Sunday, August 27, 2017

Forty Autumns (Book Review)

Title: Forty Autumns
Author: Nina Willner
Publication: William Morrow, trade paperback, 2017
Genre: Memoir/History
Plot: After World War II ended, the Russians took control of the eastern part of Germany, where Hanna, a pretty teenager and eldest of a large family, begins to question the repressive communist regime controlling what becomes East Germany. Her father, a respected educator, conforms to protect his family while her mother maintains optimism publicly but privately encourages Hanna to make a perilous escape to freedom in West Germany. Although Hanna eventually marries and settles in the United States, she never forgets her family, despite years with only an occasional censored letter as contact. This book depicts Hanna and her family, including the daughter and author – who amazingly became an Army intelligence officer stationed in Berlin – as well as the fascinating story of the family she left behind, their suffering and perseverance during the forty years before the Berlin Wall came down.

Audience: Fans of WWII historical fiction, books about strong women, 20th century history

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Library

My Impressions: This is an amazing book that reads like fiction but with the chill of knowing it really happened as the author describes. I have read many novels set around WWII but little about the Cold War (unless you count some later Helen MacInnes), and a review I read last year in Publishers Weekly or Kirkus caught my attention, so I was delighted to have this opportunity to review Forty Autumns. I cannot recommend it more highly, and believe Forty Autumns will make a great book group selection when it is my turn to pick.

Willner’s achievement is not merely her ability to tell the story of three generations of courageous women but the way she vividly portrays their parallel lives, their endurance, and the way they kept each other in their thoughts. Her research and careful reconstruction of events she did not personally experience is also impressive.

While Hanna was making a new life for herself in Heidelberg and later when she is living in the US, bringing up six children, she yearns for her family, unaware of the suffering they are experiencing and sending care packages that are rarely received. I liked the way author described the sense of connection between Hanna and her youngest sister Heidi, who met only once when Heidi and her mother briefly visited Heidelberg, but despite a significant age difference, that meeting gave Heidi the courage to resist the communist doctrine she was fed by her community. I especially liked the juxtaposition of the next generation – that while the author is stationed in Berlin as a young intelligence officer her younger cousin Cordula, on the other side of the Wall, is being groomed as an elite athlete for East Germany.

Hanna’s parents are the true heroes of this book: the father who tries to reconcile his love of teaching with the communist doctrine he is forced to incorporate to his curriculum for the sake of keeping his family safe, and the mother who tries to preserve the affection and loyalty that will protect her children through the deprivations they are forced to endure. I also appreciated hearing about the brave individuals who tried to escape but were killed in the attempt and a few, like the intrepid Gunter Wetzel, who flew over in a hot air balloon. It is hard to imagine oneself being that courageous.
Source: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher for review purposes. Thank you also to TLC Book Tours for inviting me to participate in the tour. You can visit other stops by clicking below:

Tuesday, August 15th: Openly Bookish
Wednesday, August 16th: Back Porchervations
Wednesday, August 23rd: Reading Reality
Wednesday, August 23rd: Laura’s Reviews
Thursday, August 24th: Literary Quicksand
Wednesday, August 30th: Bibliophiliac
Thursday, August 31st: Mama Vicky Says
Monday, September 4th: Doing Dewey
Tuesday, September 5th: My Military Savings
Wednesday, September 6th: Tina Says…
Thursday, September 7th: Man of La Book
Friday, September 8th: Eliot’s Eats
Friday, September 8th: Thoughts On This ‘n That
TBD: Wining Wife
TBD: Art @ Home


Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

The fact that this story is true is what draws me to it - I can't even begin to imagine how I would have lived through that era.

Thanks for being a part of the tour!

JaneGS said...

Sounds like an amazing book, indeed. I like the premise, and I haven't read much about the Cold War either. Thanks for a great review.

DoingDewey said...

I really liked the contrast between the author's life and Cordula's too! Although as a nonfiction lover, it makes me a little sad that when I find a particularly good nonfiction book, the descriptor that comes to mind is that it reads like fiction, but I definitely thought the exact same thing. The events couldn't have been more exciting if they were made up and I found the writing very engaging.