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A Novel

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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In January 1945, in the waning months of World War II, a small group of people begin the longest journey of their lives: an attempt to cross the remnants of the Third Reich, from Warsaw to the Rhine if necessary, to reach the British and American lines.

Among the group is eighteen-year-old Anna Emmerich, the daughter of Prussian aristocrats. There is her lover, Callum Finella, a twenty-year-old Scottish prisoner of war who was brought from the stalag to her family’s farm as forced labor. And there is a twenty-six-year-old Wehrmacht corporal, who the pair know as Manfred–who is, in reality, Uri Singer, a Jew from Germany who managed to escape a train bound for Auschwitz.

As they work their way west, they encounter a countryside ravaged by war. Their flight will test both Anna’s and Callum’s love, as well as their friendship with Manfred–assuming any of them even survive.

Perhaps not since The English Patient has a novel so deftly captured both the power and poignancy of romance and the terror and tragedy of war. Skillfully portraying the flesh and blood of history, Chris Bohjalian has crafted a rich tapestry that puts a face on one of the twentieth century’s greatest tragedies–while creating, perhaps, a masterpiece that will haunt readers for generations.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

0307394956|excerpt

Bohjalian: SKELETONS AT THE FEAST

Part I

Autumn 1944

Chapter One

usually, it was only when one of the local soldiers was home on leave that Anna and her girlfriends ever saw the sorts of young men with whom, in different times, they might have danced. And, as the war had dragged on, the pool of marriage prospects—in Anna’s mind, often enough that meant merely her older brother Werner’s acquaintances—dried up completely. The soldiers were either missing or disfigured or dead.

But then came the POWs. Seven of them, sent from the prison camp to help with the harvest.

And a week after the POWs arrived at Kaminheim, when the corn was almost completely harvested and everyone was about to begin to gather the sugar beets and the apples, there came four naval officers in search of a plow. They were planning to mark a groove through the estate that would be the start of an antitank trench. When it was complete, the trench would span the length of the district, bisecting some farms, skirting the edges of others. Meanwhile, different officers were visiting neighboring estates as well, and the Emmerichs were told that at some point in the coming month hundreds of foreigners and old men would follow them, and descend on the estate to actually construct the trench.

And while the very idea of an antitank trench was alarming, the presence of all those handsome young men—the Germans, the Brits, and that one very young Scot—made it a burden Anna was willing to shoulder. This was true, at least in part, because she didn’t honestly believe the fighting would ever come this far west. It couldn’t. Even the naval officers said this was a mere precau- tion. And so she would flirt with the Brits during the day in the fields, where she would work, too, and dance with the naval officers in the evenings in the manor house’s small but elegant ballroom. Mutti would play the piano, joined after that first night by Callum Finella on Uncle Felix’s accordion, while her father—though distracted by the news from the east—would look on benignly. Sometimes Theo would put his toy cavalrymen away and watch as well, appalled in the manner of any ten-year-old boy that these brave and accomplished soldiers wanted to waste their time with the likes of his sister and her friends. He followed the men around like a puppy.

Helmut did, too. But Helmut actually would work with the officers as long as their father allowed him away from the har- vest, helping them to find their way around the endless acres of Kaminheim, and thus mark out the optimum design and place- ment of the trench. Then, after dinner, he would dance with Anna’s friends—girls who, previously, he had insisted were too puerile to be interesting. Seeing them now through the eyes of the navy men, however, he was suddenly discovering their charms.

Certainly Anna worried about her older brother, Werner, who had already been wounded once in this war and was fighting somewhere to the south. But she had rarely spent any time with men as interesting as this eclectic group who had descended upon their farm that autumn. She and Helmut had learned to speak English in school, though she had taken her studies far more seriously than her brother, which meant that she alone in the assemblage could speak easily to everybody—the POWs during the day and the naval officers at night—and appreciate how erudite and experienced everyone was. At least, she thought, in comparison to her. She was, on occasion, left almost dizzy as she swiveled among conversations and translated asides and remarks. And the longer stories? She felt like a star-struck child. When she was in grade school she had met English families the winter her family had gone skiing in Switzerland, but by 1944 she remembered little more than a very large man in a very poor bear costume, and the way she and the English children together had endured his clownish shenanigans because all of the parents had thought the fellow was wildly entertaining. But since the war had begun, she hadn’t been west of Berlin. In the early years, they had still taken summer holidays on the beaches of the Baltic or ventured to Danzig for concerts, but lately even those trips had ceased completely. Two of their POWs, however, had seen the pyramids; another had been to America; and Callum—the youngest of the group, the tallest of the group, and the only one from Scotland—had been born in India, where his father had been a colonial official, and had traveled extensively throughout Bengali and Burma and Madras as a little boy.

