Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 30, 2021

The Vanishing Sky, by L. Annette Binder

The Vanishing Sky asks important questions of contemporary readers.  WW2 has been a constant in film, TV and literature ever since it ended, but almost all of it is from the PoV of the victors, alongside the literature of the Holocaust.  Are we ready yet to consider the suffering of the German people in WW2?  Where do we stand in our assessment of the culpability of the German people as distinct from its leaders?  Can we accept that some at least may not have known about the evil actions of that regime, and how do we feel about those who knew or suspected it but felt they could not do anything either in protest or to help its victims?  Can we forgive, or if not forgive, can we feel compassion?  Can we do this without whitewashing history, and do we risk giving any support to the contemporary rise of an ugly nationalism in Europe?  And specifically, how do we feel about the actions of the Hitler Youth, and those boys who were conscripted to fight in the dying days of the war?

This is the blurb:

In 1945, as the war in Germany nears its violent end, the Huber family is not yet free of its dangers or its insidious demands. Etta, a mother from a small, rural town, has two sons serving their home country: her elder, Max, on the Eastern front, and her younger, Georg, at a school for Hitler Youth. When Max returns from the front, Etta quickly realizes that something is not right-he is thin, almost ghostly, and behaving very strangely. Etta strives to protect him from the Nazi rule, even as her husband, Josef, becomes more nationalistic and impervious to Max’s condition. Meanwhile, miles away, her younger son Georg has taken his fate into his own hands, deserting his young class of battle-bound soldiers to set off on a long and perilous journey home.

The Vanishing Sky is a World War II novel as seen through a German lens, a story of the irreparable damage of war on the home front, and one family’s participation-involuntary, unseen, or direct-in a dangerous regime. Drawing inspiration from her own father’s time in the Hitler Youth, L. Annette Binder has crafted a spellbinding novel about the daring choices we make for country and for family.

I have mixed feelings when I look at the Hitler Youth gazing out of the cover of The Vanishing Sky.  Realising that it was an allusion to the massacre of Jews in the dying days of the war, I froze when I read this passage where Max tells his mother about things that left her shaking in her chair:

…”They dug their own graves and nobody tried to run.  We shot them where they stood. Partisans, the lieutenant called them, but they looked like ordinary people.” He rubbed his eyes and it seemed for a moment that he wanted to say more, and then he turned away.  (p.80)

The Vanishing Sky is in some ways a powerful anti-war novel.  It shows the impact on people who had no capacity to influence events and the reality of warfare on ordinary people. But it also shows that even in a small rural town, people knew that the deportation of Jews was more than that.  When Etta visits Ilse to share her troubles, Ilse shows her the cellar, a warehouse of beautiful and cherished things:

…silver candleholders and serving platters and fine inlaid tables.  Clocks ticked in the silence of that room, porcelain mantel clocks and larger wall clocks propped up one against another.  A grandfather clock stood improbably in the corner, and she wondered who had brought it around the house and down those narrow stairs.  There were tea sets and goblets and dressing combs, cigarette cases and leather-bound books.  Porcelain dolls with fine painted faces sat in a row, their blue eyes open and unblinking.  (p.89)

Ilse has been looking after this museum since old Frau Singer came five years ago, followed by Frau Weinstein and then Frau Stern, all asking the same favour and offering money which Ilse refused to take. Every week she dusts and polishes and winds the clocks:

‘When they come back, they’ll thank me.’  Ilse nodded as she spoke.  ‘They’ll thank me for taking good care of their things.’  And even as she said it, they both knew it wasn’t true. (p.90)

The Jews are not the only ones who went away.

They went away sometimes, carrying only a satchel or a trunk.  She’d seen it herself.  The Weinsteins and the Singers and the Sterns who’d left behind their things.  The two sisters who were prone to twitches and fits, twins who dressed alike and worked side by side for Frau Ebling the seamstress, and they climbed aboard the train one morning and never came back.  Young Hillen with his baby face was gone, and the gypsies went somewhere, too.  They were gone from one day to the next, and there were no more bonfires by the riverbank then and no more dancing.  How easy it was to forget them.  Things changed and the mind adjusted, and it was an act of will to remember anything at all.  (p.90-1)

There are four main characters, told from two points-of-view.  Etta’s perspective—composed in a flat, detached, resigned voice to emphasise her powerlessness— gives us her efforts to understand her difficult husband Josef, who, after WW1, was never able to settle back into his work as a schoolmaster, and now, perhaps sliding into dementia, can’t manage to do any kind of work but is fiercely nationalistic.  From Etta we also learn about her older son Max, inexplicably sent home from the Eastern front and now suffering from PTSD.  She keeps him hidden inside because she fears that Max will one day just ‘disappear’ like Jürgen, Ushi’s intellectually disabled boy.  The systematic murder of ‘unfit persons’ isn’t named; the novel assumes that readers will already know what these disappearances signify.

