Review: Motherland

Reviewed by SUE REPKO


The epigraph to Maria Hummel’s latest novel Motherland is a short poem of the same title by the German poet Rose Ausländer (in German “Mutterland”).

My Fatherland is dead
They buried it
In fire

I live
in my Motherland—

—translation by Eavan Boland

The poem encapsulates the novel, set in Germany in the last year of World War II, in which a young German wife and stepmother repeatedly risks her own life to keep her new family intact. Motherhood—stepmotherhood in this case—becomes her reason for being.

Liesl is just 25 years old when Dr. Frank Kappus, a reconstructive surgeon at a medical spa in a remote German village called Hannesburg, initiates a brief courtship following the death of his wife in childbirth, which has left him with three young boys, including the newborn. Liesl works at the spa’s Kinderhaus or daycare. Their paths have crossed a few times, and when Frank needs a woman to take care of his sons while he serves at a military hospital in Weimar, her gentle way with children draws him to her.

Along the way the novel tackles essential questions about what it means to be a mother; gender roles, especially during wartime; the petty cruelties of small-town life; and the psychological trauma of war on one’s own soil, where “the front” is essentially everywhere. The novel toggles back and forth between Liesl at home in Hannesburg and Frank in Weimar, beginning in December of 1944 and continuing through January, February, and March of 1945.

When the novel opens, Liesl is fixated on the aroma and taste of a small cup of coffee, brewed with the surprising find of coffee grounds, “surely the last real coffee in all of Hannesburg,” tucked away by Frank’s first wife. This happens throughout the novel: in brief flashes, Liesl is reminded that she has taken another woman’s place. She wears the wedding ring of the first wife and, occasionally, the empty dresses, which hang in her closet. Sounds from the basement startle her, and some of the precious coffee ends up on the counter. In the basement, she finds the two oldest boys, Hans and Ani, watching a hand come through the wall. It belongs to Herr Geiss, their neighbor, who is constructing a tunnel between their two basements, which serve as their air raid shelters. Liesl is afraid to ask him to stop because he has connections in the Nazi party and extra ration cards and because he has known Liesl’s husband since Frank was a boy. In her own home, she has no standing. The most she can do to assert herself is to ask Herr Geiss to stop until she can write to Frank and ask him if the tunnel is okay. Underscoring her helplessness, the boys refuse to come upstairs for dinner, and the tunnel will continue to be built.

The oldest son, Hans, is the most rebellious. He is 10 years old, freshly motherless. He spends a lot of time in the basement and roughhousing with other children in the village near an abandoned brewery. Jürgen, the infant, grows fat and strong. The middle brother, Ani, deteriorates physically, mentally, and emotionally under all these stresses, and his perplexing condition is a major part of the novel.

Liesl, who has long since grown tired of Nazi propaganda, must quickly build alliances. Pressured by the widowed Herr Geiss, Liesl takes on the job of cleaning his house. Ani comes to help her, and there they see a portrait of Ani and his mother, painted by Herr Geiss’s late wife, a painter. The image takes Liesl’s breath away: the mother in white in a white-walled garden, holding her infant. She notices the resemblance between them and also the wedding ring she now wears. Ani visits with the portrait while she cleans, and this form of communion with his mother proves to be the source of his unraveling.

Shortly thereafter, Ani begins to stumble, say odd things, and have nightmares that he is being buried in a large pit with other bodies and body parts. He becomes obsessed with a green bird, a parrot, that he insists he sees at the abandoned brewery, although no one else ever sees it. Liesl takes him to a specialist who diagnoses his condition as lead poisoning. Liesl frantically combs every area of their home and outside environment and pleads with Ani to tell her what he’s been eating, but he will not tell and continues to deteriorate. The judgments of the doctor and of the neighbors, who notice the boy’s delusional and erratic behavior, make her feel inadequate, responsible, and guilty. And what will Frank think of her as a mother? Yet, Ani is also the first one to call Liesl “Mutti” and curl up with her and the baby in bed.

Frank’s portions of the novel are dominated by his relationship with Lieutenant Heinrich Hartmann, a patient who was also a childhood friend and the favorite student of his father, who had been Latin teacher. But Hartmann doesn’t remember Frank or his father, at least not at first. Although his jaw bone is intact, he has lost much of his mouth and is deaf; a shell had gone into one side of his mouth and out the other. Hartmann’s damaged face and loss of memory parallel the identity crisis about to beset Germany after the war. Hartmann will need multiple surgeries; reconstructive surgery is in its infancy then, and the doctor in Frank awakens to the challenge. How can he graft Hartmann’s skin in one procedure to make him look human again, to make his mouth functional, and to make him whole? Hummel seems to be asking the same questions about the German people. How does a nation look human again after committing heinous atrocities on a scale unseen in the history of humankind?

There are passages where Hummel’s experience as a poet—she is a former Stegner Fellow in poetry—results in prose that sings:

On the way from his barracks to the hospital’s main building, Frank passed into the freezing night. A cloudy night, safe from raids. Into the bluing air he walked, feeling its color and sharpness grip him. His lashes hardened and stuck. He passed in sight of the guard station and the hospital’s incinerator, both in the distance, on opposite sides of the field outside Weimar where the military encampment rose. He passed the humps of summer grass, buried under trampled snow, and the ribbons of moonlight that showed the wheel ruts. He passed the old Frank, who would not have noticed such things, the man before Susi’s death, who had not felt beaten by time.

