Book Review: SKELETONS AT THE FEAST, a harrowing novel about refugees in the final days of WWII

Bohjalian, Chris - Skeletons at the FeastSkeletons at the Feast
Chris Bohjalian

The Emmerich family has lived at Kaminheim, a beet farm and apple orchard, for generations. But when the Russian army approaches the area, the Prussian family, along with Callum Finella, a POW who was assigned to help the family during harvest and who secretly became lovers with eighteen-year-old Anna, began a difficult journey west into safer territory. Along the way, they face winter weather, starvation, illness, and malevolent enemies. Yet they also meet Manfred, a German corporal, actually Uri Singer, a German Jew who escaped a train to Auschwitz and has survived by impersonating German soldiers. His presence provides opportunities and security they otherwise would lack.

As they make their difficult trek west, so does Cecile, a French Jew, a prisoner at work camp who is evacuated with her fellow prisoners. Their guards subject them to unbelievable cruelty and privation yet Cecile maintains a positive attitude that buoys her and the women around her.

The Russians, feared as barbarians, are at the heels of both groups, and the sounds of war are ever present. They pass the destruction of war: the ruined buildings, the bombed fields, the abandoned belongings. They see the too young and too old pressed into service. They wrestle with their consciences as they face unbelievable losses.

Well-written with interesting characters, Skeletons at the Feast, while joining a wealth of historical novels about World War II, offers a new perspective: that of German refugees fleeing the east for the west. Not only did the refugees have to leave their homes and belongings, they were often targeted by planes, so fleeing was almost as dangerous as staying.

I particularly liked young Theo’s relationship with animals, though hated the representations of how war affected animals, in this story, horses in particular. The historical details resonated and seemed accurate. One thing I liked less, though, was the multitude of perspectives and the frequent shifts between them.

Skeletons at the Feast is a difficult book to read because of the unrelenting cruelty and devastation it depicts, yet it is also valuable to read. I think at some level, it’s our responsibility to witness and remember the atrocities committed to prevent them from happening again. Though Bohjalian certainly takes the Germans to task over the holocaust, he doesn’t present the allies as innocent, including the destruction of Dresden in the pages. Overall, it’s a commentary against war.