Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Amy Einhorn Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.
Berlin at the height of World War II is almost devoid of men, the Allies are dropping bombs, food is getting scarce, and trust is getting scarcer. This is the setting for David R. Gillham's debut novel, City of Women, about a young women named Sigrid Schröder and the people who cross her path.
Here is part of the publisher's summary:
. . . . Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is a Jew.On some levels City of Women is a simple novel to describe. It's the story of Frau Schröder's incremental entanglement in the lives of the men and women who open her eyes to the truths of her country's policies.
But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets.
A high-ranking SS officer and his family move down the hall and Sigrid finds herself pulled into their orbit. A young woman doing her duty-year is out of excuses before Sigrid can even ask her any questions. And then there’s the blind man selling pencils on the corner, whose eyes Sigrid can feel following her from behind the darkness of his goggles.
Soon Sigrid is embroiled in a world she knew nothing about, and as her eyes open to the reality around her, the carefully constructed fortress of solitude she has built over the years begins to collapse. She must choose to act on what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two. . . .
The novel is also about Berlin and the atmosphere of living on edge. Friends report friends to the SS. Women rush to catch the early bus so they can be lucky enough to be the first in line to buy a little bit of the available milk or meat. Mothers wait for letters from their sons on the front. Apartment managers throw their weight around, suddenly big fish in small ponds. Gillham gets the details just right, and war-torn Berlin is alive again.
But Gillham's novel is really about the choices we make and how seemingly small acts have larger consequences. In 1943, everyone in Berlin must make moral and ethical choices every day. Even refusing to recognize that fact is a choice in and of itself. Selfish or selfless, people pick the path they can live with. If good people act in the name of self-preservation, are they no longer good? If a bad man makes one righteous move, is he no longer bad? Gillham makes us think about the fuzzy boundaries between right and wrong. When Sigrid questions the behavior of one of her friends, the girl answers:
"I mean to say that stealing is sometimes a moral imperative." (p. 98)And finally, although City of Women is not a book about soldiers, Sigrid sees what war has done to her husband:
All the boyishness from his face has been rubbed off. The uniform he wears looks baggy on him. He stands slowly with a scrape of his chair on the floor, and faces her. And in his eyes she can see the gun sight aimed at the world. (p. 233)And it is such details and dilemmas that make City of Women a book to be remembered.
For more about the book and David Gillham's meticulous research, see last week's article by Steve Pfarrer in the Amherst Bulletin, Charles Finch's article in USAToday, and his own essay on the PenguinUSA website. You can also follow Gillham on Twitter, check out his website, and like his Facebook page.
Amy Einhorn Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Amy Einhorn's open letter posted here on January 25, 2010, or click the Amy Einhorn tab below my banner photo. To join the Amy Einhorn Books Reading Challenge, click the link.