Kelly Rimmer – The German Wife

Hachette, Australia, 2022

While Kelly Rimmer’s latest novel is entitled The German Wife, for me it is an American story. Perhaps it is a hole in my own knowledge that made the author’s graphic and heart-breaking account of the Black Sunday dust storm so powerful.

Kelly Rimmer talks to Barbie about The German Wife

I’d heard of the storms and the dust bowl in the American high plains, of course, but had no idea of the extent of the 14 April 1935 weather event, when a towering wall of black, choking dust swept across several counties, including Texas – where the American lead female of this story spent her young years.

When Lizzie from Texas and Sofie from Berlin meet in Huntsville Alabama in 1950, they both bring a history of trauma – Lizzie as one of the dirt poor farmers of the 1930s, tragically affected by the Black Sunday storm and years of drought, who then is forced off her family’s land to El Paso where she becomes one of the struggling urban working poor; Sofie as the wife of German rocket scientist Jürgen who, with other German scientists, has been brought to Huntsville by the US government to work on their rocket program.

The hundred or so German scientists were said not to be Nazis but their records were erased and, as the real history shows, many of them proved to be so. The character of Jürgen is loosely based on Wernher  von Braun.

The arrival of the Germans in Huntsville divides the community. Not only are the women and children ostracised by the American wives, but there is also a divide in the German community, and Sofie and her children fall prey to this when suspicion falls on Jürgen and his role as a member the Nazi party and the SS.

Many questions of morality are explored in this book and we are forced repeatedly to question how we would have reacted under the circumstances – impossible to know from our secure positions in 2022, what we would have done or refused to do, where we would have drawn the line.

In the German context the author shows us the insidious growth of Nazism, the erosion of the human rights of the Jewish people, the gradual and then accelerating pressures to conform placed on German citizens, the indoctrination of the children into a hateful philosophy.

In the American context, we see the impossibility of understanding the European situation when the US didn’t enter the war until late in its course – it was seen as having nothing to do with them until Pearl Harbour. We also see the ugliness of segregation, of the Whites Only signs of shops and the parallels with the No Jews signs in Germany.

We also question the morality of absolving this set of German scientists who might otherwise have been tried for war crimes – simply because they were useful in the international space race and the development of weapons (including the Atomic Bombs which were dropped on Hirsohima and Nagasaki in 1945). It’s always a balancing act – what is the greater good?

The male characters in this story do come off rather well, incidentally – while Lizzie’s brother Henry is quite alarming in much of this tale, we are won over to tolerance by Lizzie’s love for him.

Jürgen is undoubtedly involved and complicit in the horrors of Nazism, but we are also convinced that his heart was usually in the right place and that he was, like many, a victim of the times, caught between impossible choices.

Calvin is motivated to some extent by his own needs in offering marriage to Lizzy, but nevertheless respects her and her decisions and never asks anything of her she doesn’t want to give. This is quite a relief, actually, as many of the women in this novel behave badly.

The German Wife is a thoroughly enjoyable read, one that challenges and informs. Kelly Rimmer’s capacity to create relatable characters and her dab hand at weaving moral complexity into her history-based stories make for a satisfying reading experience. Our sympathies and antipathies are both aroused. Very little is black and white in questions of morality and this is where the great pleasure of this book lies.

Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and to Kelly for another thought-provoking book and interesting conversation about history, morality and this book.