The German-American author Ursula Heig explores the perennial 20th-century question – how could otherwise “good” people have been ok with letting the Holocaust happen? – in her 1994 novel, Stones From the River
. Heig portrays the history of a small town through the period following WWI and ending just after WWII. The novel follows the life of a woman born with dwarfism. Through her eyes, we see the townspeople’s conflicting impulses clash: greed versus compassion, cowardice versus bravery, conflict avoidance versus moral principles, and prejudice versus fellow feeling.
The protagonist is Trudi Montag, who is born in 1915 in the town of Bergdorf, a completely ordinary small town in Germany. Her father, Leon, a veteran of WWI, now owns and runs the town’s pay library (where people can take out books for a small fee). Her mother, who is already somewhat mentally unstable before Trudi is born, loses her sanity entirely after taking one look at the large head and short limbs that are physical symptoms of Trudi’s dwarfism. After rejecting the infant, her mother does embrace her at last when Trudi is a toddler, but by then it’s too late: she dies before Trudi is 4 years old.
After her death, Trudi realizes that her own condition may have contributed to her mother’s mental deterioration. What Trudi doesn’t understand is that her mother’s problems weren’t caused by revulsion or horror at Trudi. Instead, she is driven mad by the guilt she feels at having had an affair while pregnant, when Trudi’s father was away fighting in WWI. Betraying her husband with his best friend is too shameful for her to be able to get over. Trudi’s father never fully gets over his beautiful wife’s early death, but his love for his daughter is unconditional and steadfast throughout her life.
In the novel’s symbolism, Trudi is born as a result of insanity and guilt – a lethal combination that makes her an analog for Germany as a whole, as the country reels from its defeat in WWI by allowing the rise of fascism.
As Trudi grows up, she learns that all the people who live in her village refer to her not by name, but by the German word zwerg
, or dwarf. Most of the people are uncomfortable seeing her or interacting with her because of her difference. For a long time, Trudi internalizes this feeling and is bitter and resentful over her physical condition. She spends hours hanging upside down from the living room ceiling moldings in order to force her body to stretch and grow (in vain, of course). When she is 14 years old, four boys sexually assault her in a barn.
Consumed by rage and vengeance, Trudi learns to harness her incredible power of gathering information and finding out and understanding secrets. In the book’s sometimes almost fairy-tale like descriptions of this ability, Trudi sometimes comes across as almost psychic or otherwise supernaturally gifted to see into people’s ultimate hopes and fears. Sometimes she gathers secrets through spying, using her small stature and socially inferior standing as physical and mental disguise tools. Over time, she also starts to attract the visits of villagers who have dark secrets they can’t reveal to anyone else, becoming the village confidante.
At first, Trudi uses the information she gathers as a weapon. As the country steadily marches toward the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime, she too is filling with hatred and acting out of anger. She plots the suffering of the boys who attacked her, but when her revenge takes place and she sees their misery, she realizes that being propelled by hatred is corrupting and wrong. As she looks around the town, she sees it playing out in miniature what happened in Germany as a whole: after the loss in WWI, the 1920s are economically difficult and the townspeople are easily led by the rhetoric of Hitler and his minions into steadily growing anti-Semitism and a variety of other prejudices, including ones about people like Trudi.
Because Trudi is the keeper of the town’s secrets, the novel tells us about almost every single resident of Bergdorf. We learn about the bravery of Frau Eberhart, whose soldier son reports her for lack of allegiance to the Nazis for her acts of resistance; the tragedy of Trudi’s boyfriend Max, who is killed in the bombing of Dresden; the suffering of Trudi’s friend Ingrid, who ends up killing herself because of guilt over her sexuality. To cope with this misery, Trudi starts a tradition of visiting the nearby rivers when she has free time, and throwing stones into them to represent and honor the new dead.
Trudi and her father resist the Nazis as much as possible. Because the local authorities consider her not to be a threat, their house becomes a safe place for a few Jewish townspeople, whom they successfully hide until the end of the war.
After the war, Trudi watches as soldiers who thought they were fighting as heroes come back to the overwhelming guilt of realizing the truth behind concentration camps and the full agenda that they had been supporting. She also sees townspeople who had embraced, or at least didn’t resist, the Nazi ideology now either denying or forgetting their Nazi past.
After her father dies, Trudi takes over the Bergdorf pay library and expands her role – she starts gathering stories and tales. She is also able to save one of the “river stones” – she adopts Hanna, the baby of a dead woman – and ironically, this helps Trudi stop being the gossip repository of the village, since no one would reveal anything deeply personal with a little kid around. The novel ends in 1952, as Trudi thinks about the positive relationships she has had and her bittersweet survival.
The novel received positive reviews, and was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award.