Reading guide for Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian

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Skeletons at the Feast

by Chris Bohjalian

Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian X
Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian
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  • First Published:
    May 2008, 384 pages

    Feb 2009, 384 pages


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Vy Armour
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Please be aware that this discussion guide will contain spoilers!

Skeletons at the Feast: Reading Guide & Q&A

Reading Guide
In the chaotic months before the final collapse of the Third Reich, the Germans living in the eastern part of Hitler’s empire fled their homes to escape the onslaught of the Soviet Army. If these refugees didn’t know the specifics of the atrocities their people had committed on Russian soil –and, in fact, were still committing in concentration camps across Poland and Germany–they nonetheless understood that the Russians were going to be merciless.

It is this world that Chris Bohjalian brings vividly and powerfully to life in Skeletons at the Feast. A Prussian aristocrat struggles west with her beautiful daughter, her young son, and a Scottish prisoner of war. Meanwhile, a female Jewish prisoner struggles to survive first the horrors of a concentration camp and then a forced march west in the ice and snow of a German winter. And a Jewish man who has leapt from a train bound for a death camp learns to do whatever he must to survive.

This reader’s guide is intended as a starting point for your discussion of the novel.

  1. Do you know–or are you yourself–a veteran of World War II? Discuss what you know of the war and any reminiscences that veterans may have shared.

  2. Both of Anna’s parents are members of the Nazi Party–though it is clear that they are not die-hard believers. Living on their farm in rural Prussia, they are largely sheltered from the atrocities perpetrated against the Jews. As Germans, do you think they share responsibility for the Nazis’ actions even if they didn’t know the full extent of what was happening? Why did they join the party? Did they have a choice? Consider Helmut’s teacher who questions the boy about his father’s loyalty to Hitler and the consequences of resisting. If failure to join meant death for you, what would you have done?

  3. A group of POWs is brought to the Emmerich family’s farm to help with the harvest, including a Scot named Callum Finella. He and Anna fall in love. What brings them together? Does the kindness of the Emmerich family, and Callum’s love for their only daughter, change his view of the German people as a whole?

  4. We meet Uri on the train to Auschwitz. What kind of man is he? How does he behave on the train? Imagine yourself in those deplorable conditions. Do you think you would seize the opportunity for freedom and jump as Uri did, leaving behind your family to an uncertain future?

  5. While arguing with Anna about what is really happening to Jews, Callum says, “Suppose my government in England just decided to ‘resettle’ the Catholics–to take away their homes, their animals, their possessions, and just send them away?” What if this was happening where you live? What actions would you be willing to take to protect your friends and neighbors? At what point would the risks have been too great?

  6. To survive, Uri impersonates a German soldier, stealing papers and uniforms from soldiers he either kills or finds dead. Discuss the events that lead up to his first killing of a Nazi. Discuss his reaction to what he has done (page 59). Do you believe his actions were warranted?

  7. Although the world is essentially collapsing around them, Anna and Callum fall in love, Theo cries over leaving his beloved horse behind, and Mutti carefully drapes the furniture in sheets to protect it before they flee their home ahead of the Russians. What do these simple, ordinary actions reveal about them as people? About the human capacity for hope?

  8. Theo is only a child but he feels lacking in comparison to his older brothers Werner and Helmut, both off fighting in the war. What kind of child is he? Does he fit in with his peers? Why doesn’t Theo tell his mother about his foot? What does this reveal about him? Does Theo change over the course of the novel?

  9. Describe Cecile. What kind of woman is she? What keeps her going in spite of the cruelty and degradation she suffers every day? How is she different from her friend Jeanne? Do you think you would act more like Cecile or Jeanne in the same circumstances?

  10. In Chapter Eight, Helmut and his father, Rolf, try to convince Uncle Karl to leave his home along with the Emmerichs. He refuses, keeping his daughter, daughter-in-law, and grandson with him in spite of the danger. Why won’t he evacuate? Why won’t he let the women and the child leave? On page 118 he refers to them and their way of life as “skeletons at the feast.” What does he mean by this?

  11. Describe the circumstances that bring Uri and the Emmerichs together. Why does he choose to stay with them after running alone for so long? How does he feel about them initially? How do his feelings for them change?

  12. On page 178, Callum is thinking about bringing Anna home with him to Scotland after the war. How does he think she will be received? Why is he troubled?

  13. During their long march from the prison camp to the factory, Jeanne and another prisoner find soldiers’ rations and eat them. They do not wake Cecile to share them with her. Why? In the same circumstances, what would you have done?

  14. Given the odds of success, would you have been brave enough to attempt to escape with Cecile and her friends?

  15. Describe Mutti. What was she like at the beginning of the war? At the end? What does she view as her primary responsibility? On pages 291—293, she remembers burying the young German pilot whose plane crashed in her park. Why was burying him–and the enemy Russian soldiers–important to her?

  16. How does Anna change as the novel progresses? Why does she feel the need for personal forgiveness at the end? Is she right to feel guilty?

  17. Discuss the importance of hope in survival. Which character is the most hopeful? Which character is the most defeated? What moments at the end of the novel symbolize hope most poignantly?

  18. Discuss the legacy that Mutti’s generation left for Anna’s. As a nation, what kind of legacy are we leaving for our children?

Chris Bohjalian talks about Skeletons at the Feast

Skeletons at the Feast was inspired by an actual World War II diary. How did you find out about this diary? What about it led you to write this book?

