Sunday, April 26, 2015

New Novel THREATEN TO UNDO US by Rose Seiler Scott: A Review

"A mighty fortress is our God." Martin Luther's famous words run deep in Liesel's consciousness, sustaining her through many "mortal ills." She's a key character in the historical novel Threaten to Undo Us by Rose Seiler Scott. Like many Germans, Liesel gets along well with her Polish neighbours in their mixed Polish-German area of Europe.


Then World War II changes things. The map of Poland is redrawn. Germans in Polish territory, who are now regarded as aliens, must leave their homes. They are denied human rights and enslaved by the newly established Russian Communist regime.


Threaten to Undo Us starts in 1945, the year Liesel and her children are driven from their beloved farm home. The story then returns to the year 1919, when we meet Liesel at age six. We see her grow up in a devout German Lutheran family, coexisting peacefully with the Polish Catholics around them. For example, young Liesel savours Polish words such as kapliczka, meaning statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Readers get the impression that, left to themselves, these two religiously and ethnically diverse peoples would continue to respect and cooperate with each other for many years to come.


Unfortunately disruptive political and philosophical ideas are afoot. Scott personalizes them for us when one of the characters, Günther Hoffmann, joins Hitler Youth (part of the National Socialist, or Nazi, Party). Günther described the party's aims like this: "Hitler is planning to Germanize Poland….The Slavs (including Poles) and the Jews are sub-human. The Aryan race is superior."


Liesel's father protests: "We are all made in the image of God." The tension between him and Günther, and indeed all Germans opposed to the Nazis' aims and those in favor is a major theme in the novel.


Liesel's husband, Ernst, doesn't want to join the German army. He isn't interested in "fighting for the glory of the Fatherland" and doesn't believe "religion is for the weak." However, he eventuallys join the Self-Protection Unit, or Selbstschutz, because he wants to help prevent harm to his wife and family. When the Selbstschutz is absorbed into the unified armed forces of Germany, Ernst finds himself unwillingly in the military after all.


In a heartbreaking scene, he returns home on leave. Some of his and Liesel's children don't know him. He has been away for too long. Ernst himself "had seen and done things he couldn't explain to his wife and children."


As the war drags on, some German soldiers are forced to admit they were wrong. "It is all a big lie, you know. The Hitler youth…." The Fatherland's visions of glory have shrunk to a desire for mere survival.


The Russians imprison Liesel's husband, Ernst. Meanwhile Liesel has to fend for herself and their children. One child, Heidi, is born as they flee from the Russians. Soon afterwards, she's raped by Russian soldiers.


Will the brave beleaguered Liesel see her husband again? Will he accept her, defiled as she is by rape? The author keeps us waiting to the end of the novel to find answers to these heart-rending questions.


Another question: "What will become of Christianity in face of the materialistic and crushing onslaught of Nazism and Communism?" Rev. E. J. Way, a Canadian chaplain during World War II, posed that query. His answer, published in the BMA Blitz, ran like this: "Christianity may lose many of its children, weakened and worn down by the artful strategy and brute force of evil powers, but the good will be made better and the strong stronger in the face of adversity. Like gold they will be purified in the crucible of suffering and affliction."


Liesel's faith doesn't really flourish in the face of what she and her family suffer. Nevertheless it survives, a testament to her character and the power of God.


The author, Rose Seiler Scott, is good at characterization and describing the life of the times. For example, here's Liesel contrasting two of her sons: "Olaf…at butchering time scarcely to be found." His older brother is "not at all bothered to wring a chicken's neck or help pour the blood from a pig's head."


Scott is also good at portraying action and suspense. Example: "At the whistle of the train Liesel stood up, watching to see if any coal would fall from the top of the freight cars. As the rumbling behemoth slowed, a young man dressed in rags hoisted himself up onto the train and scaled up the side ladder into the box. Showers of coal rained down onto the ground as he scooped the top of the pile.


"His bulging rucksack landed on the ground with a thud in a cloud of coal dust before the owner scrambled down after it. As he stooped to pick it up, a uniformed guard appeared suddenly, his gun drawn. 'Stop, or I will shoot.'"


Occasionally the author is less good at conveying information about the politics of the times. Sometimes the characters explain in ways that seem forced. For example, here's Liesel's father speaking to his young children near the beginning of the book: "The Great War may be over, but the danger has not fully passed. There is still the border dispute and the Bolsheviks." I doubt that children would get much out of such a general, wide-ranging explanation. Perhaps this information could have been given in another way.


Despite this little drawback, Threaten to Undo Us is a good read for anyone interested in history, politics, faith, family, and especially relationships among ethnic groups.


Threaten to Undo Us is 327 pages, $19.99 trade paperback, publisher Promontory Press of Victoria, BC, ISBN 978-1-927559-68-0. Order Online through:


Promontory Press



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Elma Schemenauer CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS: 1940s-era novel about love, Mennonites, faith, & betrayal.  Info at   Order from Chapters online or Borealis Press


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