“All the frequent troubles of our days”

Although the text of the book runs to nearly 500 pages, I consumed All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days in three big gulps. I found it a powerful and moving book that was hard to put down. If you want to know what it was like to live in Berlin during the Nazis’ rise to power through the first few years of the war, author Rebecca Donner offers a glimpse through the eyes of her (American) great great aunt, Mildred Harnack, and Arvid Harnack, the German fellow student with whom she fell in love at the University of Wisconsin.

The book has been favorably reviewed in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. If you think you might read the book, don’t read the reviews. They spoil a little of the suspense. I won’t do that here.

I picked up the book hoping it would replicate the experience I had reading In the Garden of Beasts: If you observed Hitler and the Nazis up close at a time when the future was still in doubt, what would you have seen? What would you have heard? What would you have thought? What would you have done? What risks would you have taken?

In Larson’s book, we take a seat next to William Dodd, FDR’s ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937. In Donner’s book, we look through the eyes of a woman who formed a small resistance group and, along with her husband, went on to work as a spy to subvert the Nazi regime. Harnack befriended and socialized with Dodd’s wild daughter, Martha Dodd. Indeed, Martha is a prominent character in Donner’s book. I found Donner’s treatment of her more forthcoming than Larson’s.

Harnack was rescued from oblivion by Shareen Blair Brysac in Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra (2000). Donner’s book draws on surviving letters home by Mildred Harnack and extensive archival research in the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and the United States as well as private family collections, yet there is nothing musty about the story. Donner appears to have left no page unturned, literally or figuratively, in order to reconstruct events as they happened. However, we necessarily remain at some remove from Harnack’s true thoughts and feelings. Harnack did not commit them to paper.

Like John Updike in Rabbit, Run, Donner casts her narrative almost entirely in the present tense. It is also broken into short chapters that are themselves broken into fragmentary pieces. It makes for easy reading, though it reflects a high level of narrative art. The book has a compelling forward drive right to the end. Drawing on an interview with Mildred’s (American) courier — then a boy, 89 when interviewed — Donner’s last chapter is little more than a two-page postscript, yet it had me in tears.

In part the book must constitute an homage to her relative. Donner nevertheless remains the detached observer throughout. Despite the detachment, this is a book that doesn’t let you go. When you finish reading and put it down, the book continues to haunt.

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