Even the German naval officers were more interesting than any of the country boys—or men—she had met in her district. They, too, had seen places in Europe and Africa she’d only read about in books.

Initially, she had worried that there might be unpleasant sparks when the Germans and the Brits crossed paths, especially on the first morning when the naval officers would be marking out a segment of the antitank trench in the very same beet fields where the POWs were working. But the two groups of men had largely ignored each other.

It was the next day, when she was working alongside the prisoners in the apple orchard, that one of the POWs—that exuberant young giant named Callum—segued from the usual flirtatious banter to which she had grown accustomed and had come to ex- pect from him, to guarded innuendos about Adolf Hitler and then (even more problematic, in some ways) to questions about the work camps.

“You’re such a nice girl, Anna, and so sharp,” he said, as the two of them stood together beside a particularly wiry tree, resting for a moment midmorning. There was a military policeman who must have been somebody’s grandfather standing guard a hundred meters away, but he was so old he probably wouldn’t have heard a word they were saying if they had been standing directly beside him. “And your family is much more hospitable than necessary—given the circumstances and all.” The POWs were sleeping in the bunkhouse that the farmhands had used before they had either run off or been commandeered by the Reich for work in the mines and the munitions factories.

“Thank you,” she said simply. She was unsure where this conversation was going, but that opening, that apparent surprise that she was such a nice girl, had her slightly wary. She’d been laughing with Callum for days, and the thought crossed her mind that perhaps she had misjudged him. Grown too comfortable—too friendly—with him. With all the POWs.

“So, I was wondering,” he continued, his voice nonchalant. “What do you think your Hitler is doing with the Jews?”

“My Hitler? You make him sound like one of my horses,” she said, aware that she was not answering his question.

“I didn’t mean that. I meant . . .”

“What did you mean?”

“I had a mate in Scotland who was Jewish, a chum I played soccer with. We were friends, our parents were friends. He had family somewhere in Germany. And they just disappeared. There was talk of them trying to come to Edinburgh, but they couldn’t get out. Eventually, the letters just dried up. Stopped coming. Then, at the stalag this summer, I met two chaps from Wales who had been in intelligence. And they said—”

She cut him off: “At school, they told me not to ask when I inquired. They told me I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

“But you asked?”

Aware that she couldn’t help but sound oversensitive, she answered, “Maybe it would surprise you, but I do have a brain behind my eyes. Yes, I asked.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me a bit,” he said, smiling.

“I asked them where the Jews were going,” she continued. “Before the war, my parents had friends in Danzig who were Jewish. That’s where my father went to university: Danzig. He grew up on a farm in another part of Prussia, but for a time he considered becoming a lawyer. But he’s a very scientific man. And he likes working the earth too much. Anyway, he has never understood the Nazis’ obsession with Jews. Never. My mother? It’s different for her: She’s lived her whole life here. She, too, thinks it’s ridiculous, but she has always been a little oblivious of anything that doesn’t involve the farm or this corner of the country.”

“They’re both party members, right?”

She nodded. “My father wouldn’t have the contracts he has if he weren’t a member of the party. Even I know that.”

“Tell me, then: These friends. Your parents’ Jewish friends. Where are they now?”

“One, I know, was my father’s banker. I don’t know his name, but he took very good care of Father and Mutti on their honeymoon. The inflation was so horrible that suddenly they couldn’t pay their bills and Father’s stocks were worth nothing. Somehow, the banker solved everything for them and they had a perfectly lovely holiday after that.”

“What do you think became of him?”

“He and Father lost touch. But I can tell you this: My father wrote letters on his family’s behalf to different people. I don’t know who or what the letters were supposed to accomplish. But he wrote letters for other friends, too. And for a few weeks in the summer of 1940, my parents had some Jewish friends who lived with us: a younger couple and their baby. A little baby girl. She was adorable. They had lost their apartment in Danzig. I was thirteen and I always wanted to babysit, but the mother wouldn’t let the child out of her sight.” She could have gone on, but it was a memory she tried not to think about. There had been some talk about hiding the family—and hiding was indeed the word her parents had used—but so many people in the village had been aware of the Emmerichs’ visitors from Danzig that the couple had refused her mother and father’s offer of sanctuary and simply disappeared into the fog one August morning.

