3 out of 4 stars
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Dear American Brother, a novel based on a true story, is an agonizing read. Many pages are a study in horror. What evil humans can do to other humans is beyond imagination. How can humans be so utterly inhuman?
Hans Gerein, the principal character, narrates the story spanning the years 1914 to 1945. These were 31 years of hardship upon hardship as his German village of Chornov in South Russia underwent the trials of World War I, the Bolshevik Regime, and World War II. We usually look at the Germans as the villains of the World Wars. Here is proof that even Germans were helpless victims, particularly the descendants of the German colonists who settled in the Kutschurgan area in South Russia.
Hans, Loni (his older sister), and Kurt (his older brother) lived normal lives with their family and their neighbors, farmers mostly. They had strong neighborhood camaraderie, attended the Catholic church, and generally lived well. Then, World War I broke out. Kurt joined their Uncle Pius’s family when they moved to America; the plan was for the rest of the clan to follow. Meanwhile, with the able adult males conscripted to fight the invading Germans, 11-year-old Hans was forced to grow up and take adult responsibilities under his Grandpa Wilhelm’s supervision.
The Bolsheviks ousted the Germans in 1917, and communism was instituted: Religion was banned. All their landholdings were pooled. All produce was turned over to the government. The Cause was supposed to treat everyone equally. It succeeded in that all, save for the Russian guards, equally starved and worked to the bone.
In 1941, Hitler arrived as their savior; starvation was over. However, the villagers’ woes did not end. In 1945, the Soviet Army returned to wreak revenge on the German-Russians. In their flight to Germany, Hans and his daughter Ami got separated.
Through the 31 years, Hans and Kurt continued communicating; however, silent years had to intervene owing to the cruel regimes. Will Hans reunite with Ami? Will he ever fulfill his American dream?
War is bad. I believe that is an irrefutable fact, but the Gereins in Chornov lived harrowing lives even during the time of supposed peace.
Joe J. Elder, himself a German descendant, wrote this story to honor his grandmother, a player in that besieged era. The book blends history with the fictional tale of the Gerein family. While Kurt is shown living a good life in America, his brother Hans’s travails appear in stark contrast. Elder paints the excruciating picture with striking vividness, making me stop reading many times to collect myself.
The scattering of German and Russian words succeeds in heightening the realism. Though many of the words are understandable from the context, including a glossary will ensure that the reader interprets the words correctly. The titles used for the chapters are usually quoted from the characters; these make the reader connect to the characters and act as effective summaries of the chapters.
I want this book experienced by many: people who know nothing about those devastating events which rocked the world and people whose families continue to suffer the effects of those events. It will not be a pleasant read, I can assure you. Those who are sensitive to gore may opt out. However, this is a book that will open eyes and touch hearts in many ways.
I would be remiss if I don’t mention that there are light and shining moments, too. We get to read about German traditions relating to courtship, weddings, Christmas, and community life. We see what great sacrifices parents can do for their children, how the love of family makes hardship bearable, how faith keeps hope alive, and how music and humor alleviate times of despair.
I rate the book 3 out of 4 stars. While I wholeheartedly recommend it, I cannot turn a blind eye to the editing issues in its pages. The one-star deduction is for the numerous grammar slips, mostly run-on sentences and bad punctuation. Joe Elder should wipe out these errors to make this book stand out. It should belong to every family’s library as a reminder of human cruelty and of the comforting balm of faith, family, and friendship.
Dear American Brother
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