Book Review: A Motherland’s Daughter, A Fatherland’s Son

A Russian translator falls in love with a young German officer during the short-lived 1939 Soviet-German alliance and Hitler’s subsequent invasion of Russia. Can their budding relationship endure the horrors of a long, ghastly war? Even if you are forced to shoot at each other?

Ellie Midwood has made her novelist career turning terrible wartime events into compelling stories by exploring all the murky shades of grey within modern history.

A self-professed World War Two geek, she takes what we believe as good versus evil (for example, it’s so easy to think Nazi = bad and Allies = good) and fleshes them out. But is that really the case?

Even though this is a work of fiction, Midwood’s compelling narrative and fleshed out characters depicting the horrors of war make the time period come alive in a way that no historian has done for me.

Its premise reminds me of Romeo and Juliet, but unlike the Shakespearean tragedy where characters became caricatures of immaturity and infatuation, Kira and Werner are fully-formed characters; people too young to be thrust into the unforgiving grasp of war. It’s so easy to sympathize with them. Aren’t they just individuals put under unforeseen pressures and forced to behave in a certain way?

Through Kira and Werner’s eyes, we see the hopes and dreams of individuals slowly turn to dust. In the opening chapters, they believed the war would end soon and everything would return back to normal soon.

Sadly as we know, that won’t be the case.

Through her masterful command of language and eerie character-driven imagery, we are drawn into the terrifying, gruesome nature of war. Midwood makes us question — what is the point of war?

How can people draw senseless, invisible lines in the sand to demarcate who to hate and who to love? How can people treat other people like beasts?

Be prepared for an uncomfortable, yet riveting read. Her voice is yet dispassionate in parts, yet filled with raw emotion in others. Perhaps this was deliberate; we see the psychological torment and gradual dehumanization of her characters as they compromise their morals, again and again, to shoot at each other.

As the war drags on, we see our protagonists turn from bright-eyed, idealistic individuals into battle-hardened, soulless individuals. They commit atrocities they would have previously denounced as evil. We see their initial shock and horror at taking life slide into grim, numb acceptance — even relishing the sensation of having their finger against the cold steel of their guns.

It’s clear Midwood has done her research on the war-torn conditions of the Eastern Front and it shows in the precision of the writing, arresting imagery of what it feels like to be down in the trenches with bombs exploding around you and facing the prospect of death every single day.

“Cold. It’s the only word that is on everyone’s mind. It crawls under our summer uniforms, bites into our exposed faces, ears, and necks, sends us shivering uncontrollably as soon as the evening sets in and the temperatures plummet even more and make our fingers and toes numb regardless of our ranks and positions.”

This book will make you sniffle. It will make you want to scream at the senselessness of the entire situation. Ellie Midwood has created a masterpiece here that thrusts you feet-first into the midst of the bitter Russian winter while experiencing all the emotions that come with it. I was completely lost in the story.

Is it possible to be emotionally exhausted by a book? Yes, I definitely think so. As someone who studied modern history in school, this book brought the time period to life in a way that your history textbook can not. It’s one thing to study what the politicians say, but another to see how the men on the frontline see these same policies.

You actually question — how do these men in gilded chairs make their decisions, insulated from the repercussions of those policies on the men and women who serve them?

I recommend this book highly as a cautionary tale against violence, a fateful exploration of what it means to be human in the midst of a harrowing situation. This is my first book by Midwood and she has enthralled me with this stunning tale. I will be checking out her other works!

Originally published at joshuapohjl.com on January 15, 2019.

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