“I’m badgering you,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I have a habit of talking too much. You might have noticed.”

“You’re inquisitive,” she said, unable to mask the small tremor she heard in her voice. The truth was, she didn’t want to be having this conversation. She knew she wouldn’t dare discuss these sorts of things on one of the streets in the village or in a city. One never knew who might be listening or how they might be connected to the party. And, suddenly, she felt an odd spike of defensiveness. “But you tell me: How am I supposed to know where everyone is in the midst of a war?”

“Well,” he said evenly. “You can keep track of the Jews because of the stars on their clothes. You’ve seen them.”

“Yes, of course I have. I’ve seen them in Danzig and I’ve seen them in Berlin.”

“Lately?”

“I haven’t been to Berlin lately. Or Danzig.”

He used a handkerchief to wipe the perspiration away from his temples. The hair there was a bay that reminded her of Balga, her favorite horse. “The folks who will be coming to build the antitank trench,” he began, and she could tell that he was choosing his words with great care. “You know, actually digging where those navy blokes are leaving the plow marks? They’re the lucky ones.”

“They’ll be more prisoners like you.”

“Maybe. But I think they’re going to come instead from those work camps. Not the prison camps. It will take hundreds of people just to dig through your farm. And, besides, it’s one thing to put a group of us soldiers to work harvesting apples and corn and sugar beets. Trust me, this is luxurious compared to life in the stalag, and we are all deeply appreciative of your family’s kindness. But it’s quite another to make us dig antitank trenches. The Red Cross and the folks who penned the Geneva convention wouldn’t exactly approve.”

“So, the workers will be the criminals from the camps? Communists and Gypsies. Why should that trouble me?”

“And Jews. That’s my point, Anna. They’re in those camps for no other reason than because they’re Jewish.”

“What?”

“The Jews have been sent to the camps.”

“No,” she said. “No. That’s not true.”

“I’m sorry, Anna. But it is.”

“The Jews have just been resettled,” she continued, repeating what she had been told at school and at her meetings with other teen girls in the Bund Deutscher Mädel whenever she had asked the question, but until that moment had never said aloud herself. Somehow, verbalizing the idea made it seem ludicrous. She certainly didn’t add what so many of her teachers or BDM leaders had added over the years: They have to be resettled because they are not Aryan. They are inferior in every imaginable way, they are worse than the Russians and the Poles. Most have nothing that resembles an Aryan conscience, and they are interested in nothing but their money and mezuzahs and diamonds. Many are evil; all are conniving.

“And doesn’t even resettlement seem, I don’t know, a trifle uncivilized—even if it really is what’s occurring?” he went on. “Think of that little family that was with you when you were thirteen. Why do you think there was talk of hiding them? I mean, suppose my government in England just decided to ‘resettle’ the Catholics—to take away their homes, their animals, their possessions, and then just send them away?”

Another prisoner, the balding mason named Wally, passed by with one of the wicker baskets they used for the apples and gave Callum a look that Anna recognized instantly as the universal sign to shut up. His head was cocked slightly and his eyes were wide. Callum ignored him and continued, “Those intelligence chaps from Wales. They told us about another camp. One further east in Poland. They had heard rumors—”

“I’ve heard rumors. We’ve all heard rumors. I’ve listened to your propaganda on the radio.”

“You listen to the BBC? That’s illegal, Anna, you know that,” he told her, his voice mocking her good-naturedly.

“Everyone listens. And you know that.”

Wally dumped his apples in one of the shipping crates in the back of a wagon and started to say something, his mouth opening into an anxiety-ridden O, but then stopped himself and returned to the trees where he was working, shaking his head in bewilderment.

“Besides,” she said, angry now, “what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to go have tea with the führer and advise him on policy?” He paused, seeming to think about this, unsure what to say. She decided to press her advantage. “You would be in serious trouble, you know, if I told anyone what you were saying.”

“Indeed I would. I am putting my trust completely at your discretion.”

“Why?”

“Because you are very pretty and very smart, and until I was sent here I hadn’t spoken to a girl who was either in a very, very long time.”

“Spare me,” she said, but she couldn’t help being flattered. “I’ve gone just as long without the company of boys. They’re all off fighting somewhere.”

