Book 13, a book set in a different country, City of Women by David Gillham
The entire plot of City of Women hangs on one important question–what would any of us do? In the last month, this is a question that has become more poignant in the minds of millions of Americans as the threat to our most vulnerable citizens grows each day. So many of the actions perpetrated by the current political administration eerily mirror those of another party gaining a foothold in 1940’s Germany, where this story takes place. As I watch people in my own time taking lessons from some of history’s worst villains, I can’t help but wonder–what will I do? Do I want to be remembered by history as one of the people who stood on the sidelines and let atrocities be committed, or will I be one of the brave people who stands up and says ‘no,’ even at the forfeit of my own life?
City of Women answers that pivotal question in a poignant and beautiful manner. Our protagonist is Sigrid, a prototypical Berlin housewife. On the surface, she is the ideal German woman–party member, married to a solider currently fighting at the front, working in a patent office to support the war effort. She spends her days going through the motions of what is expected and blending in perfectly, hiding herself from the horrible things happening around her. Under the surface, Sigrid lives in a world of memory; she spends her days escaping mentally into the past with her former lover, a Jewish man named Egon. In Sigrid’s defense, she is “just a housewife.” While she disagrees with what the Nazis are doing, what power does she have to resist? What can she do? What would any of us do? Until one day, Sigrid is faced with a choice that will determine her place in history–will she be one of thousands who remember with shame what they allowed to happen to their Jewish neighbors, or will she be one who can stand proudly knowing she did have power, despite being “just a housewife,” to thwart evil? Will she choose to escape back to the world of memory, or move forward and resist the evil that has taken hold of her world?
Admittedly, I am in love with literature from this era. It was very intriguing to read something from the perspective of a German citizen as most of the narratives I’ve encountered are from the Jewish point of view. It was interesting to enter the mental space of a person who is not directly persecuted by the actions of the Nazi party but grapples with the moral struggle to subvert something they abhor at the cost of their own safety. It’s not an easy choice for most people. Idealistically, we all want to be that person, but when push comes to shove, will we sacrifice our own lives and those of our families to stand up for what we believe in? We see many characters who ultimately cannot make this sacrifice despite being “good people” but there are also many who find their own subtle ways to resist. It’s ultimately an inspiring story about ways in which humanity can rise to its very best even in the face of its very worst moments.
I enjoyed the writing very much, though it did start out slowly. The author takes quite a bit of time fleshing out Sigrid from her ho-hum beginnings to the exhilarating memories we eventually see. About halfway through the novel, things really began to pick up and I was filled with dread at every turn of the page for all of the lives hanging in the balance throughout the narrative. I found the story heartbreaking but also uplifting. Especially at this current moment, I felt so connected to the fear and the uncertainty that these characters faced.