Review: The Vanishing Sky, by L. Annette Binder
Bloomsbury, 2020. 278 pp. $27
In 1945, Germany’s enemies are pulverizing the country with high explosives and pounding its armies from east and west. Yet the government-controlled radio continues to promise final, total victory, demanding ever-greater sacrifice. Etta Huber, who has one teenage son with the Hitler Youth, Georg, prays for his safety, willing with all her heart that he’ll only be sent to build fortifications, not to fight. But at least her elder son, Max, is coming home to stay, after serving on the Eastern Front. Etta doesn’t ask herself why, if the army is ready to conscript fifteen-year-old Georg, Max would be discharged. All she knows is that Max is coming home to Heidenfeld, their small, rural town, and that she’ll take care of him, as always.
But when Max steps off the train — and in succeeding days, when his strange behavior draws notice and gossip, as at church — Etta realizes something’s wrong with him. Since he’s thin, with no sign of physical injury, she decides that if she feeds him enough, he’ll get better. The reader, like the doctors who try politely to tell her what she refuses to hear, knows this once-vibrant, intelligent young man who loved nature and laughter is now mentally disturbed and unlikely to recover.
The Vanishing Sky reveals the German homefront as I’ve never seen it in fiction, a small town where nobody asks too many questions or unburdens herself, so that neighbors who’ve known one another all their lives are strangers. One unforgettable instance comes after Etta visits her closest friend Ilse, who shows her a basement full of belongings she’s keeping for Jewish friends against the day when “they return”:
Maybe it was the liquor or maybe the coming rain. The road looked narrower than usual when Etta walked home. The wind bit through her scarf. She thought of those dolls in their patent shoes and all that fine silver and the clocks ticking in the cellar and Ilse keeping watch, just Ilse and her whiskey jars. How hard to be in that house, along with all those things. The air must be thick with ghosts. How little she knew about Ilse. More than forty years together and church every week. They drank their coffee and birthed their babies and knelt together at their family graves, and they were mysteries one to the other.
Ilse must trust Etta to confide such a secret, because there’s plenty of war spirit running around, and plenty of ways to punish defeatism, disloyalty, or violations of any rule. Etta’s husband, Josef, in fact, would be such a man to turn in even his own children. He takes absolutely no interest in Max’s return, only in his son’s medals, of which he’s jealous. Josef believes in final victory and chuckles at radio reports of German victories resulting in thousands of hapless Allied prisoners captured.
But, as a former schoolteacher sent into retirement because he’s no longer mentally sharp enough to manage his lessons, Josef represents a comment on the Reich’s ideology. He’s no superman, and you have to wonder whether Binding means to suggest that Max’s psychological illness has a hereditary component. More apparent is Georg’s infirmity; he’s never reached puberty and remains pudgy, physically inept despite rigorous training, and “soft.” He knows he’s not the youth in the Nazi propaganda posters, and that he wouldn’t last five minutes in battle, which is why he dreams of escape.
With Etta, Binding evokes another ideological trope, the phrase Kinder, Küche, Kirche, “children, kitchen, church,” women’s place in Reich society. Nobody could have accepted that role or performed it more faithfully than Etta, but it’s not enough to restore her elder child. At times, her insistence that one more letter, plea, or bribe will spring him from the hospital can be wearing, because the narrative runs in circles: You know the result will always be the same, and that it will make no impression on her. Even so, you have to admire her determination in the face of doom. She’s a true tragic figure.
Binding tells her story patiently, like an artist placing tiny pieces into a mosaic. The Vanishing Sky is no novel to race through. But I find it thoroughly gripping, powerful, and a brave narrative unsparing in its honesty.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the publisher; this post appeared in Historical Novels Review in shorter, different form.