“Ah, but then your navy men arrived,” he said, and she realized he was actually a little jealous of them. He seemed about to say more when Wally returned, this time accompanied by the Yorkshire schoolteacher named Arthur Frost. “Come along, Callum,” Arthur said firmly, “those apples won’t pick themselves. No more dillydallying.”

Callum nodded agreeably and left, turning back to Anna once to bring his index and middle finger to the tip of his lips. At the time, she thought he was shushing her; later, she would conclude he had in fact blown her a kiss.

theo moved two of his toy cavalrymen to the front of his column, and then had them ride to the river that Anna had helped him paint a year ago now on a piece of barn board. The board was at least a meter and a half square and he could carry it by himself—but just barely. Helmut had found it and his father had sanded it flat. In addition to the river, he and Anna had also painted trees and wooden fences on it, and a long trench winding its way down one of the sides, all as if seen from a low-flying airplane. He had wanted to add barbed wire near the trench, but Anna had convinced him that it would reduce the number of conflicts he could reenact by limiting his scenarios to the Great War. The trench, she had suggested, could be a streambed that had dried up in the summer if he wanted to stage a battle from the nineteenth century.

“Or,” he had suggested helpfully at the time, “one of the firefights Werner has been in.”

“That’s right,” she had said, but he had been able to tell by the pause and the way her voice had quivered just the tiniest bit that for some reason she was troubled by the idea of him using his lead soldiers to reenact battles along the eastern front. He hadn’t really expected at the time that he would, because he had only a pair of toy tanks, and battles these days demanded lots and lots of armor. Moreover, his two tanks were of a different scale than his lead soldiers. They were from another collection and they were barely the height of his fighting men, which meant that he rarely used them.

He did know boys who owned model tanks that would have worked quite well with his men. But they wouldn’t have shared their tanks with him and he never played with them. He wanted to, and he would have been happy to join them if they had ever asked—he would have been happy and flattered and more than a little grateful—but they never did. Moreover, he knew they never would. Once he made the mistake of telling some of the boys in school about the scene he and Anna had painted for his soldiers, hinting that they should come to Kaminheim and bring their own model cannons and tanks, but they had laughed at him and suggested that they would sooner have gone and played in Moscow. It wasn’t, of course, Kaminheim that kept them away; it was him.

He had set up his playing board this evening after dinner in a corner of the dining room underneath one of the sconces, and these two cavalry officers were reconnoitering the terrain. It was the summer of 1870, and they were deciding whether this might be a good spot to try and force a battle with the French Army of the Rhine.

He heard his father and the naval officer named Oskar in the hallway walking toward Father’s office, and he went very still. Oskar had small eyes, a high forehead, and almost no lips, but he was calm and intelligent and Theo knew that his parents respected him. He heard his father pushing the door shut, but it didn’t close all the way and he could hear some of what they were saying if he didn’t move. They were discussing, as the grown-ups did all the time these days, the Russian front, but it seemed that Oskar was talking as well about the attempt that summer on the life of the führer. A few months earlier, in July, a group of officers had set off a bomb in the führer’s headquarters in Prussia. Hitler had survived, but it seemed the conspiracy was extensive. Even now, months later, the SS was still rounding up individuals who were involved. At school and among the Jungvolk, people referred to those officers as traitors and discussed with undisguised glee how cowardly they had been when they were executed for their crime, but Theo had the sense when the subject came up at dinner that his parents believed the plotters had only had Germany’s best interests in mind.

It seemed, from what Theo could hear, that Oskar did, too.

“The problem,” the officer was telling his father now, “is that we can’t win the war. But we can’t negotiate a peace now because of what some of Hitler’s lackeys have done.”

“A negotiated peace was never an option. Churchill and Roosevelt said years ago they would only accept a complete surrender,” his father said.

“We are speaking in confidence, true?”

“Of course.”

“Have you heard about the camps?”

“I’ve heard whispers.”

“When the Russians find them? Or the Americans and the Brits? There will be hell to pay.”

“Tell me: What do you know?”

Suddenly Theo’s heart was beating fast in his chest, in part because his father and this officer were discussing the possibility that Germany might actually lose the war, and in part because of whatever it was that Oskar was about to reveal. Before the officer had continued, however, there were great whoops of laughter and the sound of the front door swinging open. He felt a rush of cool air. Two of the other naval officers, Oskar’s friends, had come inside, and then he heard Anna and Mutti greeting them and helping them off with their coats. Any moment now they would bring that giant Scotsman in from the bunkhouse and hand him the accordion, and everyone would start dancing. No doubt, one of Anna’s friends had arrived with the officers. The two men had probably been off somewhere picking her up.

