father’s fate is likely death in a camp, but maybe I’m too pessimistic.

I’m looking forward to the conclusion of this book.  I’m so glad that we picked it for a read-a-long.

ANNA: I agree about Marie-Laure’s father, and I’m glad we picked it, too.

That’s it for this week.  Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own.

We hope you’ll stop by next Friday, March 31 for our discussion of Sections Eight and Nine.  Happy reading!


Week 3: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-seeAnna and I would like to welcome you to the third discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

For this week, we’ve read sections four and five.  Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

What did you think about the section set during the bombing? I am more scared for Marie-Laure than ever with von Rumpel in her house!

SERENA: Von Rumpel seems to be dying and yet his utter determination to get this diamond is amazing and ridiculous at the same time.  As he’s inside the house, I fear that Marie-Laure will be his next victim, and that’s a fate I would wish on no one.  He’s a patient man and determined, but with time running out for him, he might rely on less psychological tactics to get what he wants.

ANNA:  The differences in views on the diamond between Marie-Laure’s father and von Rumpel are interesting. Her father wanted the diamond to be gone, and von Rumpel is seeking it out because of some crazy belief that it will save him. At the library, he was so patient and calculating, but now that he’s closing in, I am worried for Marie-Laure that he will resort to violence. I’m sure whatever happens between the two will indicate whether there is any truth to the legend. It’s an interesting aspect to the story, that’s for sure.

Do you think Werner is done for?  It seems that there is no way out.

ANNA:  Yes, I am afraid that it’s not looking good for Werner. If he manages to survive this, I hope it’s done in a realistic way and not something unbelievable and outlandish. I was thinking that Marie-Laure had a better chance of surviving than Werner, but now I’m not so sure that either will survive! I wonder if I’m going to need tissues to finish this book!

SERENA: I fear that there will be crying…ugly crying…  I don’t think Werner will survive, unless by some miracle he is trapped in there with the miracle-making diamond!

ANNA:  Oh, ugly crying for sure!

Do you think there’s any hope for Werner to continue under these circumstances without succumbing to the Nazi brainwashing? He seems to be fighting it, with Frederick and Jutta in mind, but there seems to be no escape for him.

SERENA: I agree there’s something in his make-up that is fighting the brainwashing, and it seems as though he might be able to fool others into thinking he’s on board with it all. I’m sure there will be someone who does not buy into his loyalty to the cause.  I think he’s finally begun to realize that the escape from being an orphan and coal miner’s son is more like a prison, and it’s likely to get more suffocating to him before it gets better.

ANNA: Werner has already seen how impossible his situation is. He asks to go home, and Hauptmann gets him sent to the front. Is he being sent to the technology division because Hauptmann thinks he’ll be useful, or is it in retaliation for a sign of weakness? The cold reception he got from Hauptmann makes me think it’s the latter.

How do you think his visit with Frederick will affect his outlook once he moves to his new position in Berlin?

ANNA:  I honestly have no idea how seeing Frederick again will affect him in the long run. It seems that he feels a lot of guilt about the fact that he didn’t stick up for Frederick when he was being bullied, but Werner was haunted by the future he would have had otherwise in the coal mines. Would that have been a better fate than what’s likely to happen to him now? Probably, as he would have at least kept his sense of self. I thought it was touching that Werner was looking for Frederick’s bird books. I wonder if Werner felt a sense of hopelessness because Frederick could have been so much more than how he ended up. That puts him in a similar situation; Werner’s self and thoughts are hardly his own anymore, and he’d had such high hopes for his future. I guess we’ll see what happens, whether it causes him to lose that bit of resistance or makes it stronger. What do you think?

SERENA: I think Werner will be empowered by Frederick’s fate.  I think he will learn from his mistake and make better choices.  I love that he’s seen first hand what happens to those who do not conform because it is sure to make him more careful in his choices, more diligent.  His resistance I think will be more hidden than say Madame Manec.

I love the idea of Madame Manec and the other women of Saint-Malo turning into unsuspecting resistance fighters. What do you think of Etienne’s reaction to Madame Manec’s fierce need to act against the German occupiers? Etienne seems to know things, as Madame Manec indicates, things that he wouldn’t know if all he did was hide in his room all day. Do you think Etienne is involved in the resistance as well?

SERENA:  I love that Manec is recruiting people in the village to resist, but I think she still views Etienne as weak and broken — a side that Marie-Laure clearly doesn’t see as much.  He seems to be using this perception of himself to observe the world around him and its changes — to take note of who is loyal to France and who is loyal only to greed as well as Germany.  The one lone transmitter that’s left seems like it could be part of the equation here.  Perhaps he is part of the resistance and that’s what he uses unbeknownst to anyone else.  It seems his reaction to Manec’s efforts is born out of fear of being discovered.  Do you think he is in the resistance?

ANNA:  I do think Etienne is part of the resistance. In the very first scenes of the book, when the bombing occurs, he seems to be a prisoner; I’m just wondering what for. He seems too knowledgeable about things to not have some sort of connection. The French flags are a huge clue where his loyalties lie, and though he burns them, the transmitter remains. If he were overly frightened, he would have given up the transmitter or destroyed it. Maybe he is just worried that Madame Manec and her crew will be careless in some way and lead the Germans to his door.

