Children and Fire
Hegi is a writer I’ve intended to read for some time now. I also intend to finish Madame Bovary some day. So it was with great pleasure that I opened and fell in love with Children and Fire, right from page one. It drew me in like an old friend telling me a story I’d been wanting to hear.
In 1934, Thekla Jansen is the new teacher of a class of fourth-grade boys in the fictional village of Burgdorf, Germany, a position this likeable young woman longed for. Now she must keep her balance in a world where the center isn’t holding. She’s a gifted, caring educator, teaching her boys to think, to question, to explore their world. Hitler, she reasons, obviously didn’t have good teachers. She tells the family of a Jewish student that they shouldn’t leave Germany: Hitler can’t last! She goes along with the Heil Hitlers and rationalizes the boys’ pride in their Hitler Youth uniforms. She even briefly, guiltily tastes for herself the obscene power of a nighttime rally. But the tightening of Nazism’s noose and its corrupting fears and hatreds threaten to overcome Thecla’s belief, as she tells her class that we can “reach into fate with both arms and affect the outcome.”
Knitted through the 1934 narrative is the story of Thecla’s unknown past, with chapters taking place in 1900 to 1903. Tension builds until family secrets are revealed at the same time that death touches Thecla’s class – and it becomes clear that goodness and civilized values might not endure over evil and ignorance after all, at least in the townspeople’s individual lives. Hegi’s writing is magically paced, languid and yet compelling, with vivid, complex characters. This, the fourth novel in Hegi’s Burgdorf cycle, is a treasure, proof that literature doesn’t need to be a chore. Recommended.