His father and Oskar emerged from the office, and Oskar greeted his associates. His father noticed him now on the floor and knelt beside him.

“I didn’t hear you out here,” he said, and he rubbed the top of his head. “Have you been playing long?”

He had the sense that he would worry his father if he told him that he had. And his father had worries enough right now.

“No. I just sat down,” he answered.

This seemed to make his father happy. He motioned down at the cavalrymen. “The battle of Mars-la-Tour?” he asked.

“I hadn’t decided.”

“Oskar reminded me of a book I think you’re old enough to read now. It has a wonderful description of Von Bredow’s Death Ride and the Prussian cavalry charge. Would you like me to see if I can find you a copy?”

“Yes, thank you.”

Over their shoulder one of the officers was boasting that he had brought honey for the schnapps from the village, and Theo heard a female voice he couldn’t quite recognize start to giggle. No doubt, it was indeed one of Anna’s friends: She had so many. Another night, Theo thought, he might have continued to move his lead soldiers around the board, alone on the dining room floor, but not this evening. He would join the crowd that would gather in the ballroom. Perhaps if he was unobtrusive, the grown-ups would let down their guards and he might learn whatever it was that Oskar had been about to reveal.

another day, callum told Anna about his uncle’s library in Edinburgh. His uncle was a university professor there, and among the books on his shelves were novels by Russians that he was confident would convince her that not everyone born east of Warsaw was a barbarian.

“I don’t think that,” she said. “My mother might. But I don’t.”

Still, she was only dimly aware of most of the authors he mentioned. She wondered if their books had been banned in Germany, or whether they simply weren’t available in their rural corner of the Reich. The same seemed to be true of movies he had seen, and specific operas and dramas he’d attended. It all made Callum seem almost impossibly erudite for someone so physically imposing and, yes, so young—it was hard to believe he was only twenty—and it caused her to rue, for the first time, all of the things she was being denied.

They also compared the beaches on the Baltic with those along the North Sea, and the castle ruins that dotted their landscapes. She expressed envy for how civilized the winters sounded in Scotland, and he, in turn, said he thought Scotch farmers would be jealous of the soil in which her family grew sugar beets and corn, and cared for their apple trees.

She found herself wishing she had a fraction of the stories and experiences he had, and worrying that soon he would come to find her boring. All she knew, she realized, were horses. Horses and housework. Her father had taught her to ride—and, in all fairness, to ski and to hike—and her mother had groomed her well to be the wife, someday, of a farmer. A gentleman farmer, certainly. A landowner. An aristocrat, even. But, like her father, a farmer nonetheless.

He was completely unlike her three brothers—even little Theo—whose posture had always been perfect at the dining room table, and who seemed to stand with their ankles together and (inevitably) their arms folded imperiously across their chests. Could Werner and Helmut ever be anything but stern? She didn’t think so. Perhaps there was still hope for Theo, but already he was being trained to be a soldier in carriage if not, in the end, in profession.

And yet their father was no martinet. He laughed and drank beer and had stories of his own he could tell. He would slouch on occasion. Listen with them to the BBC. Tell jokes about the Nazis, despite the reality that both he and his wife were party members. She asked her father that night if he had ever read books by the Russians Callum had mentioned, and he said that he had. Mutti had, too.

Of course, they had grown up in a different era. A different time. The world they knew wasn’t decorated solely with red flags and black swastikas, and a person could still read novels written by Russians.


From the Hardcover edition.
Chris Bohjalian

About Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian - Skeletons at the Feast

Photo © Victoria Blewer

Chris Bohjalian is the critically acclaimed author of sixteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Sandcastle Girls, Skeletons at the Feast, The Double Bind, and Midwives. His novel Midwives was a number one New York Times bestseller and a selection of Oprah's Book Club. His work has been translated into more than twenty-five languages, and three of his novels have become movies (Secrets of Eden, Midwives, and Past the Bleachers). He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter. 