Etta is quietly determined to hold her family together but is helpless to do so as the German retreat comes towards them.

George, never comfortable in the Hitler Youth, is now conscripted into digging trenches for a useless wall against the enemy i.e. the Allies.  The third person narration from his perspective reveals a sensitive boy who succumbs to a pessimistic sense of inevitability as he sees his comrades die around him.  When the chance comes, he runs away and as he makes his way home on foot, he is given shelter by kindly women in the countryside.  He isn’t always kind to them; his wilful refusal to write letters home was cruel to his mother, desperate for news of him.  But this seems not to be wilful: he is just getting by, day by day, not in control of anything that happens to him.

It’s true that the victims of war in this novel are also those who turned aside and did nothing when they witnessed evil. Binder does not shy away from that.  In the final chapter we see dogmatic refusal to believe evidence when it’s put before them.   But today, when we witness all kinds of evil in the world such as inaction on climate change or inhumane refugee policies or failure to share Covid vaccines, and yet we do nothing or very little, can we take the moral high ground?

She looked like a woman of seventy and not the pharmacist’s wife who used to walk along the streets with her back so straight and her only boy beside her.

‘Don’t give up, Ushi.  You’ll get him home.  You have to keep looking until you find him.’

‘He’s not coming back,’ Ushi pushed her cup aside.  ‘People leave and they don’t come back. My Jens is gone and my Jürgen too.’ Her voice quavered.  ‘They’ve wrecked the world, these men, and they’re still not done.  They’d take the sky if they could.  They’d take the air we breathe, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.’ (p.155)

Thought-provoking novels like this one are my favourite kind of reading.

Author: L. Annette Binder
Title: The Vanishing Sky
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2020
ISBN: 9781526616715, pbk., 278 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia


Responses

  1. This sounds like my kind of reading too Lisa. I love your opening questions because they address issues I often think about. I so admire people like the father of a victim of the Oklahoma bombing. He went on the anti-capital punishment hustings. I am a firm believer in having compassion for others. And I agree that we need to be careful about taking the moral high ground. It is much easier to see what others should be doing than what we should be doing ourselves, isn’t it? Australia seems to me to be on very shaky grounds these days.

    It sounds like a tightly told tale, too, at under 300pp.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, it is tightly told, with not a word wasted. I really, really do recommend this one.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I have this one! Thanks for the review, another I shall push forward.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This sounds an excellent exploration of such a complex issue. A very necessary read – sometimes I feel quite despairing of the way things seem to be going, as if we haven’t learnt from history at all. And sometimes I feel hopeful too. I’ll definitely seek out a copy of this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Germany, and the way it welcomed the Syrian refugees, is one of the signs of hope in our modern world, more so because it was symbolic of a cultural change that no one could have imagined in the immediate postwar period.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I despair too at times. These are dark days in Australia and the few brave enough to challenge the denial of our reprehensible actions are a beacon much needed. This book is one I will read for it’s a subject that’s important. I feel that we in the English speaking diaspora take the high ground too often when it comes to international matters. But unless you’re completely blind and deaf it’s surely impossible to ignore the regression of our polity and the underlying shame that must impart on us whether we want to acknowledge it or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All countries, one way or another, have aspects of their past that are reprehensible, and what matters IMO is that there be an honest truth-telling about history and genuine attempts to make restitution if it’s possible. There also needs to be high level leadership to change the culture so that it never happens again. Germany, which IMO had the most reprehensible history in living memory, has done this well. Japan has not, and neither has Turkey, and they’re just two examples that I know about.
      What is missing here in Australia is high level bipartisan leadership. I think we have to look to our young people to deliver this now.

      Liked by 1 person


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: