I got an e-mail that made my day yesterday. It was from Susan Perry, of Psychology Today, sending me the link to her article on Dan Blum, one of Gabriel's Horn's most recent authors, along with Shawn Brink.
|Dan Blum, author|
I believe the background is given elsewhere on my blog, of how I met Dan on a poetry forum, and in the course of conversations, discovered this wonderful book he had written. (If not, there it is in a nutshell!)
I'm thrilled with the article, but I will say that I don't find this dark fiction at all. I understand why Susan calls it that. Hans is not having a good day. Really, Hans is not having a good life in many ways. He had the misfortune to be born just on time to come of age during Hitler's rise. His beloved Sylvia is taken away by the Gestapo and he lives with the guilt that he ran from them that night--convincing himself, just as her mother did, that she would be okay, that they only wanted to talk--while leaving Sylvia to be taken away to death. Despite this, he joins the Wehrmacht--still a teenager, still acting under the influences of his mother and the media's propaganda and calls to protect the Fatherland, later to suffer through the horrors of war, and of post-war Germany. These things will haunt him all his life.
He sees his half-brother shot by a Russian soldier for saying Heil Hitler, as the little boy was trained to do at his German school during the war. Years later, Hans is shunned by his own son, for his brief time in the Wehrmacht.
Just to top things off, Hans finds himself, at age 85, stranded on a desert island with 6 other survivors of the wreck of his neighbor's yacht. The events that happen on this island--told in alternating chapters with the story of Hans's life prior to leaving on the yachting party--are heartbreaking. We see the worst of human nature in so many respects. Broken marriages. Prostitutes. Chronic and debilitating illnesses. Stepfathers with no time for new stepchildren. Lonely children feeling abandoned. Mothers dying. Families torn apart by war and politics.
With all this going on, I understand why it is called dark. And yet, part of why I love this book so much is that it's told with humor, irony, and grace. Yes, life is terrible and painful. And yet, through Hans's eyes, we see so many touches of beauty and grace and...yes, hope! We see the tragedy, but also the good of human nature. We see musicians gather and bring joy back to those who are subsisting on starvation rations. We see a couple recoil at the death of a child and yet move on to a new life in a new world, striving to do the best they can.
We see a man struggle with the teenager he was, fighting against all the horrors through which he has lived, finally doing what he can to help one young girl in her moment of trial. We see all of humanity's failures, large and small, and we see one man's continual attempt to do better.
What is so powerful about Blum's novel is the humanity of it, the depth of it. People are not black and white, they are not caricatures. As Dan says in his interview with Susan, he dealt with "the challenge of how to translate psychological awareness into fiction that is seamless and not heavy-handed." I, for one, think he achieved that phenomenally. It didn't seem at all a challenge, but to flow effortlessly in his writing. The Feet Say Run is never heavy-handed. It is never overwhelming or despairing. Despite all the tragedy in Hans's life, he tells his story with a certain humor and acceptance to which we should all aspire. Life is hard, after all. What are we going to do about it? Laugh or cry? Hans's life has not been easy. But he doesn't wallow. He gets up in the morning and does what needs to be done, as well as he can.
I gave an excerpt yesterday from The Feet Say Run, in which Hans and Hilda experience the first post-war performance of the Berlin Symphony--one of those moments of beauty. Here's another one, in which Hilda, Hans, and Hilda's young son and Hans's half-brother, Georg, are working their way through post-war Europe, trying to find a place they can live and survive. Georg had been chastised repeatedly in school, during the war, for failing to salute and say Heil Hitler. Hilda, very much opposed to Hitler and his regime, had been repeatedly called into school and chastised for failing to teach it to him, and finally had done so out of fear. Hilda and Hans have just seen one Russian soldier murder another.
….this man, who had just killed another civilian right before our eyes? Staring down at the boy. Only that just heightening Georg’s fear, and Georg holding his salute firm. Trembling. Brave little boy. “Heil Hitler!”
At last! At last Hilda had taught Georg how to do it. How to say it so he wouldn’t get in trouble. And now he was doing it. Perfectly. Just as he was supposed to. Only why wasn’t it working? Why was this man still looking so angry? Hilda kept pleading helplessly. Sobbing. The gun aimed at her. Fumbling for the papers. But shaking. Not able to get them. The others calling out in Russian behind the drunk one. Only what were they saying?
Yes, there are dark moments in The Feet Say Run. There are also moments of humor, and we find that everyone in this book, even the minor 'characters' are very real, rounded, full people, such as Ugueth, Hans's groundskeeper and general help in his later years.My own arm reaching over, pushing Georg’s arm down and Georg finally panicking, lost, exploding in tears. Hilda holding out the documents, pleading, only nobody taking them, the Russians, all of us, talking all at once, nobody hearing anything or understanding anything, and the gun moving from Hilda to Georg, from mother to son, and the boy screaming and crying, Hilfe mir, Mutti, and then the one Russian grabbing the other’s arm, trying to stop him, so when you heard that sound, that deafening, irrevocable sound that you did not want to hear, it was impossible to say if the shot was even intended or if it had gone off accidentally. You just knew that at that moment everything exploded, everything shattered, Hilda and Georg and everything that had happened since the night they took Sylvia, those two moments seared on each end, closing off the years between them, blocking out everything, always there, always real, always wrong.
The waves lapped. The sun baked. The lizards paused, throats throbbing. Ugueth passed by pushing a wheelbarrow. “Good morning,” I called.
“So ’tis,” he said. He set the wheelbarrow down and approached. “Shall we open dee umbrella for de cap’n?”
I introduced Dawn. “That would be nice,” I said. “Thank you.”
“I jus’ followin’ de orders,” he said merrily. “What else I do?” And he hummed some African-sounding ballad as the umbrella fanned upward above us.
In a comic callback, we see Ugueth do this several times, utterly unswayed by Hans calling him out on it and pointing out that he hasn't ordered him to do anything. There are poignant and warm moments. Because this book is very much about real life.
Yesterday, I talked about Life and Literature, and The Feet Say Run fits right in. It is a book that is entertaining, that kept me turning the pages, and yet is deeply profound in its look at human nature, at the good and bad in each of us, and how we deal with the world around us, with situations we didn't choose.
The story repeatedly brings out that we don't know the truth of everything. We don't know if the Russian soldier intended to shoot Georg or not. Shawn, in my books, asks, Who's responsible, then?, because human nature is to seek someone to blame. Just as Shawn has to finally accept that sometimes there is no one single villain, Hans and Hilda must cope with Georg's death knowing it was not just the fault of one Russian soldier, but of an entire world gone crazy.
I'm biased, of course. This is very much what I seek in my own writing: people who are not all good or all bad, because almost everyone has both their good points and their bad points. I see The Feet Say Run also as a story of redemption. Hans did that awful thing. He fought for the Nazis. He defends himself on some level. Yet I believe he's also a man seeking redemption, and he finds it in Dawn. It's a tragic story in many ways, but also one of hope, as we see how Hans handles the tragedies of his life, and how he determines to live at the very end.
Congratulations, Dan, on your appearance in Psychology Today! It is well-deserved!
- February 10, 2017, 7 pm: I'll be reading and signing books at Magers and Quinn with Genny Kieley. Complimentary wine and a medieval dessert!
- February 12 and 19, I'll be reading on the Vehicle of Expression, part of the Art Shanty Project
- February 25, 2017: I will co-host Food Freedom on AM 950 with Laura Hedlund and Karen Olson Johnson. Guests: Michael Agnew, craft beer expert and Ross Fishman on Russian literature. We'll taste Russian beer: listen to the whole program from last month.
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