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  • Written by Joanna Hershon
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  • Written by Joanna Hershon
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A Novel

Written by Joanna HershonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Joanna Hershon

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On Sale: August 05, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-51319-9
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Berlin, 1861. Eva Frank, a sixteen-year-old Jewess, has her portrait painted, which leads to an indiscretion that has devastating consequences. Desperate to escape a painful situation, Eva marries Abraham Shein, an ambitious merchant who has returned home to Germany for the first time in a decade since establishing himself in the American West. The young bride leaves Berlin and its ghosts for an unfamiliar life halfway across the world, traversing the icy waters of the Atlantic and the rugged, sweeping terrain of the Santa Fe Trail.

Though Eva’s existence in the rough and burgeoning community of Sante Fe, New Mexico, is a far cry from her life as a daughter of privilege, she soon begins to settle into the mystifying town. But this new setting cannot keep at bay the overwhelming memories of her former life, nor can it protect her from an increasing threat to her own safety that will force Eva to make a fateful decision.

Excerpt

Holiday, 1861


Father held the chicken feather in one hand and the candle in the other. By the light of the small candle’s flame, Henriette and Eva followed him through the house now that the day was done. They searched for bread or anything resembling it—cookies, cakes, biscuits, noodles, Eva’s favorite things. Father dusted corners with the feather, while holding light to the darkest places to make sure each crumb was caught and placed inside the sack. As they gathered crumbs, Mother practiced the piano.

During the winter months Mother remained at home, but she more or less constantly played music, or else she withdrew to her rooms. When the season began at Karlsbad (where Mother took endless baths meant to have restorative healing powers), she brightened briefly before packing her things and leaving. And, as Mother’s exodus was fast approaching, Father—made plainly cross by her eminent departure—became impassioned with religious fervor, which, no matter how often it was asserted, always seemed sudden. During the weeks leading up to the Passover holiday, he roamed the hallways after his workday and vigorously recalled his own dear departed parents with increasing de- votion and righteousness. Father came from devout people and Mother did not and Passover was always the year’s turning point, a time when Father and Mother displayed themselves just as they did now: Father focusing on the ritual task while Mother played a Mozart sonata. The music floated gently (if a bit unsteadily) through the house. Mother had already shared her love of the healing waters—the Kur—with her daughters and despite enjoying the pine-needle baths and the climbing tours (which ended with a delicious cherry tart), Eva could not imagine what could possibly be in Karlsbad that reassured Mother so deeply.

Father must have wondered, too. Eva knew, if nothing else, he longed for a more orderly home. The chaos of the kitchen usually sent him into a furious state (it wasn’t unusual for Father to inspect the kitchen and find something amiss: a milk plate mixed in with the meat plates, a box of chocolates that Mother claimed she hadn’t realized was there), but Eva preferred the fury to what increasingly looked like hopelessness. It was too much to bear Father’s bald head in his broad hands; Father asking Mother—gently at first and then not so gently—why it was so difficult for her to organize the help who were for heaven’s sake hired because they were Galician Jews and weren’t they meant to know a thing or two about keeping a kitchen?

Eva imagined the servants’ downstairs quarters, where she knew they’d be taking their supper now, probably too exhausted to converse. This morning Eva had helped Rahel and the others hang Passover linens out to dry with special wooden pins kept exclusively for the day. She thought of them now, all finishing their supper, and she couldn’t help but wonder—if they weren’t too tired—what they might have to say. A few years before, Father had insisted on hiring extra servants for Passover but Mother had refused, claiming she could only trust Rahel. But when Father prevailed and Mother compromised (agreeing to hire extra servants but only Rahel’s relations), unflappable Rahel—having already told Eva that she had only brothers—produced several sisters, one after the other, all of whom looked nothing like her. Mother didn’t seem to like Rahel very much but she always wanted her nearby, always called out for Rahel from the depths of her bedroom, where the curtains were usually drawn.

