City of Women
David R. Gillham, 2012
Who do you trust, who do you love, and who can be saved?
It is 1943—the height of the Second World War—and Berlin has essentially become a city of women. Sigrid Schröder is, for all intents and purposes, the model German soldier’s wife: She goes to work every day, does as much with her rations as she can, and dutifully cares for her meddling mother-in-law, all the while ignoring the horrific immoralities of the regime. But behind this façade is an entirely different Sigrid, a woman who dreams of her former lover, now lost in the chaos of the war. Her lover is a Jew.
But Sigrid is not the only one with secrets.
A high ranking SS officer and his family move down the hall and Sigrid finds herself pulled into their orbit. A young woman doing her duty-year is out of excuses before Sigrid can even ask her any questions. And then there’s the blind man selling pencils on the corner, whose eyes Sigrid can feel following her from behind the darkness of his goggles.
Soon Sigrid is embroiled in a world she knew nothing about, and as her eyes open to the reality around her, the carefully constructed fortress of solitude she has built over the years begins to collapse. She must choose to act on what is right and what is wrong, and what falls somewhere in the shadows between the two.
In this page-turning novel, David Gillham explores what happens to ordinary people thrust into extraordinary times, and how the choices they make can be the difference between life and death. (From the publisher.)
• Education—University of Southern California
• Currently—lives in Western Massachusetts
David R. Gillham’s writing reflects his lifelong love of history. “My connection to history has always been palpable, especially to certain times and places. When I write about a place like Berlin in the 1940′s, I feel like I am walking around its streets. I feel at home there, at least in my head.
I think I’m especially drawn to dark periods of the past, when people were forced to make choices about whether or not they would live their lives in fear. And in particular, I write about women in the past. We have all read about how men go to war, for instance, but what about the experience of women? What wars have they fought on a daily basis? That is what lead me to begin City of Women with the character of Sigrid—an ordinary woman forced to make an extraordinary choice—and then not only live with the dangerous consequences, but also rise above them.”
Early in Gillham's career, he was trained as a screen writer at University of Southern California, and then moved irrevocably into fiction. After relocating to New York City, he spent over a decade in the book business, and now lives with his family in Western Massachusetts. (From the author's website.)
(Starred review.) In this stunning debut about the battle between good and evil, Gillham puts a fresh spin on the horrors of WWII by focusing on civilian German women to reveal that, amid the many adherents of the party line there were a handful of unsung heroes.... The line between what is “right” and “wrong” becomes harder to define as Sigrid, confronted with increasingly more horrifying realities, finds her resolve constantly tested. Gillham’s transcendent prose..., powerfully drawn characters, and the multilayered dilemmas make his first literary effort a powerful revelation.
During World War II, a large portion of Germany’s male population were off serving their Führer and Fatherland, leaving behind legions of women to continue alone on the home front.... The complex relationships that develop among women, men, family, and lovers are at the core of what drives this debut novel, which captures both heart and mind from the start and does not let go until the riveting end. Verdict: This is an exemplary model of historical fiction generously laced with romance, suspense, and exciting plot twists. Readers who enjoy the grim side of historical fiction or who prefer romance infused with eroticism will find this novel appealing. —Amy M. Davis, Parmley Billings Lib., MT
(Starred review.) In his debut about 1943 Berlin, Gillham uses elements common to the many previous movies and books about World War II—from vicious Nazis to black marketeers to Jewish children hiding in attics to beautiful blond German women hiding their sexuality inside drab coats—yet manages to make the story fresh.... [With its] hold-your-breath suspense ending, World War II Germany may be familiar ground, but Gillham's novel—vividly cinematic yet subtle and full of moral ambiguity, not to mention riveting characters—is as impossible to put down as it is to forget.
1. Why do you think Sigrid helps Ericha at the cinema in the opening of the book? If you had been in Sigrid’s situation, would you have helped Ericha? Would you have become as involved as Sigrid does? With the advantage of hindsight, our perspective is no doubt skewed; since we know the truth behind what was happening in Nazi Germany, how do our answers compare with Sigrid’s bold decisions?
2. As the story progresses, Sigrid grows more and more involved and takes more and more risks. How does her reasoning for doing so later differ from the reasoning behind her first risky decision in the cinema? What is her motivation for making these increasingly dangerous choices? Desire? Excitement? Conscience?
3. Discuss the theme of betrayal in City of Women. Many of the characters are guilty of double-crossing and treachery. In what ways do they deceive one another? What about Egon? Is his betrayal portrayed differently from that of others, such as Renate or Ericha?
4. Sigrid’s relationships are numerous and varied—with her mother-in-law, her neighbors, her coworkers, her husband, her lovers, the so-called U-boats. How does each of them define who Sigrid is? How is she reflected in the various relationships? How have these bonds been altered by the extraordinary circumstances of war?
5. Were you surprised by the depiction of Berlin during World War II? Before reading the novel, had you thought about what life was like on the German home front as the tide turned and defeat loomed on the horizon?
6. Countless times throughout the novel, characters risk their lives to help others—to protect the value of human life, spurred on by their own integrity. Conversely, there is the scene on the bus where no one does anything as a Jewish woman is arrested and brutalized. Which do you think is typical of human behavior? Are people more inclined to avert their eyes and try to stay out of trouble, or risk their own safety and get involved? Why?
7. If one simply observes the facts at surface value, Sigrid would probably not be considered a righteously moral individual. Nonetheless, she manages to be a very sympathetic character. How does the author accomplish this?
8. Sigrid’s coworker Renate seems to have a sensibility similar to hers. Yet when Renate discovers that Sigrid’s lover may be Jewish, her response shocks Sigrid. Was it naive of Sigrid to expect anything different? Were you surprised by how deep-seated Renate’s anti-Semitism was?
9. Often in the novel, people are not actually who they appear to be. Consider Frau Obersturmführer Junger, the SS officer’s pregnant wife who moves in down the hall: were you shocked to find out her secret? Do you feel that everyone in the book is hiding something?
10. How would you characterize Sigrid’s relationship with Ericha Kohl? Antagonistic? Trusting? Maternal? What do you think Sigrid gets from her relationship with Ericha? What does Ericha get from Sigrid?
11. What did you think about Kaspar? Egon? Wolfram? All are on the wrong side of history. Did you find any of them appealing? Are they very different from one another?
12. At one point Sigrid flirts with the idea of turning in Anna Weiss and her two daughters so that she can have Egon to herself. Do you feel she seriously considers this?
13. How important is amorous passion in the novel? Is that the driving force that motivates Sigrid? Is it emblematic of something else?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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