Review by Louise Brecht
Annick Press, University of Toronto Press, 17 February 2020
360 pages, hardcover, $19.95 CAD, 978-1-77321-365-1
Ages 14+, Grades 9-12
Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Romance, Action/Adventure
The soldiers took our bags and ripped them open. They threw cups and bowls to the ground. In my bag they found Herr Goldstein’s book of Schumann’s Lieder. They riffled through the pages and then tore them into pieces. In my head it sounded like someone was leaning on fifteen notes at once, making noise instead of music. I’d promised him. I opened my mouth to protest, but Mutti edged her foot onto mine and pressed hard. […]
“Savages.” I didn’t realize I’d said it out loud until Mutti crushed my hand in hers.
Seconds after this excerpt, Mutti is shot for the slip of her daughter’s tongue and Katja’s dress is splattered with her mother’s blood. The Soviet army that surges into Germany in the dying months of World War II displays little regard for its enemy’s people. The locals have code-named their collective forces Ivan, and Ivan is merciless. Little remains of the capricious sixteen-year-old’s childhood existence. Years before, Ivan had killed her father. Days before, they’d ousted her mother, her older sister, Hilde, and herself from the family farm in Pomerania, the only home she knows. Katja is devastated.
Her piano, her beloved piano, was left behind. Now Herr Goldstein’s music book, a parting gift from Katja’s mentor to his wunderkind before he and his Jewish family were forced to leave their home town, lies in shreds. Her mother is dead. The only person she has left is Hilde, but Hilde blames her younger sister for their loss. Katja’s possessions are reduced to guilt, her passion for music, an itinerant route to the city of Fahlhoff, an address for Mutti’s friends the Daschners, and hope for a haven from the ugly violence of war.
Fahlhoff, however, is far from the city of Katja’s dreams. Allied bombs found their targets here. Its economy is decimated; its Nazi society is in disarray. There is little money and less food. Ilse and Otto Daschner will only grant the orphaned refugees conditional shelter. They must earn their keep, or leave. Even here, Ivan is the occupational force in charge and their soldiers are everywhere. Katja watches them search for valuables and wrest them from a German people left with little more than an inherent pride and grief. The truths of war are made overtly visible.
Author Michelle Baker challenges her protagonist to peel back the layers of her own pain, to explore the political propaganda she’s absorbed, and to adapt accordingly. She also populates Katja’s story with secondary characters pivotal to that process. Frau Weber hires the sisters to work on her farm. Katja’s friend, Liesel, introduces her to the benefits of enemy collusion and to Fahlhoff’s active black market. Shell-shocked Oskar, another of Frau Weber’s employees, scrambles to find her a piano she can play. Arkady, a Russian commandant’s son, shares Katja’s devotion to classical music in a way that shocks her—at the same time as his blue eyes make her heart beat faster. Katja knows Ivan to be the devil incarnate. Is she wrong in the case of this soldier?
The story’s primary conflict is the internal one fueled by the realities of a war the teen struggles to comprehend: the Nazi regime, the Germans who elected them, people in mass graves, Jews in gas chambers. Had Katja’s desire to play the piano and learn from the master, Herr Goldstein, subsumed her awareness of the death camps? She could have done more to help. She hadn’t helped Mutti either, hadn’t managed to hold her tongue. Savages? Liesel tells her Ivan’s actions are “reparatsii,” reparations for the German invasion of Mother Russia. Perhaps they are. But perhaps the soldiers just want to go home too.
My Long List of Impossible Things is a riveting read. Despite the fact that Fahlhoff is fictional, it is representative of so many German cities that are not. Baker gives life to Katja’s story and to the evolving lists she uses to maintain sanity in the light of incomprehensible events. Her naivety is as aggravating as it is endearing; her strength of character is admirable. If I question the likelihood of a Russian commandant being posted in the same city as his son, I am nevertheless completely taken by Katja’s continuous and factual statements about the classical composers both young people admire. In the end, they help me believe that the joy of music can trump the universal devastation of war.
Louise Brecht is a Creative Writing and English Literature student at the University of British Columbia. An avid reader and aspiring author, Louise has published works of non-fiction, fiction and poetry in nineteenquestions, Pearls, Collage, and Sweatink.