And—after years of refusing to eat in the Frank home because they didn’t trust the kitchen—Father’s devout relations were coming to the seder. Father had evidently said something quite miraculous to convince them. “Promise me that you girls will do your duty this year,” he asked them solemnly over a month ago. “Your mother . . .” he said, shaking his head, and while Eva simply stared at him with nothing useful to say, Henriette took his hand and said: “Dear Father, of course.” Henriette was four years older than Eva, and sometimes Henriette taught Eva fine needlework, discussing at length her favorite colors, which were subject to change any day, and when Eva didn’t pay her proper attention, Henriette would accidentally poke Eva with a sewing needle.

Father didn’t stop Mother from making her preparations for Karlsbad and Mother didn’t argue about the kitchen. She said, “I’m sorry darling,” to Father in the very same way she said it to Eva and Henriette when they questioned if she might not like to stay home. Mother gave dry kisses to her daughters—kisses that landed more on the air and less on their expectant cheeks—and Henriette had taken on the household responsibilities as if she’d only been waiting to be asked all these years. Eva was amazed to see how she didn’t seem daunted at all. Her older sister actually seemed far more comfortable being in charge than Mother ever had been—discussing a schedule with Rahel and the “sisters,” choosing not only her own elaborate Passover ensemble in advance but Eva’s new clothing as well. And Mother hardly seemed to mind this loss of authority; her mood actually improved as Henriette ordered the appropriate crates out from the storeroom, dispatched servants to purchase matzot from the special bakery, the meat from the special butcher, the scalding cream for the pots and pans, and the kindling—stacks of it—for hearth fires as well as for this night’s ritual burning of the chometz.

Father’s footfalls were hypnotic in their placement on the stone steps, the wood floors. Eva had always enjoyed this ritual—the hunting, the quiet, the crumbs—but this year she realized her mind was wandering and the wandering came from boredom. Her sister was wearing a corset and her cheeks were flushed; she looked as energized as she had when, last month, her first suitor came to call. Eva wasn’t sure why but she felt herself on the precipice of absurd laughter (her very favorite kind) and she was gratified to see that her smile was still contagious; Eva could see that, even in her most officious state, Henriette was smiling, too.

“Evie!” her sister whispered. “Why are you smiling?”

“Why are you?”

“Because you are!”

“I’ll stop then,” Eva promised. But it was too late.

“Please,” insisted Henriette, but Eva could tell she too was about to break into laughter, and Henriette’s was the best in the world; her sister went from perfectly proper to literally snorting with giggles. “Please, please, please,” Henriette mouthed, as Father turned around and Henriette pinched Eva’s arm.

“Girls,” said Father, before turning down the guest wing hallway, continuing with the search.

“Evie,” Henriette hissed.

When she saw that Henriette was truly upset, she vowed to pay closer attention; she swore that when the small sack was close to full of all of the remnants of bread in the household, she would be the one who volunteered to fetch the matches and Mother. “I’ll be helpful tomorrow,” Eva promised. She took her sister’s hand.

“I know you will.”

“You have such faith in me, Monsieur.” Eva fluttered her lashes. Her sister had promised—she had sworn on the Torah—that Eva had nice eyes.

“Mademoiselle,” said her sister, “I have no choice.”



The family stood outside in the garden. The seder table had been laid for the following evening, and Eva missed the linens hanging on the clotheslines like sails against the sky. Father struck a match, the kindling caught fire, and he poured on the bag of chometz. The crumbs and bits of cookie, the starchy odds and ends—they all burned away, and soon the Franks were faced with an extravagant flame.

•••

When Henriette found Eva in the middle of the night, sitting at the piano in the music room, she gave an elaborate sigh before sitting down beside her.

“I can’t sleep,” said Eva.

Henriette nodded and patted Eva’s back. “Neither can I.”

Eva suddenly realized how lonely she’d felt, sitting in the dark by herself. It was often that way with her; the loneliness arrived only after she settled comfortably into another person’s presence.

Her sister rambled on and it was a cadence as familiar as wind through the trees. “. . . I imagine it’s because of the holiday, you know. I want everything to be perfect.”

