Susan’s Book Talk: Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian


If you’re thinking I’m on a tear of reading great stuff, you’re right. A scant ten days ago, I was raving about Joanne Rendell’s third novel, Out of the Shadows.

And now, it’s time to rave about Chris Bohjalian’s 2008 release, Skeletons at the Feast.

Wow. Just… wow.

Okay, let me try to be coherent here. It’s not easy.

This is a Holocaust book, no matter how much we want it to not be. That’s because we have one character — and this isn’t a spoiler; you guys know me too well to think I’d spoil a read for you — who jumps out of one of those cattle cars the Germans used in to transport the Jews to the concentration camps. And it’s also because we have another secondary character who is a prisoner.

But the heart of this book is what makes it. The heart is a young woman named Anna. Raised in Prussia on a sugar beet farm, she’s as close to gentry as it gets. But she and her family are on the run; the Russians are coming, and the Russians (sigh) aren’t nice people. Atrocities abound when Ivan gets near. It’s sad. It’s scary.

Anna’s family has a secret: a Scottish POW. They’re hoping he’ll come in handy when they get to the West and find the British and American troops.

Anna and the POW have another secret. Bet you can guess what.

What makes this book so fascinating is the tale — based on true events — of their flight and the hardships THEY have to endure. Think about it. When we talk about WWII, we focus on the Jews and what happened to them. It’s hard not to. Six million people is an awfully huge number.

But lately, I’ve been reading books that focus on more than the Jews. Jenna Blum’s Those Who Save Us is one of them. Her character named Anna (and no, we’re not going there… I’m quite sure Anna was a very common name) was trying to keep herself and her daughter alive in a time of uncertainty and deprivation.

To be honest, I like that. I like what our escaped Jew does. I like how the woman prisoner survives. And I love this Anna. She’s got a heart and a worldview that Blum’s Anna lacked. Not because Blum’s Anna wasn’t a good character. Oh, my, is that Anna a phenomenal woman.

It’s that Bohjalian’s Anna manages to rise above. Of course, she has less to rise above than Blum’s character did. It’s not even fair to compare the two women.

Go read both books. Not back to back; that much Holocaust will kill anyone.

Eew. Pun NOT intended. Yikes. Sorry about that.

(My book club told me Tuesday night that Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife is another. I haven’t read it yet. Sounds like I need to.)



  1. karen

    April 28, 2011 9:04 am

    I’m starring this post in my google reader so I can go back and check out these books.

  2. thea atkinson

    April 28, 2011 9:21 am

    quite an endorsement, Susan. Must go check it out.

  3. carol

    April 28, 2011 10:36 am

    To be honest, I tend to avoid Holocaust books. They’re just too heavy for me.

  4. Anna

    May 16, 2011 11:56 am

    I pulled this book off my shelf to read this year for a challenge. Glad to see you thought it was really good. I’ll link to your post on War Through the Generations.

  5. susan

    May 16, 2011 12:17 pm

    Thanks, Anna! I appreciate the support.

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