Motherland is a disturbing novel. Set in Germany during the last months of the war, it’s the story of Frank Kappus, a doctor who performs reconstructive surgery. Kappus, a recent widower with three sons, remarries very quickly after the death of his wife. Liesl, the young woman he marries, finds that soon after her marriage she will be required to care for the children while Kappus is drafted into the medical military service.
Liesl is faced with many challenges, chief among which is figuring out what is happening with middle son, Ani, a young boy who seems to be deteriorating mentally. She takes him to several doctors, but all threaten to place him in the dreaded Hadamar, a Nazi institution for “unfit” children.
Liesl also must find enough food as supplies become more and more limited. As she tries to locate goods for her family, the young woman who once had the Führer’s portrait hanging above her bed begins to wonder about whether she should have supported the Nazis. Things don’t look so good for them now.
The writer asks the reader to be sympathetic to these characters and, in her afterword, discusses how painful it was to “keep the Holocaust offscreen.” However, given this period and place in history, we look at any story set here through the lens of what we know now. And, though they must struggle, this family does have enough to eat. They do have shelter. They do not have other people torturing them, shaving their heads, forcing them to labor long hours with little food to sustain them. They do not have people lining them up in cattle cars to take them to crematoriums. Though the Holocaust is not mentioned, the deaths of 12 million people are ever-present in this novel. This presence makes it a little hard to feel for the plight of the Kappus family.