Book Nook: City of Women

City of Women by David Gillham
City of Women by David Gillham
One of the classes that I took in Ireland during my study abroad was about Nazi Germany. Our professor assigned us A Woman in Berlin, an anonymous diary of a woman in Berlin during the time of the Russian invasion. It really stuck with me that the women were so resourceful, so tired, and yet so resilient to be able to survive their enemies ruling Berlin while the men were out fighting and dying. When City of Women was returned the summary made me think of that class and I knew I had to take it home.

I realized pretty quickly that Frau Schroeder is living in Berlin before it falls to the Russians, but nonetheless she is living in a city mostly devoid of men. The few that stay around either work for the Nazi Party or are so old/crippled that they are of no use to the army. Frau Schroeder, Sigrid, gets caught up in the schemes of a young woman who works in her apartment building shuttling Jews to hiding places and eventually out of Germany. Meanwhile Sigrid lives with her spiteful mother in law and struggles with the memory of her husband and what it means to be faithful. That might seem like a very superficial summary, but the action of hiding from the Gestapo is secondary to the emotional rollercoaster that Sigrid undertakes. Is she a good person or a Good German?

There is also some pretty blatant sex in this book that I wasn't expecting. It wouldn't stop me from recommending this book because it acts as a physical moor for Sigrid as her world view changes everyday and helps create a contract between her absent husband and her various lovers. However, it might be upsetting to someone who is used to a more romantic sexuality than the almost technical crudeness that Gillham uses. The story was intriguing to me because of how modern some of the attitudes towards sex and adultery were. I almost wondered if the author was adding too much of a modern lens on the personalities but then I remembered how the women of Berlin used sex as a way to protect themselves and earn money, food, and extra presents from the new Russian men in their lives. Those that were raped the first night, used their bodies to keep themselves alive, to the disgust and horror of Berlin's men when they returned from the war. 

World War II is something people I know have lived through, it makes stories about that time period all the more real to me. This book might be a good choice for someone who wants that personal connection to the subject matter, but its also a really moving story of a woman's struggle to claw her way out of the monotony, misery, and violence of the war. Sigrid could no longer turn a blind eye to the horrors she knew were all around her, what would you do?

*This blog is part of a grant Medfield has been awarded through the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Library and Services Technology Act administered by the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

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