Visit him at www.chrisbohjalian.com or on Facebook.
Praise

Praise

"The perfect novel for a book club. . .this book sucked me right in. It’s vivid and heart-wrenching."
—John Searles, The Today Show

"Reading Bohjalian's descriptions of terror and tragedy on the road has just as much impact as seeing newsreels from the end of World War II....While creating suspense, Bohjalian agilely balances the moral ambiguities of war....Right and wrong shift depending on the situation. Ignorance is tolerated and murder is justified. But Bohjalian does posit that one absolute exists: No one wins at war."
—Dennis Moore, USA Today

"Harrowing. . .ingenious. . .compelling. . .Judging who's right or wrong is difficult in Skeletons at the Feast, and one senses that's just the way Bohjalian wants it. . .A tightly woven, moving story for anyone who thinks there's nothing left to learn, or feel, about the Second World War. That Bohjalian can extract greater truths about faith, hope and compassion from something as mundane as a diary is testament not only to his skill as a writer but also to the enduring ability of well-written war fiction to stir our deepest emotions."
—Paula L. Woods, The Los Angeles Times

"Harrowing. . .Bohjalian spins a suspenseful tale in which the plot triumphs over any single sorrow. . .[His] sense of character and place, his skillful plotting and his clear grasp of this confusing period of history make for a deeply satisfying novel, one that asks readers to consider, and reconsider, how they would rise to the challenge of terrible deprivation and agonizing moral choices."
-- Margot Livesey, The Washington Post Book World

"A poignant account of the conflict's last year. . .Harrowing. . .In creating the Emmerichs and their relationship to Uri, Bohjalian has given us something new and disturbing. He has also created a wonderful character in the protected child, Theo, whose gradual understanding of what is happening to them is moving and real. . .Bohjalian has given us an important addition to the story of World War II, and, not at all incidentally, may expand the vision of those who may have avoided 'Holocaust literature' in the past."
—Roberta Silman, The Boston Globe

"Rich in character and gorgeous writing.”
—Jodi Picoult, Real Simple

"Bohjalian has shown a prodigious gift for exploring how people are transformed.”
Entertainment Weekly

"Chris Bohjalian has done it again! His latest novel, Skeletons at the Feast ... is more than well worth the read ... Along this journey we not only see the horrors of the war unfold, we see the individuals evolve."
The Valley Voice

"A bittersweet story of romance, war and death, inspired in part by a real diary. . .Strongly dramatic and full of the heartbreaking horror of war, this novel is Bohjalian at his imaginative best."
—Carole Godlberg, The Hartford Courant

"Skeletons at the Feast is a prime example of a well-written historical fiction. Readers will feel the despair experienced by the characters but will be able to find the bit of hope that keeps them moving forward. Bohjalian provides a vivid and well-researched look at the horrors experienced by the characters and presents a more personal account of anguish caused by the events of World War II."
—Courtney Holschuh, The Huntington, W.V. Herald-Dispatch

"Intense and fascinating. . .Bohjalian masterfully presents the desperation of troops who realize their cause is doomed.. . .He successfully captures the humanity of one of the 20th century's most horrendous tragedies."
The Rocky Mountain News

"This story mixes the nail-biting brutality of 'The Kite Runner' with the emotional intimacy of Anne Frank's diary."
Austin American-Statesman

"An extraordinary historical novel based on the exodus of Germans in eastern Germany escaping the Soviet Army's advance in the waning days of World War II. . . A sense of justice pervades all of [Bohjalian's'] books. He demands that we act humanely toward one another and understand and respect others' beliefs and values. . .Skeletons at the Feast is not a screed on good vs.evil, but it does inspire thought on man's inhumanity to man, and, conversely, how individuals overcome adversity with acts of kindness, civility and integrity."
—The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

"Riveting. . .an unforgettable finale. . .Chris Bohjalian handles the context of this story effortlessly and has created characters so engaging that any reader will find themselves connecting with these very real people.. . .I hail Bohjalian's new novel and its fearless account of one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century."
—Ray Palen, Bookreporter

"This is the perfect novel for a book club because there’s so much to discuss. It’s vivid and heart-wrenching."
—John Searles, Cosmopolitan, on The Today Show, “Top 10 Summer Reads”

"Nail-biting, heart-ripping. . .The reader of Skeletons at the Feast is quietly checkmated by Bohjalian into a radical compassion we've heard somewhere before: Love Thy Enemy . . . I loved this unforgettable novel."
—Tom Paine, The Burlington Free Press

"A lush romance, reflecting resilience in the face of nearly certain tragedy....a trenchant epic that is both agonizing and enriching."
AirTran Magazine