When Frank learns that he’ll be transferred to Berlin, a target of the Allied bombing campaign, he struggles not only with how he will be able to fix Hartmann’s mouth before he goes, but also with whether to desert before the transfer. An urgent telegram from Liesl about Ani’s condition spurs him to that crucial crossroads. The specialist back home may recommend that Ani be removed from the home and sent to Hadamar, a facility from which the handicapped and mentally ill were killed. Early on, Liesl had mailed a stollen to Frank, into which she had baked a film canister with reichsmarks and a map.

In every step of the stollen’s production, Liesl was conscious of her inevitable failure. It would never taste like Susi’s. It would never get past the censors. Nevertheless she’d wrapped the loaf carefully in butcher paper so it wouldn’t grow stale and wrote a note warning Frank about the “fig” she’d baked whole inside. She wondered if he’d understand. She could tell by the soft way Frank looked at her that he didn’t think she was capable of deceit. He’d ironed her old life flat with his desire, then molded her into what he needed. The young wife. She leaned her cheek into Jürgen’s warm skull. The new mother.

The stollen makes it through the censors, and when the hospital in Weimar is bombed, Frank makes his escape amidst the chaos. From that point, the reader does not know the details of his journey or if he will reappear at home.

Back in Hannesburg, Liesl must also contend with a rapidly expanding household, as her home is assigned a couple of refugee families—Frau Dillman and her daughters and Frau Winter and her sons. To add to the chaos, Uta, a friend of Liesl’s from childhood and their days working at the spa, shows up pregnant by a Nazi officer, from whom she is hiding. When she can’t get an abortion, she consigns herself to having the child alone, but the officer is looking for her. In addition to the air raid sirens and ever-present threat of bombs and annihilation, everyone has some other specific terror hanging over him/her. As the Russians and Americans draw nearer, Uta, sacrificing herself on behalf of Liesl and her family, goes back to her S.S. lover and certain arrest or worse, but arranges for Ani to not be taken to Hadamar.

During the bombing of Hannesburg, vagabond Hans is alone at the brewery, too far from home to get back there and too late to be admitted to the shelter in the brewery. He endures the bombing in absolute terror. Back home, everyone else rushes to the basement; some of the refugees scramble to Herr Geiss’s side. While explosions rattle the cellar, Ani, who has taken to acting like the bird that only he can see, begins to squat, flap his arms, and scream. As he repeatedly launches himself into the ceiling and the walls, the remaining refugees crawl through the tunnel to get away from him. Then Ani pulls down a piece of green fabric and drags it over a candle, setting himself on fire. Liesl extinguishes it, saving him. When the raid ends, she heads out for the brewery in the dark, risking stepping on unexploded ordnance along the way to find Hans and bring him home.

Frank, too, returns home, but there is no happy ending here. Ani dies when he steps on unexploded ordnance. Hans discovers too late the cause of Ani’s poisoning—paint tubes taken from Herr Geiss’s home and hidden in his mattress. The reader has already learned in a brief passage that ingesting the paint was, for Ani, “like breathing in. It was breathing, and Mother would fill him and make him brave.” Hans shows the tubes to his father, who decides not to tell Liesl because it will only contribute to her guilt. In the end, Frank’s thoughts sum up the major theme of the novel: mothers and women unavoidably intimate, keeping their families alive, while men remain cut off from each other and themselves.

Thank God she had made some friends among the women—Frau Winter, Berte Geiss, Marta, and even that prissy peacock, Frau Hefter. They held each other up. They had cleared most of the streets themselves. They bartered—one woman’s handful of eggs for another’s supply of yarn—so that every family had almost enough. There was something between them that the men could not touch.

The Kappus family and their neighbors are also not immune to the post-war judgment and sentences imposed on them by the outside world for their choices, both the conscious and unconscious ones. Frank is arrested for treating a patient at Buchenwald and sent to a POW camp, though his hospital records indicate he was elsewhere. And when Liesl is questioned by an American officer, she can only claim that she knew nothing:

“Or perhaps he didn’t tell you about it? Like everyone else in your life—your neighbor, your old friend—they didn’t tell you anything at all?”

She shrugged.

“What did you talk about, then?”

“The children,” she said.

“What else?”

“Food. Coal,” she said.

Motherland was inspired by the real-life story of Hummel’s father, whose mother died in childbirth in the spring of 1942 in Germany. His father remarried then went off to war. Hummel’s paternal grandparents wrote letters to each other, plotting his desertion, and those letters were found in the 1980s in the wall of a home in which he’d hidden. The acknowledgments at the end of the book clarify Hummel’s impetus to explore these challenging and complicated themes, along with her struggle to remain true to her characters and their narratives. In her case, this meant making the Holocaust a peripheral part of the story. Liesl is not concerned about the fate of the Jews or Nazi policy, but survival, for herself and her stepchildren. Indeed, she is barely aware of the Holocaust.

On the one hand, Hummel’s authorial choice to make Liesl oblivious to the Holocaust had me shifting uncomfortably in my chair, even with Hummel’s confession at the end of the book:

It was painful to write from this perspective. It was painful to keep the Holocaust offscreen, to mention Jews only a few times in the book, and then go to dinner with my Jewish friends and family… Many times, I tried to change the story to allow my main characters to think or do something that showed their heroism in the face of the cruel Reich, and every time I had to cut the scenes to be faithful to their lives at the time.

On the other hand, good literature lets us see another person’s world, and the choices circumscribed by that time and place, as difficult as that may be. Terrifying, too, because it begs the question: What might I have done?


Maria Hummel is the author of the novel Wilderness Run and the poetry collection House and Fire. She was a Stegner Fellow in Poetry and now teaches at Stanford University.

Review: Motherland

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