Like most of my novels, the idea for Skeletons at the Feast emerged from the minutiae of everyday life. There was a little girl in my daughter's kindergarten class here in Vermont, and one day her father, Gerd Krahn, asked me if I would look at his German grandmother's unpublished diary. His mother had just finished translating it into English. This was back in 1998.

Usually, this sort of request is a novelist's worst nightmare: Most family histories are dull as toast and badly written. But Gerd is a very good friend of mine, and so I was happy to read the diary that his East Prussian grandmother, Eva Henatsch, kept from 1920 through 1945.

Much of the diary focused upon the day-to-day activities of helping to manage a sizable estate in a remote, still rural corner of Europe. But then there were the passages that chronicled 1945 and Eva's family's arduous trek west ahead of the Soviet Army – a journey that was always grueling and often terrifying. I was fascinated. But I still didn't anticipate that it would ever inspire me to embark upon a novel.

Eight years later, however, in 2006, I read Max Hastings's history of the last year of the war in Germany, Armageddon, and I was struck by how often the anecdotes in Hastings's nonfiction account mirrored moments in that diary. Apparently, the horrors in Henatsch's diary were not unique. But nor were the moments of idiosyncratic human connection – such as the occasional friendships (and even romances) that grew between Allied prisoners of war who were sent to the farms in East Prussia to help with the harvest and the teenage German farm girls there. It was thus almost out of intellectual curiosity that I asked Gerd if I could revisit his grandmother's diary. It was on that second reading that I began to imagine a novel.

As the author of eleven novels you have written about a wide range of subjects, though your last book The Double Bind and now Skeletons at the Feast were inspired by a real life story or person. Does having a back story make writing a novel more challenging? Do you actively seek real life stories that inspire you?

I've been lucky: I've never had to actively seek a story. They've always appeared right in my backyard – even this new book, which is set in another part of the world in another era.

Of course, it's important to note that although characters in Skeletons at the Feast endure some of the same trials as Eva Henatsch and her remarkable family, Irmgard Emmerich – Mutti in my novel – is not Eva. Nor is Anna Emmerich, my principal heroine, a recreation of Eva's daughter, Heidi. I hope the fictional Mutti and Anna have a semblance of Eva's and Heidi's monumental courage and resiliency and compassion, but they are nonetheless fictional constructs.

So, I would say it is helpful to have an inspiration to get me excited about a period or an idea. But there is still the hard work of imaging a story and a people, and constructing a compelling fictional world.

Your novels tend to center on ordinary people who find themselves trapped in extraordinarily difficult situations, and clearly that is true of this book as well. Beyond that, how would you compare Skeletons at the Feast to your other work?

It's quite different in that it's set in a particular historical moment. But it still shares some specific universalities with my other work: Ordinary people coping with trials they had never before imagined; young people coming of age in moments of seemingly unbearable stress; and, I hope, the sorts of moral ambiguity that give us all pause and force us to examine our values.

You bring to life in vivid detail an aspect of WWII that we haven't heard a lot about: the frenzied evacuation of the Germans as the Eastern front crumbled and the Russians advanced. What research did you draw on to learn more about this part of history?

The last six months of the Second World War in Poland and the eastern edges of Germany had to have been one of the most horrific periods in human history. The magnitude of the carnage is almost inconceivable. There were concentration camps that were still functioning; there were the starving, desperately ill prisoners from other camps whom the Nazis were marching west in the cold; there were the Russian soldiers dying in monumental numbers since a part of the Russian military strategy was simply attrition; there were the German soldiers fighting like cornered wolves because they knew they didn't dare surrender after the atrocities their army had committed across the Soviet Union; and then there were the terrified German civilians – women and children and old people – plodding west ahead of the advancing Russian army.

The scope of the crucible is always brought home to me by one single moment: The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff on January 30, 1945. The former cruise ship was the very last vessel to leave the surrounded East Prussian port of Gotenhafen, and so over 10,000 frantic evacuees fought their way aboard. (Think for a moment of those images we've all seen of the last helicopters leaving Saigon in 1975 as the North Vietnamese were arriving – then move that chaos to a port and multiply it a thousand times over.) The ship was quickly sunk by a Russian submarine, and over 9,500 people went to the bottom of the Baltic – or six times the number of people who died on the Titanic.

In any case, I did a great deal of secondary research. But the most important details in the new novel came from my interviews with Holocaust survivors – including individuals who endured those horrific winter death marches – and with Germans who were alive in the period. Their stories always were wrenching.

The three principal characters in Skeletons—Anna, the young woman from the well-to-do Prussian family; Callum, the Scottish POW; and Uri, the Jewish man passing himself off as a German soldier—are all so different. Which was the most challenging character for you?

I think it was Callum, the Scottish POW. Anna and Uri have their secrets and their guilts and their inner demons, and so they were always interesting to me. But Callum? In the novel he's barely 20 when he's captured, and he never even fired his weapon in battle before being captured. He was, in some ways, almost too good at first. Too unambiguous. He proved to be a bit of a challenge.

Are you already at work on your next novel? Any hints as to what it's about?

I am, yes. It's a love story – in some ways, a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" – set in Florence and Tuscany toward the end of the Second World War. It's the second book in my planned World War Two trilogy. The first of the books, of course, is Skeletons at the Feast. The final of the three will be set on one of the Channel Islands.

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Three Rivers. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

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