Friday, February 28, 2020

Books: "This Terrible Beauty" By Katrin Schumann

This Terrible Beauty
By Katrin Schumann
Lake Union Publishing; hardcover, $24.95; paperback, $14.95; available Sunday, March 1

Katrin Schumann wowed readers with her debut novel, The Forgotten Hours, which was a Washington Post bestseller. She has also published five nonfiction books and has collaborated on dozens of additional titles, both commercially and independently. She was born in Germany and her family settled in Brooklyn when she was two, and she spent her formative years here before the family moved to London when she was eleven.

In her new book, This Terrible Beauty, Schumann finds inspiration in her family's dark post-World War II heritage to write this historical fiction, which is set in the 1950s and '60s on the German island of Rugen, which fell under Russian control after the war, and in a devastated Berlin.

Schumann's novel centers on a young woman grappling with life and love in a totalitarian system. She explores the cowardice and courage of ordinary people trapped in a world over which they have little control. 

As the novel opens, the war is over and the Iron Curtain has divided Europe with devastating consequences. Lonely and longing for a family, Bettina Hellstrom marries Werner, an older bureaucrat who adores her. 

After joining the fledgling secret police, Werner is drawn into its  dark mission and becomes a dangerous man. When Bettina falls in love with an idealistic young writer, Werner discovers her infidelity and forces her to make a terrible choice: spend her life in prison or leave her home forever. Either way, she is going to lose both her lover and her young child.

A decade later, Bettina is reinvented as a celebrated photographer in Chicago, but she has never lost that yearning for the daughter she left behind. When she is surprised by an unexpected visitor from her past, she resolves to go back to her ravaged homeland to reclaim her child and uncover her beloved's fate, but at what cost?

This Terrible Beauty offers a fresh and surprising perspective on the World War II era, a period that continues to be popular with readers.

The Dark Family History That Lies Behind This Terrible Beauty, By Katrin Schumann:

In November 1989, I flew with my father to the German island of Rugen, up north on the Baltic Sea. A Berliner, my father had spent summers there as a little boy, not unlike Bostonians who head to the Vineyard to escape the city. But for three decades, the island had been on lockdown: after WWII, half of Germany fell under Russian control, trapping millions of Germans behind a physical and metaphorical wall. Luckily, my father escaped to the West and eventually made his way to freedom in America.

Just a few weeks before our trip to Rugen, the actual wall that split Germany in two - patrolled by sharpshooters and dogs, lined with bombs - had finally come down. Truth be told, until that visit to the island, my family's history felt distant and confusing to me.

That all changed after my father and I crept into my great aunt's abandoned cottage on a medieval square in Sabnitz, where I came face-to-face with the epic, yet also crushingly mundane, struggles that defined 20th century German history, and dramatically changed the course of millions of lives.

The derelict fisherman's cottage was filled with debris and broken bottles, unloved and unlived in. In a corner of the cramped living room was a large iron firepit, and behind it a huge coal stain had blossomed over the floral wallpaper. For decades, East Germans relied heavily on cheap and dirty lignite (brown coal), which heated and polluted their homes and cities. The damp wallpaper itself was peeling off in places, and underneath it I saw layer upon layer of designs from past eras.

In that moment, it struck me just how many German women had struggled to live ordinary lives under extraordinary circumstances, first under fascism then under communism. I learned that when the Russians arrived on the island, my great aunt (fearful of retribution) had rushed to the local cemetery to try to scrape the swastika off her husband's gravestone with a kitchen knife. That terrible contradiction stuck with me. 

This was when my novel's protagonist, Bettina Heilstrom, first came 
to me as a character: a young woman who yearns for love and finds herself in conflict with political forces entirely outside her control.

Do you fight? Do you give up? Do you accept guilt and seek redemption? How on earth do you keep going? History is complicated, and there are stories that haven't been fully told yet; Bettina's is one of them.

Launch Events for Katrin Schumann and This Terrible Beauty across the country:

Saturday, February 29 at 6:00 PM -  Shakti Yoga launch party - 1114 White Street, Key West, FL. For more info, contact (305)587-4285

Tuesday, March 3 at 10:30 AM - Monroe County Public Library - 700 Fleming Street, Key West, FL. For more info, contact (305)292-3595

Wednesday, March 4 at 7:00 PM - Belmont Books - 79 Leonard Street, Belmont, MA. For more info, contact: (617)932-1496

Thursday, March 5 at 7:00 PM - Goodnow Library - 21 Concord Rd., Sudbury, MA. For more info, contact (978)443-1035

Thursday, March 12 at 6:00 PM - Boston Anthenaeum with Marjan Kamali - A Conversation on Agency: Displacement And Power During Political Turmoil - 10 1/2 Beacon Street, Boston MA - click here for more information.

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