“It won’t be,” said Eva, and Henriette didn’t bother responding. “Nothing ever is,” Eva insisted, more or less cheerfully.

“You’re a funny girl,” her sister said.

“So you’ve said, Monsieur, oh so many times.”

Henriette didn’t smile and held out her hand. “What are you hiding?”

“What am I . . . ? Nothing,” said Eva. “Nothing.”

“What is in your mouth?”

Eva shook her head. She swallowed.

“Show me.”

Eva produced the half-eaten cookie from her pocket. She had hidden it, over a week ago, in a box of sheet music and had taken it from the box only minutes ago. It had been her plan to savor it slowly.

“Why?” asked Henriette, and Eva couldn’t tell if her sister was more curious or appalled.

“I’m not sure,” said Eva, and it was true. When she hid the cookie, she’d been filled with a kind of glee, as if by breaking these sacred laws in secret she might have her own kind of revelry. Suddenly the taste of illicit cookie in her mouth was not moist with brown sugar and almond paste as she had so keenly anticipated, but instead it was chalky and bitter.

“Come,” said Henriette. “We’ll go outside in the garden and throw it onto the fire.”

“It’s too late,” said Eva, but Henriette shook her head.

“Listen to me,” she said, and Eva could imagine her years from now, presiding over a busy household. Her sister would have her own little monsters soon enough—a cluster of naughty boys and girls, all with romantic names. “Those embers are still burning outside,” Henriette explained. “Don’t you see? We have time.” And they walked out into the garden to watch Eva’s cookie burn away to an inconsequential mistake.


From the Hardcover edition.
Joanna Hershon|Author Q&A

About Joanna Hershon

Joanna Hershon - The German Bride

Photo © Michael Epstein

Joanna Hershon is the author Swimming and The Outside of August. Her short fiction has been published in One Story and The Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the painter Derek Buckner, and their twin sons.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Joanna Hershon 


Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia, a novel, and How This Night Is Different, a collection of short stories. She is a fiction editor at Nextbook, editor-at-large of Jewcy, and an adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University. 

Elisa Albert: Much of modern Jewish literature tends to focus on the Eastern Europe experience–Yiddish, the Holocaust, shtetl life, etc. What inspired you to tell this particular tale about a kind of Jewish experience that might not be quite so familiar to readers? 

Joanna Hershon: While The German Bride is certainly a very Jewish book, I didn’t set out to write a novel about a “Jewish experience.” After writing and publishing two contemporary novels, I knew that I wanted to write quite a different book, one that would require a great deal of research. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about, but I wanted to study as I wrote. Essentially, I kept my ears open and one day, a friend of mine made an offhand comment about how his ancestors were “Jewish cowboys,” and that his great-great-grandmother was currently a famous ghost haunting a hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My friend’s personal connection to Judaism was minimal, and he knew very little about his ancestors besides these conversational snippets, but these snippets were compelling enough that I told him (jubilantly!) right then that I’d found my next novel. I contacted his father, who knew a little more information, and then I began with researching his family, which led me to spend years reading about German Jewish pioneers. Originally, I’d intended to set the novel in both the present and the past, but I became so focused on the story of these immigrants–so brave and so varied–that the past basically took over. In terms of the book being a Jewish one: I suppose I was so strongly drawn to the story because I am always interested in stories about Jews in unlikely places, how the true extent of the diaspora is so much greater than many people–even very well-educated Jewish people–realize. While writing my novel, one of the main responses I encountered, after explaining I was writing about German Jews in the American southwest, was “Jews lived there?” More and more, I wanted to illuminate these people’s lives. Though their community was relatively small, they made an extraordinary impact on their surroundings, and thus, on American history. 

EA: What particular research sources most inspired and informed you? 

JH: My original conception for The German Bride did not include nearly as much about Germany, but after reading Amos Elon’s exceptional book The Pity of It All, I became very interested in what my characters were leaving behind. The notion of memory as identity probably became a theme of the book–at least more directly–because of this very rich resource. I was also very inspired by the smallest ephemera–a “commonplace book” that I held in my hands at the Leo Baeck Institute, a cookbook, photographs, very fine paper, so thin and old–I could only imagine how precious such things must have become when they’d survived such perilous journeys. Also different European accounts of arriving in Santa Fe–nearly all of them described the view as less than inspiring. As I find so much beauty in Santa Fe–its beauty is nearly cliché these days–it was important to see the town and old photographs of the town in a historical context. And then there were the (very few) female firsthand accounts of the Santa Fe trail, which were invaluable. I think the process of doing research throughout the writing of the book (because I never really stopped researching) affected my writing in positive ways. The research slowed me down and forced me to add layers of detail as I found them. As I grew to know my characters better, I was scrupulous about not including research just for research’s sake, and so these layers of detail became layers of meaning, defining my characters very specifically. 

EA:
Eva’s story takes place during the same period in which Zionism would have been sprouting into existence. Was the long-delayed building of the promised house an intentional metaphor for the plight of Jews in the diaspora, whose homeland seemed forever just out of reach? How does that parallel strike you? 

JH: For the most part, the Jews who immigrated to Santa Fe were not particularly religious, and though as a group they took pride in their Jewishness, they were practical, business-minded Europeans. What struck me about them was how they identified perhaps most strongly with being German. This push and pull of identity is something I find fascinating and consistently relevant. So much of my intellectual energy tends to be caught up in the plight of the individual–which is a very American attitude, I realize–and the subtle gradations of identification. That aside, of course the book is also about Jews as a people, and though I hadn’t intended the house to be a metaphor for Zion, this intrigues me. I certainly think it’s a compelling parallel. 

EA: Abraham and Meyer Shein have a moving, complicated brotherhood. We see them at their best trading at the pueblo; otherwise their kinship is duly strained by Abe’s irresponsibility/thievery and Meyer’s censoriousness. Though their connection is much different than the one between Eva and Henriette, the novel seems hinged on these two very intense, very committed, very tragic sibling relationships. How do you think sibling struggles define character in a way that other familial bonds can’t? 

JH: I have long been intrigued by the power of sibling relationships–or the lack of them–so this always seems to make its way into my work. Having thought a great deal about why this is the case, I always arrive at the fact that there is something inherently dramatic about being born into the same family. This is not breaking news, I know, but still the seemingly random fates of families never fails to stun me. No matter how hard one might try to shrug family off, or for that matter draw family closer, there is a particular intimacy at work, and where there is intimacy there is bound to be questions of perspective. Being a sibling (for the most part) never requires the inherent selflessness of being a parent, and maybe this is where the drama starts–the immediate tremendous intimacy on a level playing field. 

EA:
Eva looks up to Beatrice Spiegelman in some ways–Bea is rich but not spoiled, unafraid of a difficult new life in the west, and possessing of a can-do assurance. Ultimately, however, Eva recognizes Bea as fundamentally an “innocent.” What do you think separates Bea from Eva as such, and how would you characterize the price Eva pays to come into her own wisdom and womanhood? 

JH: Beatrice Spiegelman is a rare kind of optimist. I don’t imagine that anything too terrible has ever happened to Beatrice; however I also believe that her nature is such that if something terrible did happen to her, she would face it with tremendous courage and positivity. She is an innocent in that she sees the world clearly and without melancholy. Perhaps this kind of optimism requires a predisposition to not dwell on anything too emotionally complicated and this too is innocent, if willfully so. As for the price Eva pays to come into her own wisdom and womanhood, I think that surely one price is that of tremendous loss–both of her loved ones and her original aspirations. But throughout her suffering, I do see her as a sensualist and an escapist, as well as fiercely loyal, and there are certainly pleasures in these qualities, pleasures that–even as her desires might have brought suffering to her–might have also given Eva strength to face the unknown. 

EA: The novel is framed by two very different portraits: The first is a full-length portrait of the young, virginal Eva by Heinrich in Germany, and the second is a daguerreotype from the neck up of a pregnant, decidedly older and wiser Eva in Santa Fe. How do these two images and mediums reflect the changes and damages life has wrought? 

JH: These two images haunt the novel in its progression. Painting is a messy medium; though of course there are meticulous painters, paint itself is fluid and primal and I can’t think of a better medium to convey Eva in the first part of the story. That her body is included in the portrait is not incidental, though I certainly never imagined the portrait itself as sexualized. That by the end of the novel she is being “captured” again and this time by a photographer–I wanted to put her in this uncomfortable situation while she was pregnant, so that she’d be forced to remember the feeling of being watched and realize that her life could not feel more different right then than how it did on that one pivotal long-gone day. Also, the use of photography as opposed to painting is a reminder of how many changes are happening during this time in America’s history. Western expansion is in full force and societies are growing– creating the need for something so civilized and seemingly frivolous as portrait photographers. Because of how ubiquitous photographs are now in daily life, it did feel like using this medium toward the end of the book helped create some of the tension between the modern and Victorian sensibilities. Additionally–and perhaps most saliently–while doing my research I was greatly influenced by portrait photography; I would sit for hours (procrastinating?) just looking at portraits– at inscrutable faces–searching for clues. 

EA:
Levi Ehrenberg says he “came to escape [his] family.” Can a pioneer be someone running away from rather than necessarily toward something? 

JH: I think that–whether it is from an oppressive political regime or an abusive relationship–escaping can be a kind of pioneering act. Many heroes create their destinations en route and invent their aspirations while they are busy surviving. Of course there are pioneers who have a dream and then methodically work toward that dream but sometimes surviving a terrible or even dispiriting circumstance can bring about bravery and originality, and it is only after fleeing that the dream can begin to exist. 

EA:
Uncle Alfred is a real presence in The German Bride, despite the fact that we meet him only via letters and memories. He stands outside the narrative but very much influences it. Can you talk about your conceptualization of him–who he is and what shape his political views take? 

JH: My conceptualization of Uncle Alfred was in one sense purely intuitive and in another sense carefully constructed. I’m interested in characters whom are absent and how this absence can create an identity for those who are left behind. Also, it seems that many families during this time had various family members of different generations living under one roof and this immediately seemed rife with possibility to me. The character of the mother who dotes on her younger brother rather than her husband and children was a jumping-off place. The more I learned about German history the more I knew that I needed to infuse the narrative with as much of the 1848 revolutions as I could, given that I wanted my American narrative to begin after the Civil War. The revolutions of 1848, which took place in Italy, France, and then throughout much of Europe, including Germany, erupted as a result of many different sources, but the common themes were ideas of liberalism and nationalism. As technology created more avenues of expression for working people, a fight for freedom of the press became more relevant. As I learned about these revolutionaries, whose concerns sounded eerily contemporary and entirely relevant, I felt more and more compelled to address these issues. (Also, how could I resist including a historically accurate revolutionary living in Parisian exile?) The challenge was, of course, to let in as much of this information as possible in a way that was organic to my main characters and their concerns. When I realized that Alfred could have known Heinrich Heine, who is such a phenomenal and complicated character in the history of German Jewry, there was yet another layer to explore. I think of Uncle Alfred as a sort of cultural and political guiding force, shaping and challenging Eva’s ideas as she creates her own revolution, which, in the context of history, is not insignificant, no matter how personal or small. 

Praise

Praise


"At once lyrical and heartbreaking, Hershon’s third novel (Swimming, 2001, etc.) follows a young Jewish bride as she leaves the refinement of Berlin for the wilds of 1860s Santa Fe....Hershon creates a finely nuanced portrait of their marriage—Eva, politely contemptuous of the state in which she’s forced to live, Abraham, glib, guilty and self-righteous, and yet the two love, or at least desperately need the other. As Eva suffers a number of failed pregnancies, Abraham becomes more indebted to the gambling table and local bordello, and their downfall is imminent. Hershon’s large cast of supporting players—Santa Fe’s French bishop and his grimacing flock of nuns, the other German Jewish merchants prospering and creating a community—and her graceful description of the desert form a narrative of outsiders pitted against a giant landscape. Amidst it all stands little Eva, determined to make a life for herself. A beautifully written tale of small sufferings and redemptions."—Kirkus Reviews