Why do you think Harold Bazin gave Marie-Laure the key to the hidden grotto?

SERENA: I think that grotto is a place for the resistance to meet, and I think he knew his number was up and that he’d be rounded up by the Germans.  It’s secret and a place that maybe they can move with the tides in and out without being detected.  It may even be a place for her to get help and hide from von Rumpel, etc.

ANNA:  I agree that I think he knew he was going to be arrested. I also think he is trying to protect Marie-Laure, since he specifically asked if she would be able to find it again. Whether he wants to protect her because of her blindness or her connections to the resistance, or both, I don’t know. It seems like it will factor into the story in some significant way at some point.

In this section, both Werner and Marie-Laure have lost people who are important to them. Werner no longer has any real contact with his sister, and Frederick no longer remembers him. Marie-Laure must now contend with the death of Madame Manec on top of the arrest of her father. How do you think these losses will affect them going forward? Do you think Marie-Laure will become part of the resistance?

SERENA:  I think these losses are devastating to them, but while they mourn them, they are going to be forced to deal with the realities of their situation.  Marie-Laure is a lot stronger than we think, and I would almost bet on her joining the resistance.  Seems like a sure thing to me.  Werner is going to be forced to determine how to handle these losses and his “need” to conform.  That’s going to be very tough, especially as the pressure on Germany inevitably heats up and the “superiority” of the regime cracks.

ANNA:  I agree about Marie-Laure. She has been strong since the beginning of the book and especially where the story fast-forwards. Werner’s inner conflicts are bound to increase, and it will be interesting to see how he handles them.

What are you hoping to see in the next sections?

ANNA: I hope to learn more about Etienne. Is he part of the resistance? I hope to see both Marie-Laure and Werner use their losses and trials in a positive way, despite the fact that things are likely only going to get worse for them. I’m curious about what will happen to Werner when he goes off to war, specifically how he finds himself in Saint-Malo. You?

SERENA:  I would love to see Etienne and Marie-Laure team up, even if it isn’t directly to help the resistance.  Wouldn’t it be comical if they were both helping and didn’t know that their mysterious information is coming from one another for a long while?  I would enjoy that.  Werner is off at war, but how does he get there? Does his internal resistance get him sent there or is it more like his mentor takes his ideas and pushes him out to take all the credit?  It’s definitely going to be interesting.

ANNA:  That would be humorous! I’m also interested in seeing how Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories converge. We probably won’t see that in the sections for next week, but I’m eagerly awaiting that.

SERENA: Me, too!

That’s it for this week.  Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own.

We hope you’ll stop by next Friday, March 24 for our discussion of Sections 6 and 7.  Happy reading!

Week 2: Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

all-the-light-we-cannot-seeAnna and I would like to welcome you to the second discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.

For this week, we’ve read sections two and three.  Feel free to join the conversation in the comments.

We return to the immediate impact of WWII in section two.  How do this section affect you?

SERENA:  I found this section very gripping in that you could feel the anxiety and fear of the characters of Werner and Marie-Laure.  Marie is wandering around during the bombing and using her memory to find water and check things out, but Werner is trapped in a place that appears to be caving in.  There is serious fear that he could die, while Marie-Laure seems more calm as she navigates her way around her uncle’s home.  I was enthralled and worried for both of these characters.

ANNA: I definitely was worried for both of them. It seems like a hopeless situation, with Werner having no way out and Marie-Laure being unable to see whether there is a way out. Doerr does a great job, even in his sparse prose, of enabling you to feel things, in this case the anxiety and fear. And the structure of going back and forth in time makes you feel unsettled since you have no idea how they will be able to survive the bombing.

During the entrance exams, Werner has time to see how the other students act during the trials, particularly the jump from the platform into the flag.  When it’s his turn, did you expect him to hesitate, why or why not?

SERENA: From what we’ve seen of Werner, he seems to plow headlong into things without worrying too much about the consequences.  Part of that seems to be due to his background as a poor orphan and not having much to lose at this point, but the other part of it is likely tied to his desire to become an engineer, to do great things, to learn more, and to not disappoint his sponsor.  It demonstrates his great courage, even in the face of danger, which will serve him well later on.

ANNA: I didn’t think he would hesitate. I think he views this as a great experience to further his education, and he wasn’t going to let a chance to avoid working in the mines pass him by. You see a little later how he is scared of being the one singled out as weak. I think fear is another motivator for sure, maybe not as strong as his ambition, at least not yet.

In these sections time shifts from the more immediate past to a time when war was not so present and Marie-Laure and Werner were still children coping with the changes before them.  How do you think these time shifts serve the narrative and do you like them?

SERENA: These shifts in time seem to show us how these children have matured and what their roles have become — at least a little — but they also show how quickly things have changed for both of them.  When we’re further in the past before war is so immediate, we can see a hope and a light, but when the war is pressing down upon them, it is harder to see.  I think these shifts in time help the reader understand that the hope is still there in the darkness, but you just have to look harder to find it.

