The Mortal Storm, by Phyllis Bottome

My copy: 9780810114715

Every book on my shelf has a story regarding how it got there. I was trying to remember how I ended up with this book, and it started with a college research paper (as most of mine do). I always do far too much research so I can find out what subject or angle gives me the most to work with, and in this case, the book wasn’t going to be helpful. The paper was about the German-American Bund, but in searching for anti-Nazi sentiment in the country, I came across articles discussing contemporary literature and Nazism. One of these was The Mortal Storm (1938).

514kifgeaql-_sy445_Phyllis Bottome is one of the least well-known successful writers of the early 20th century, and after reading this work, I’m eager to read more from her. Much of her writings have been long out of print or lost, so the professors and such from Northwestern University–where some of her work resides–are trying to get it published. This book was one of those works put back into circulation, probably bolstered by the remastering of the film version from 1940. For the record, I haven’t seen it, but there are some significant changes between the book and movie from what I’d read (spoiler alert if you read the link above).

I find The Mortal Storm fascinating because it’s an incredible, contemporary read by a well-traveled woman who was back and forth between Europe and the U.S. during her writing career. She has incredible attention to detail and yes, the descriptive passages and all are rather old-fashioned compared to the minimal descriptive approach of today’s books. But for those of us who haven’t grown up in 1930s Germany, it gives a feeling of being there, in a world where family names and aristocracy still had a place, old values and class-ism upheld while the twentieth century clashed against it, and the people hoped things would get better.

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Meeting of the Brown Shirts, hanging onto Hitler’s words (1920s or early 30s)

The main character is Freya Roth, who is a devoted medical student determined to follow in her father’s footsteps and be a good doctor. When we meet her, she’s been absorbed in her studies and university life and hasn’t paid any attention to politics. However, when exams are done and she has other things to focus on, like her family (her mother, father, half brothers and little brother). We open our eyes to this world along with Freya, who is realizing how much the Nazi regime is going to impact her family’s life. Her father and she are considered Jewish, her half-brothers are not, and the young Rudi is in between.

I’ve read this story three times now, and found it to be just as good each time. So many things take place, and the discussions (philosophical, political, etc.) take on new meaning the more one learns about Germany and the story’s events. It’s not a very difficult read or preachy, but sometimes I admit the discussions kind of interrupt. Then again, she was writing this for an English-speaking audience mostly in the dark about Nazism’s true face. The book was published before Kristallnacht, so that tells you something right there.

At first, I did find Freya a bit lacking when it came to understanding the world, but then again, we’re looking on what’s happening to her with hindsight. But then I remember she’s becoming a woman, growing up and learning about this world that’s trying to impede on her life; we’re watching her political and feminist awakening. She’s been raised in a household that’s being torn between free-thinking, non-political parents and her half-brothers (devoted early Nazis and think women should stay home), while her  little brother Rudi’s too young to understand and just wants his family together. It makes for a very interesting, complex read.

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Different political parties holding their posters up before election, 1930s (from Historyplace.com)

It also takes a bit of remembering that these were the early Nazi years we’re reading about, and the half-brothers rationalizing what they think and do makes it uneasy when we know what’s coming for the nation and party. With all this family drama beginning, Freya is helped by and befriends a communist “peasant’ boy, Hans. When they keep meeting each other–her parents okay with her decision, half-brothers fiercely against it– things REALLY get interesting…and after the Reichstag fire, dangerous.

The book’s a great glimpse into a world we here in the U.S. nearly a century later wouldn’t quite understand or have any frame of reference for, but it’s explained well enough (with a lot of that older style lengthy description) that we’re there. It makes me want to read more of Ms. Bottome’s work, and other work by women writers of the ’30s that we just don’t hear about.

Happy reading.

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