"A fictional tale of love, violence and redemption. . . Bohjalian deftly moves from the journey to the back stories of each character, fleshing out their histories and making their choices more poignant as their friendship and interdependence develop. Who will live and who will die? The author keeps up the suspense until the last page, with a surprise twist at the end."
Capital Living Magazine

"Powerful . . . Skeletons at the Feast positively resonates with authenticity. I've read several accounts of that small part of World War II, but it took this novel to bring home to me, most clearly and vividly, the dreadful ordeal these people endured...[The Holocaust's] evils are more palpable when its victims come to life-and, in so many cases, death-in the pages of a well-crafted novel. Bohjalian allows the reader to know them and identify with them in a way that no photographs or program on the History Channel can match."
—A.C. Hutchinson, The Times-Argus

"Chris Bohjalian has written his finest novel to date, set against the brutal, waning days of World War Two in Eastern Germany....Skeletons at the Feast is Bohjalian's masterpiece. The power of the narrative will stay with the reader long after it is put down. Inspired by an actual World War II diary the author read, it will stand as one of the best novels ever written about one of the most brutal periods in history."
—Marvin Minkler, The North Star Monthly

"A deeply moving and engrossing novel. . .Bohjalian has created a microcosm of that devastating winter of 1945. . . he makes us care deeply for his characters. His terse, dry prose renders the most appalling atrocities in an almost stoic manner, doubling the emotional impact."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Immensely readable...Bohjalian takes a fresh perspective and details the brutal realities of World War II in a novel that for once does not focus entirely on the Allies. Recommended for fiction collections."
Library Journal

“Careful research and an unflinching eye. . . Bohjalian's well-chosen descriptions capture the anguish of a tragic era and the dehumanizing desolation wrought by war.”
Publisher’s Weekly

"Bohjalian is especially good at conveying the surreal 'beauty,' the misshapen lyricism, of the war-torn landscape: 'Even the stone church had collapsed upon itself…the once imposing pipes of the organ reshaped by heat and flame into giant copper-colored mushrooms.' From harrowing to inspiring."
Kirkus Reviews

“Bohjalian demonstrates an intricate historical knowledge and impressively illustrates the stark horrors of the time. . .A compelling read with its mix of history, romance and portrayals of strength in the midst of severe adversity: War really is hell, the book says, but the human spirit is ultimately salvageable.”
—Rebecca Stropoli, Bookpage

More Praise for Chris Bohjalian

The Double Bind is the sort of book you want to read in one sitting, and it packs a twist at the end that will leave you speechless.”
—Jodi Picoult

“Bohjalian is a master of literary suspense. . . . [His] are the sorts of books people stay awake all night to finish.”
Washington Post Book World

“Few writers can manipulate a plot with Bohjalian’s grace and power.”
New York Times Book Review

“Bohjalian [is] America’s answer to Joanna Trollope.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Bohjalian beautifully captures those dizzying moments that follow a tragedy, when disbelief and horror give way to an attempt to understand what has happened . . . authentic . . . haunting. . . . In Before You Know Kindness, our eyes are opened to the possibility of redemption, even in these careless times.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Bohjalian proves once again that he is a master novelist.”
Boston Globe

The Double Bind is simply one of the best written, most compelling, artfully woven novels to grace bookshelves in years. Immediately after the spellbinding surprise ending, readers will want to begin again at the first page. It’s THAT good.”
Associated Press

“Superbly crafted and astonishingly powerful . . . Midwives will thrill readers who cherish their worn copies of To Kill a Mockingbird.”
People

“Chris Bohjalian’s many fans will be glad to know he’s back on the high wire, expertly balancing topical issues with the more timeless concerns of the human heart. Before You Know Kindness is smart, first-rate storytelling.”
—Richard Russo


From the Hardcover edition.
Reader's Guide|Discussion Questions

About the Book

A Note to the Reader

In order to provide reading groups with the most informed and thought-provoking questions possible, it is necessary to reveal important aspects of the plot of this book–as well as the ending.

If you have not finished reading
Skeletons at the Feast, we respectfully suggest that you may want to wait before reviewing this 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.

Discussion Guides

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?


  • Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian, Bestselling Author of Midwives and The Double Bind
  • February 10, 2009
  • Fiction - Historical; Fiction - War
  • Broadway Books
  • $16.00
  • 9780307394965

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