Fifteen Words by Monika Jephcott Thomas
At a time when World War II-era novels abound, this one is unusual in that it is set in Nazi Germany and follows the lives of a young German couple —Max and Erika – who fall in love, marry, and are then separated by war and its aftermath. Max is a religious man who hates Hitler and his regime, while Erika is a Nazi supporter, having grown up as an enthusiastic member of the Hitler Youth. They attend medical school together and after graduation, Max joins the army as a medic for the purpose of helping the soldiers, not furthering the Nazi cause. He is stationed in the city of Breslau, running a field hospital set up in a former monastery, when the Soviet army takes control of the city and sends him to a labor camp in Siberia.
Erika, meanwhile, is six months pregnant and is traveling with her father-in-law to the home of Max’s parents where she plans to live and give birth to their baby. She has no idea what has become of Max, but assumes he will be coming home soon, since the war is ending. Neither of them realizes that they will not see each other for four more years.
The title refers to the fact that letters sent home by Soviet prisoners were not allowed to contain more than fifteen words, thereby limiting their ability to tell their loved ones about their living conditions. As readers, however, we are privy to all of the deprivation, horrors, and mistreatment that Max and his fellow prisoners must endure at the hands of the Soviets. In alternate chapters, we observe Erika as she makes a life for herself and her daughter in occupied Germany while Max is gone.
After following their individual lives during four years of separation, it was clear that their reunion as a couple would not be an easy one, and I was particularly interested in how that reunion would ultimately play out. How long would it take them to get used to one another again? Was it even possible? Max isn’t the person he once was and no longer feels a bond with “home.” Erika has her misgivings and her secrets, and their daughter is less than welcoming to her father. Does he ever connect with his daughter, recapture a loving relationship with his wife, and at least come close to feeling as though he might fit in again? Unfortunately, the book stops abruptly upon his return home and leaves all of those questions unanswered.
Overall, this book is well written and well researched. While the story is fiction, the book is inspired by actual events in the lives of the author and her family (see our guest post from author Monika Jephcott Thomas). I just wish I knew more about Max’s fate, as I had become invested in his welfare (Erika’s not so much).
Grandma gives Fifteen Words four stars.
Bella Reads and Reviews Books was given a free copy of the book by the author in return for an honest review and participation in the blog tour accompanying its release.