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Stones from the River ()

San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 Novels of the West (53)

One of the highlights of baseball season used to be the Mets' road trip into Pittsburgh, when Met broadcaster and former Pirate would get to explain to listeners that the ballpark was called Three Rivers Stadium because the city sits at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio  Rivers.  Well, Ursula Hegi's much praised novel sits at the confluence of several of the most annoying trends in literature: the conceit that the handicapped partake of some special knowledge; the treatment of the citizens of Nazi Germany as victims; and the general idea that the Holocaust was completely aberrant rather than an organic outgrowth of German culture.  These pernicious theories intertwine in Hegi's story of Trudi Montag, a dwarf librarian (librarians as heroes are another common theme, but we'll assume a fairly benign one, simply intended to get libraries to stock the book) in Germany who learns over the course of two World Wars the enormously platitudinous truth that: "Being different is a secret that all human beings share."

It's easy to see how this was chosen for Oprah's Book Club; there's so much to make fun of here it's hard to decide where to start.  Why don't we just take the handicap angle, since we've discussed the Nazi stuff elsewhere [see Orrin's review of Hitler's Willing Executioners : Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Daniel Jonah Goldhagen) (Grade: A)].  One can hardly take issue with the movement over recent years to more fully integrate the handicapped into society and to recognize that they are capable of making valuable contributions to our civic culture.  But this admirable change in social perception has been accompanied by a disturbing tendency to totemize the handicapped.  It is one thing to recognize the worth of handicapped individuals, quite another to pretend that their very handicaps are actually beneficial.  We see this idiocy quite often in discussions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when writers like Doris Kearns Goodwin [see Orrin's review of No Ordinary Time : Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt : The Home Front in World War II (Doris Kearns Goodwin)(C+)] blithely assume that his polio gave him a special sensitivity and insight to the needs of his fellow man, a proposition which is at least arguable, but then fail to consider whether it might also have left him an embittered wretch, determined to destroy the lives of others more fortunate than himself.  I do not mean to suggest that such was the case, that the New Deal was simply a way of getting even with the upper classes who kept him out of the Porcellian Club at Harvard.  Rather, I am pointing out that current politically correct attitudes towards the "differently abled" preclude considering their conditions as anything like a disability.  Thus, where the dwarves of Wagner and Germanic myth were relatively evil and the dwarf of Gunter Grass's awful Tin Drum represented the emotional stunting of the German people after Hitler, Hegi gives us the dwarf as a uniquely perceptive observer of the human condition.  Each of these seems equally malefic to me.  As Martin Luther King pleaded, we should judge people by the content of their character.  Treating the handicapped as if they had some kind of specially heightened abilities is just as bigoted as treating them as worthless.

This is a truly silly book and a thinly veiled attempt to excuse German perpetration of the Holocaust.   Stick with Daniel Goldhagen's book instead.


Grade: (D)


Book-related and General Links:
    -Oprah Book Club: Ursula Hegi
    -PROFILE: 'Stone' breaks the grip of silence (USA Today)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: (Infoculture, CBC)
    -REVIEW: of WINTER Notes From Montana. By Rick Bass (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE ALL-GIRL FOOTBALL TEAM. By Lewis Nordan (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  LOST WEDDINGS By Maria Beig  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  LITTLE TALES OF MISOGYNY. By Patricia Highsmith  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  WATCHING THE BODY BURN By Thomas Glynn  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE UNLOVED: From the Diary of Perla S. By Arnost Lustig  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  PLANS FOR DEPARTURE. By Nayantara Sahgal  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  PRISONER'S DILEMMA By Richard Powers  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  COLLABORATORS By Janet Kauffman  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  LONG WAY FROM HOME By Frederick Busch  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  FRAUD By Anita Brookner  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  THE LOSER By Thomas Bernhard. Translated by Jack Dawson  (Ursula Hegi, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Reaching to the converted: Oprah's Book Club introduces readers to people they already know -- themselves (Gavin McNett, Salon)
    -ESSAY: Synthesis/Analysis Paper  by Emily Falcone
    -REVIEW: of STONES FROM THE RIVER By Ursula Hegi (Suzanne Ruta, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Stones from the River  by Ursula Hegi (Ruth Adams, Librarian, Picks of the Pros)
    -REVIEW: Responsible To Our Time   A novel of staying awake to injustice (W. Dale Brown, Sojourners Magazine)
    -REVIEW: of Stones (Mostly Fiction: recommended books by Ursula Hegi)
    -REVIEW: of Stones (Maggie Kamau, Africa Wired)
    -ANNOTATED REVIEW: Hegi, Ursula Stones from the River (Willms, Janice L., Medical Humanities)
    -REVIEWS: of Stones From the River (Epinions)
    -ESSAY: After Oprah (ALA Book List)
    -REVIEW: of Tearing the Silence Being German in America. By Ursula Hegi (Walter Reich, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: tearing the silence : on being german in America   BY URSULA HEGI  (SALLY ECKHOFF, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of THE VISION OF EMMA BLAU By Ursula Hegi (Diana Postlethwaite, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Vision of Emma Blau (Valerie Ryan, The Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW: of Vision of Emma Blau (Robert Clark, Washington Post Book World)
    -REVIEW: Vision of Emma Blau (Ann Patchett, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW: of Vision of Emma Blau (MAUDE MCDANIEL, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of SALT DANCER By Ursula Hegi (Abby Frucht, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of FLOATING IN MY MOTHER'S PALM By Ursula Hegi (Edward Hoagland, NY Times Book Review)