Excerpt from Motherland by Maria Hummel, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Maria Hummel

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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 400 pages
    Jan 2015, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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He looked relieved. His heavy chin wagged as he thanked her. Suddenly he seemed to her like an aging caricature of the Aryan face she'd once admired: his fair hair melted away, his eyes too blue, his jaw too strong, his thick soldier's body grown squat as a headstone.

"I'll set things straight in no time," she said with false lightness. The snow fell harder, faster. It frosted the black gate and the heap of frozen dog turds that a fat dachshund deposited there every morning, led on its leash by Frau Hefter, a woman made invincible to neighborly criticism by the silver Mother's Cross pinned to her coat for bearing six healthy German children.

Her neighbor flashed his own tobacco-stained dentures. "Good night, then," he said cheerily and reached out to squeeze Jürgen's foot. The baby chuckled and pawed at the air. "Such a nice boy," he said, turning away. "He has his mother's smile."

Herr Geiss trudged down the walk, pausing when he reached the gate.

"Tomorrow would be best," he said, glancing back over his shoulder.

"Tomorrow," she repeated.

Liesl was on the edge of the bed, her head pitched toward Jürgen's cradle, when she woke to the sirens. Without opening her eyes, she threw off the eiderdown and grabbed the coat she kept hanging by the bed. She shoved her feet in Frank's old Wandervögel boots. They gapped around her ankles even when she yanked the laces. She lit the lantern with a clumsy match. Her hands fumbled around Jürgen's ribs as she lifted him, and he looked around dopily and sank against her arm. She clomped to the hallway, calling for Hans and Ani.

Ani burst alone from their bedroom in his pajamas, his eyes melted black by the lantern.

"Where's Hans?" she said.

The boy pointed behind him. Liesl hurried into the bedroom where Hans was kneeling over a long row of white Juno cigarettes, each of them fat as a finger. He plucked them up one by one. He had "found" them by the railroad tracks that morning.

A plane droned in the distance. Jürgen cried and writhed, his pelvis grinding into her hip.

"What are you doing?" she shouted at Hans.

"Here." He held a Juno up to Jürgen.

The baby grabbed it before Liesl could stop him. The cigarette poked from his fist.

"He can't play with that," Liesl said, prying at the baby's fingers.

"Now get down to the cellar with your brother."

"It's not a real attack," said Hans.

Jürgen ripped the cigarette free from her, shoved it in his mouth. He chortled, his six teeth crawling with hairs of tobacco. The siren groaned again.

"That's going to make him sick," Liesl exclaimed as she forked the tobacco from the baby's mouth and flicked it on the floor. Jürgen licked his lips and stared down at the mess.

"I could have traded that," Hans muttered.

"Why would you want to make your brother sick?" she demanded.

"I'm scared," Ani said from the pitch-black hallway. "I don't wanna go down there."

"Don't be a baby," said Hans. "You're not the baby."

As if on cue, Jürgen began to cry.

"Both of you. Downstairs. Now," Liesl shouted. Her hand closed on Hans's collar. He recoiled as if stabbed. The siren cut off in midmoan. They stared at each other, waiting, the silence huge and terrifying. The sky rumbled but the siren did not respond. Although Hannesburg had not been hit directly, the Allies had decimated neighboring Frankfurt last spring. A waiter at the spa had gone there and taken pictures of the destruction: buildings burned to hollow ruins, littered streets, and lines of women, standing on the rubble, passing buckets from an unseen reservoir while the city fixed its busted pipes. Liesl had been more troubled by the women's hard, stiff faces than the fires—they looked as if someone had fixed their dread in stone.

Excerpted from Motherland by Maria Hummel. Copyright © 2014 by Maria Hummel. Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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