Sunday, August 22, 2010

Heart Lessons

Forgiveness. The theme of Andy Andrews’ difficult-to-categorize work, The Heart Mender, pervades the story of a German submariner and an American waitress set in World War II era Alabama. The back cover of the book defines it as “SELF-HELP/Motivational/Inspirational”. These are genres I generally do not read, but when a friend alerted me to the recent publication of a book involving a romance between a German WWII sailor and an American woman, I was too intrigued to resist.

The book purports to be a true story and is divided into three sections. It begins as a contemporary, factual narrative. Mr. Andrews describes how, while digging up a tree stump in his own backyard on the Gulf coast of the southern US, he accidently unearths a rusty can containing a number of unusual artifacts. Through careful research, he is able to identify the anchor-embossed buttons, Iron Cross medal, and silver badge depicting an anchor curiously entwined with the initials “UB” (later identified as U-boat). Also included in the can are three old photographs – one of a sailor, another of a couple with a small child and the last a group of naval personnel and military officials, including Adolf Hitler, the only individual in any of the photos whom Mr. Andrews can identify.

The middle section of the book, by far the longest, reads like a novel and is set in 1942 Alabama. The main characters are Helen Mason, the embittered widow of an American Army Air Force officer, and Josef Bartels Landermann, the German U-boat officer whom Helen discovers near death, washed up on the beach near her cottage.

At times while reading The Heart Mender, I didn’t know quite what to make of it. Though very much caught up in the story of Helen and Josef, I would occasionally glance at the back cover, wondering how this book fit into the category of “SELF-HELP/Motivational/Inspirational”, which the publisher had placed it in. I primarily read straight fiction or non-fiction; this book read like a fusion of both, with something else, a genre I am not familiar with, mixed in. In a sense, the lack of a “Romance” designation enhanced my enjoyment; I didn’t know whether to expect a happy ending and that mystery propelled me to excitedly read on, as the characters I had come to care about faced wrenching and even life-threatening plot twists. Romance readers are guaranteed a happy ending, though death, destruction and despair often loom, apparently inescapably. One of the challenges for a romance novelist is to keep the reader wondering, if just for a moment, if she will get that happy ending she has been promised.

To sum up the thrust of Mr. Andrews’ book, I quote part of the back cover blurb: “The Heart Mender is a story of life, loss, and reconciliation, reminding us of the power of forgiveness and the universal healing experience of letting go.” Though primarily drawn to the book by it’s WWII story, involving a romance between enemies (much like my soon-to-be-released novel), I was intrigued by the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation. As a writer of World War II romance, I find myself in the paradoxical position of spinning a tale of both love and war. I consider myself a peace-loving person. I wouldn’t call myself a pure pacifist though; in the most extreme cases, aggression is sometimes the only response to aggression, when all avenues for peaceful resolution have been exhausted. So why was I moved to write a book immersed in themes hate, as well as of love? And why do I blog about it? Though I deal with the subject matter differently than Mr. Andrews does (after all, he writes “Inspirational” and I write “Romance”), I hope readers will come away from my novel with a similar message. Years ago, when discussing my book with my sister Stephanie (one of my manuscript’s early critiquers) she and I both concluded that its themes were love and forgiveness. My personal journey in writing In the Arms of the Enemy, as well as “World War II…with a German accent,” has revealed an overriding ethic: that even amidst the worst of human experience and inhuman behavior, I refuse to give up hope of redemption – redemption not in a religious sense, but in a moral one.

Forgiveness. This powerful, life-altering phenomenon stirred my heart through The Heart Mender, and the thrilling true story drove my interest. Though this is not a genre I would normally pluck from the bookshelf, I came away moved and enchanted. I loved Mr. Andrews’ characters – real people whose names have been altered – and was satisfied to learn in the third and final section of the book their ultimate fates. Mr. Andrews had the good fortune to actually track down and interview some of them, enabling him to piece together the mystery of how German World War II artifacts, secreted for nearly 60 years, ended up in his back yard on the Gulf coast of the United States. Had it not been for that pesky tree stump, this story would never have been known or told. I encourage you to read it, and dare the cynical among you not to be moved.