Novels about aspects of the Holocaust seem to proliferate each year. Some are better than others as they examine various components of Hitler’s war against the Jews that Arno P. Mayer once questioned in the title of his book, Why Didn’t the Heavens Not Darken? Chris Bohjalian’s Skeletons at the Feast is yet another of this genre as he concentrates on the plight of a Prussian aristocratic family that is forced to separate as they move westward to escape being captured by the Soviet army as the Second World War draws to a close. Upon leaving their estate near East Prussia, an area that was once considered part of Poland, the Emmerick family must go their separate ways. Rolf, the father and his son Helmut leave to rejoin the German army on the eastern front to try and stem the tide of the Russian advance as does another son, Werner who has been engulfed in the fighting for months. The remainder of the family trudging west is made up of Mitt, the mother, her daughter, Anna, and a Scottish POW named Callum Finella.
As the novel follows this group westward, Bohjalian develops his characters as they confront numerous hazardous situations as they seek shelter and food. Emmerick family friends and relatives come and go as the movement westward continues as they come in contact with Uri, a Jew whose family probably perished in the extermination camps. Uri takes on a number of different identities as he tries to survive. When meeting the Emmerick family he takes on the persona of a German corporal named Manfred. When he goes off on his own he becomes a Russian called, Barsakov in order to survive. As Uri/Manfred/Barsakov keeps switching identities he develops a severe case of what Erik Erikson called a conflict between identity and role confusion, or an identity crisis. Callum, the POW and Anna seem to fall in love and their relationship evolves throughout the first part of the novel, but hits a roadblock as Uri and Anna meet.
Another thread in the novel involves the travails of Cecile, a Jewish woman trying to avoid the fate of her co-religionists, joins with Jeanne, a much weaker woman as part of a forced march driven by Nazis to deliver slave labor to factories in the western part of the Reich. The three strands that make up the novel, the Emmerick family, Uri, and Cecile all come together towards the end of the story and draws the reader deeper into the history of World War II.
To Bohjalian’s credit he appends his sources in his acknowledgement section citing major historians such as Max Hastings, Jan T. Gross, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Eric A. Johnson, and Daniel Mendlesohn. The source material lends authenticity to the narrative and what the individual characters had to cope with. The firebombing of Dresden, specific battles on the eastern front, and German hopes that the western allies would eventually turn against the Soviet Union are among the many accurate historical events that took place during the war presented by the author.
The final course of the journey will produce surprises and tears on the part of the reader. The brutality of humanity that is expressed throughout the novel reminds us what good can emerge from people even if they are desperate. Bohjalian seems to encapsulate much of human emotion as he brings the journey of his characters to a conclusion and an ending to the book that will surprise the reader.