ANNA: It definitely helps show their growth and evolution, how they mature in general and how they change as the atmosphere associated with the war changes. We also get to see what they are moving towards, and hopefully the development we witness in the years prior to the bombing will make for a realistic resolution to the novel. I like the time shifts because they build the tension, give us something to look forward to, and provide a lot of food for thought (i.e. where are Marie-Laure’s father and great-uncle, is there anything for them to hope for that late in the war, did Werner ultimately accept the Nazi ideology?)

When Marie-Laure and her father reach her Uncle Etienne’s home, did you expect him to be the broadcaster of the scientific shows Werner listened to? What role do you think this revelation plays in the narrative?

SERENA:  I love that she discovers this after getting her uncle to calm down and return to reality and away from the ghosts that haunt his mind from the gassing he experienced in WWI.  Her light touch helps him to shift focus on a hope that he and his brother had long ago before the previous war.  It seems to imply that education can go a long way in helping society stay on the right path, but it also demonstrates the power that education and knowledge can have without those providing the education even knowing it.  It’s almost like a secret hope.

ANNA: I had a feeling he would have something to do with the broadcasts Werner and Jutta listened to as soon as we saw the numerous radios and related parts in his home. The story behind those recordings was very sad and very hopeful at the same time, that you can actually reach someone far away with your words. I think the relationship between Etienne and Marie-Laure is beautiful, especially their imaginative play times. He sees her hunger for learning, and I think he sees a little of himself in her. They both have challenges that make normal life difficult, yet they both have found ways to cope, and I think they give each other a sense of hope and acceptance.

In this section, we see the close relationship between Werner and his sister, Jutta, begin to break down. Do you think, like Jutta says, that Werner is lying to himself?

SERENA:  Jutta seems wise beyond her years here.  It’s clear that she listened more carefully to those foreign stations than he did, which makes sense given his interest in scientific things.  But like an older sibling will do, he dismisses her concerns about Hitler Youth and the school because he merely sees the good it can do.  In many ways his optimistic outlook is the hope in their story.  He wants to be their hero and in order to achieve his goals and be that hero there is a need to lie to himself.  It’s sad that their relationship has cracked, even though they love one another.  When he’s away at school and the sensors are at the letters, you have to wonder how safe she’ll be given her comments in those letters that are blacked out.

ANNA: After Werner goes to Herr Siedler’s house to fix his radio and returns, he seems changed. He breaks the radio he and Jutta had been using to listen to the French professor’s science lessons, whether truly to protect Jutta or whether to protect his own aspirations is unclear. It’s obvious that he loves his sister and wants her to be happy for him and this chance he’s been given to make something of himself and get away from the mines, but he is unwilling to listen to Jutta when she tells him what she’s heard from the foreign broadcasts about the Nazi atrocities. I think in a way he is indeed lying to himself, wanting to believe that he can go to the Hitler Youth school and not be swept up in the Nazi ideology, that it really is just his way of getting out of the mining town, out of poverty, and that he can come back to her and Frau Elena and whisk them off to a better life. I think it is interesting that Jutta is younger and just as inquisitive as Werner but sees these things that he doesn’t, or doesn’t want to admit that he sees. I think she is afraid that he is going to come back and be like the other Hitler Youth boys in the orphanage, all rough and violent.

We are introduced to Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, who is very interested in getting his hands on the museum’s diamond. Then Marie-Laure’s father is almost obsessed with the one he is carrying and the legend behind it that we learned at the beginning of the book. Do you think the diamond Marie-Laure’s father has is the real one? What do you think the importance of this story line is, so far, to the overall plot?

SERENA: Von Rumpel is cold and calculating and his patience and determination are scarier than someone who uses brute force to achieve his goals.  He’s able to allow the museum officials to stew in their own worst-case scenarios and give up the vault rather than resort to violence.  That takes great patience and control.  Those in that much control are often the most dangerous, and I think we’ll be seeing more of him in later chapters.  I’m not sure if the one her father has is the real one, but that doesn’t matter at this point as they both believe that it is.  Somehow they seem to think if they can protect it then there is still hope.  This diamond — fake or real — is a light in the dark, something to hold onto when the radios are gone, her father is gone, and she is left with little more than her dark world and a model her father created  Perhaps she too hopes to be heroic in protecting it, though I’m not sure about that so much.

ANNA: Von Rumpel is an interesting character. He is calm and collected but very demanding, focused, and sinister. I’m not sure who has the real diamond at this point, but I believe this aspect of the story is all connected to the theme of light and hope. Believing he has the real diamond gives Marie-Laure’s father a purpose on the one hand, but a feeling of despair and failure on the other. When Marie-Laure takes it out of the model at the beginning of the novel, it seems like it gives her something to live for, something to protect. It certainly provides an interesting layer to the story, and I can’t wait to read more.

That’s it for this week.  Please feel free to answer the questions in the comments and continue the discussion by asking questions of your own.

We hope you’ll stop by next Friday, March 17 for our discussion of Sections 4 and 5.  Happy reading!

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