Summary and book reviews of Motherland by Maria Hummel

Motherland

by Maria Hummel

Motherland
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2015, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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About this Book

Book Summary

The novel bears witness to the shame and courage of Third Reich families during the devastating final days of the war, as each family member's fateful choice lead the reader deeper into questions of complicity and innocence, to the novel's heartbreaking and unforgettable conclusion.

Motherland is inspired by stories from the author's father and his German childhood, and letters between her grandparents that were hidden in an attic wall for fifty years. It is the author's attempt to reckon with the paradox of her father - a product of her grandparents' fiercely protective love and their status as Mitläufer, Germans who "went along" with Nazism, first reaping its benefits and later its consequences.

This page-turning novel focuses on the Kappus family: Frank is a reconstructive surgeon who lost his beloved wife in childbirth and two months later married a young woman who must look after the baby and his two grieving sons when he is drafted into medical military service. Alone in the house, Liesl must attempt to keep the children fed with dwindling food supplies, safe from the constant Allied air attacks, and protected against the swell of desperate refugees flooding their town. When one child begins to mentally unravel, Liesl must discover the source of the boy's infirmity or lose him forever to Hadamar, the infamous hospital for "unfit" children. The novel bears witness to the shame and courage of Third Reich families during the devastating last days of the war, as each family member's fateful choices lead them deeper into questions of complicity and innocence, to the novel's heartbreaking and unforgettable conclusion.

When Liesl heard the noise from the cellar, her hand shook and the coffee spilled. The liquid spread in claws across the counter, its color neither brown nor red nor black, but some combination of all three, earthen and old. A hopeless feeling rose in her chest. She had discovered the grounds deep in the pantry yesterday, tucked behind a post, in a tiny tin next to a tiny pot of jam, both labeled in the first wife's hand. It was surely the last real coffee in all of Hannesburg, boiled with the last of the morning coal, the sharp selfish heaven of its scent rising toward her face. Then it splashed everywhere.

She heard the noise again, a grating, chinking sound, and then the murmur of the boys. What were they doing down there? Everything made her startle this morning. She had sent the package to Frank two weeks ago, confidently inking the address of the Weimar hospital where he was stationed as a reconstructive surgeon. Nothing suspicious in here...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. How much did you know about German families in the Third Reich before reading Motherland? How did the book change your perspective?
  2. Readers experience Motherland through the points of view of several characters: Liesl, Frank, Uta, Hans, and Ani. How did seeing the book's events through different eyes affect your understanding of what happened to the family?
  3. Many scenes of Motherland take place in the house, in a private domestic sphere, instead of on battlegrounds. How and where did you notice the war and all its terrors infiltrating the lives of mothers and children?
  4. In the first chapter, Herr Geiss digs a hole connecting the cellar shelters of the Kappus and the Geiss houses. How does that action become a catalyst for change for...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Maria Hummel's characterizations, rich descriptions and portrayal of a city in wartime make this one a good choice for anyone who enjoys WWII novels that focus on the way the conflict impacted the citizens of Germany.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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Booklist 

In prose that is both spare and heavily laden with the exhausted emotion of hard living, Hummel maintains a claustrophobic undercurrent of fear even when describing mundane daily tasks. Dark and uncompromising, Motherland illuminates a little-examined aspect of the war.

Kirkus

Starred Review. Who among us, faced with similar circumstances, would have acted differently? Heart-rending and chilling.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. While stunningly intimate, Motherland is expansive in feeling and scope. Extending beyond a simple historical drama, this book is a reminder of the reach of love, how it can blind, and how it can heal.

Author Blurb Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
This is a tender, profound novel of a young woman who steps into a shattered German family and makes it her own. The radiance of her sacrifice, and of Hummel’s storytelling, illuminates this dark chapter of human history with heart and revelation.

Author Blurb Jesmyn Ward, author of Salvage the Bones, Winner of the National Book Award
In stunning, pitch-perfect prose, Maria Hummel gives us a deeply moving portrait of lives on the wrong side of history. This isn't just another World War II novel; it's a spectacular story about what it means to love and hope in the most difficult times.

Author Blurb Susan Sherman, The Little Russian
Maria Hummel draws upon her family history to create a spellbinding novel that examines the many facets of motherhood, during a time of war and beyond. Motherland is a vivid, heart-stopping depiction of a German family’s struggle to stay together during the devastating Allied bombing of their small town. You won’t soon forget these characters or the stories they have to tell.

Author Blurb Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Through the intimate story of one German family at the end of the Second World War, Motherland weaves a universal tale of moral obligation, wartime complicity, and the lengths we will go to protect those we love. From the bare bones of her own family’s history, Maria Hummel has built a visceral, magnificent creature.

Author Blurb Ursula Hegi, Stones from the River
A courageous and unsettling novel arising from the questions that Maria Hummel had about her grandparents’ lives during the Third Reich. How much did they know? How did they survive?

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Beyond the Book

Systematic Euthanasia

In Motherland, one of the brothers, Ani, is a patient at a hospital in Hadamar, which was notorious for implementing the Nazis' systematic euthanasia program.

Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection had the unintended consequence of giving birth to Social Darwinism – determining the course of human evolution through selective breeding, otherwise known as eugenics. The idea was very popular in Europe and particularly the United States in the early part of the 20th century. Several countries (including the USA) developed policies whereby those with hereditary mental or physical defects could be sterilized to prevent them from "contaminating" the general population.

In Germany, the National Socialists (Nazis) put "...

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