“A surprising novel of grace and refinement. It is a tale of the American West, but unlike any I have ever read before. Hershon enters Willa Cather territory and does it with a rare elegance and complete originality. I was not familiar with Joanna Hershon’s work when I read this novel, and it made me order her first two books.”—Pat Conroy, author of The Water Is Wide

“Wonderful from start to finish. An immigrant tale and a Western, without the Lower East Side or cowboys. I don’t know why nobody has told such a story before, but I’m glad Joanna Hershon has told it first and told it so well.” —Mary Doria Russell, author of A Thread of Grace

“A novel of great breadth and depth, a richly imagined pilgrimage into this brave new world. Joanna Hershon paints the portrait of a woman——and her family and suitors, the strange company she starts to keep——with authoritative precision; hers is a first-rate talent and here is a riveting read.”—Nicholas Delbanco, author of Spring and Fall

“Joanna Hershon’s lush and gripping novel of travel and dislocation exquisitely delineates the shock and loss that accompanied the wild ride of immigration and frontier-living in the mid-nineteenth century. Eva Shein’s heart-in-the-throat journey, from Germany to Santa Fe, is an elegant and mesmerizing testament to human adaptability and survival.”—Helen Schulman, author of A Day at the Beach

“A highly satisfying story, full of marvelous details that evoke a time when the American West was being built. There is stunning power in Hershon’s finely cadenced prose, and compassion for her characters. This is a novel you can’t put down. Get ready to stay up all night following Eva’s adventures.” —Jonis Agee, author of The River Wife
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Eva blames herself throughout the novel for the death of her sister Henriette and Henriette’s newborn son. Do you think that Eva is, in fact, to blame? Do you think in a similar situation today, a woman would suffer a comparable amount of guilt and shame?

2. Eva has relationships with three different men in this novel—Heinrich, Abraham, and Levi. What issues do you think Hershon was trying to explore through each one? Do you think Eva was in love with any, or all, of these men?

3. Abraham is a maddening husband, brother, business partner, and friend. Even so, there is something compelling about him. Did you find yourself rooting for him despite his terrible behavior, or did you feel that he got only what he deserved?

4. Why do you think Hershon chose “The self forms on the edge of desire,” a quote from an Anne Carson poem, as her epigraph?

5. What role does Judaism play in The German Bride? What about the role of Jewish identity? Is there a difference between the two?

6. There is a drastic difference in environment between Berlin and Santa Fe, and the landscape of the American southwest is evoked both harshly and sublimely. What role do you think “place” plays in the development of The German Bride?

7. Do you identify more with Eva’s sister-in-law, Beatrice Speigelman or with Eva herself? Why?

8. How big a part does God and faith play in this novel?

9. Eva and Levi form their friendship while in a sickroom. How does his weakness play a part in their relations? Is his weakness eroticized? How?

10. Abraham and Meyer have a strained and ultimately tragic relationship. Do you think Meyer should have cut him off long before he did? Which of the two brothers is more “American”?

11. This is a historical novel, in that it takes place in the past. But do you think this story would hold up in a contemporary setting? Is there a difference between a historical novel and a literary novel that happens to take place in the past?

12. How would you characterize Hershon’s prose style? Are there any sentences that stayed with you after you’d finished reading? Pick a striking scene and read it aloud. Is there music in the language? Variation? Is anything excessive?

13. The ending of The German Bride leaves so much in question. Were you satisfied by Hershon’s decision to end mid-journey? What role does Pauline, her fellow stagecoach passenger, play in this story? Do you think she is important to the novel? How? Why do you think Hershon ended the book with the line: “The other is me”?


  • The German Bride by Joanna Hershon
  • March 24, 2009
  • Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $15.00
  • 9780345468468

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