A shopkeeper's daughter, Hazel Renner lives in the shadows of the Pittsburgh steel mills. She dreams of adventure, even as her immigrant parents push her toward a staid career. But in 1914, war seizes Europe and all their ambitions crumble. German-Americans are suddenly the enemy, "the Huns." Hazel herself is an outsider in her own home when she learns the truth of her birth.
Desperate for escape, Hazel takes a teaching job in a seemingly tranquil farming community. But the idyll is cracked when she acquires a mysterious healing power--a gift that becomes a curse as the locals' relentless demand for "miracles" leads to tragedy.
Hazel, determined to find answers, traces her own history back to a modern-day castle that could hold the truth about her past. There Hazel befriends the exiled, enigmatic German baron and forges a bond with the young gardener, Tom. But as America is shattered by war and Tom returns battered by shell-shock, Hazel's healing talents alone will not be enough to protect those close to her, or to safeguard her dreams of love and belonging. She must reach inside to discover that sometimes the truth is not so far away, that the simplest of things can lead to the extraordinary.
I read this book a fortnight ago and I have started writing this review several times only to give up. This was not because I did not like the book, but because my feelings were mixed about it.
One topic at the heart of the novel - the experience of German immigrants to the United States in the period leading up to and during the First World War - is a timely one in the light of that war's centenary. It is also a subject that I am interested in, being an immigrant in another land myself. And I felt that Pamela Schoenewaldt did an excellent job in portraying the mental and emotional turmoil Hazel and her family feel as their mother (Germany) and bride (America) move towards a terrible war and they find themselves alienated from the neighbours. The anti-German feelings are however not overdone and do not constitute a major threat to the central characters. The focus is on the corrosive emotional pain of loss (of both family and identity) and how some sensitive people, like Hazel's father, is unable to cope with it.
A second theme in the book is the post-traumatic stress or shell-shock suffered by the survivors of conflict and how little people understood what it entailed at the time. There are two men in the book who survive war (two different wars in fact), but are psychologically wounded by it. This theme appears at the beginning of the book and reappears at the end, thus tying two very different parts of the story together.
The magic realist element of the book is that Hazel may have the power of healing. This may or may not be related to blue paint and a previous murder in the house she is given when she becomes the schoolmistress in a small town. What the blue paint and the murder have to do with her healing powers is not explained, nor why her powers fail sometimes. I confess I got confused about this. In fact I have to say I found the magic realism bit the least satisfying aspect of the book. I don't see how it moves things along nor that it works as some sort of metaphor. I was much more interested in the enemy alien strand in the story.
Indeed for me the book picks up when Hazel arrives at the castle of German baron. He too is exiled from his homeland by his family for reasons that are hinted at. The strongest section in the book is when Hazel travels with the baron to a destroyed Germany after the war to try and save his mother, who has not protected him. Now that I think about it, there is another thread in the book about mothers who turn their backs on their children - Hazel is looking for the mother who abandoned her when she arrives at the Baron's castle and whilst in Germany the two of them adopt a lost boy.
There are perhaps too many themes and too many strands that are picked up and never fully examined. And through it all goes Hazel, a strong-minded young woman, but one whose emotions were not depicted as strongly as they might have been. All of which made this book a frustrating read, as tit could potentially have been very good indeed, as it was good in parts.
I received this book free from the publisher via Edelweiss in return for a fair review.