Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Tears of Amber
by Sofia Segovia
translated from Spanish by Simon Bruni
May 2021, 496 pages, ISBN: 9781542027915
In her author’s note in Tears of Amber, Mexican novelist Sofia Segovia says that she likes writing about lesser known historical events, and from “overlooked points of view.” Her first novel, The Murmur of Bees, is set in the early 20th century against the background of the Mexican revolution and resulting agrarian reform. Tears of Amber is set in East Prussia between 1938 and 1947.
Segovia likes to capture “the spirit of an era and a people”, focussing on those who “don’t feature in the history books.” In Tears of Amber, her two main characters are children who have no control over the political issues of their era, yet find themselves struggling to survive in wartime.
When the novel opens on March 25, 1938, two year old Ilse Hahlbrock, an estate manager’s daughter, is unaware that the “master of her country’s fate” is coming to the nearest city, Konigsberg, for a parade and a major speech. As an adult she remembers that date as the day the geese chased her.
On his third birthday, three year old Arno Schipper and his siblings are taken by their parents to the Konigsberg event, where he is fascinated by the tanks and other military vehicles and less so by the man in a convertible with his arm outstretched. Arno sleeps through the man’s speech about Austria welcoming the recent German invasion. As we know, the man is Hitler and the annexation of Austria was part of a pattern leading to World War II.
Segovia excels in depicting preschoolers’ worlds of sensation and emotion. One of Ilse’s earliest memories dates from when she was four, and ran out of the house in early spring to see the sun and find her friend, Janusz. By 1940, Hitler has invaded Poland and Germany is at war, and Janusz, a large, strong Polish teenager, is one of four prisoners of war assigned to help Ilse’s father on the estate.
Orphaned at twelve, Janusz roamed the country, living hand to mouth, his spirit sustained by the stories his mother told him. Despite his poor German, he tells these stories to young Ilse by drawing pictures in the grain on the granary floor. He tells her of the legendary Januta, Queen of the Baltic, who was punished by the god, Parkun, for her relationship with a fisherman. The amber nuggets (fossilized tree resin) found along the Baltic coast are said to be Januta’s tears.
Januta’s amber provides the title and main motif of Segovia’s novel. It recurs in the novel in several ways; for instance, when Ilse’s mother forbids crying, leading Ilse to suppress her wartime griefs and fears, freezing them like amber, to haunt her later in life. The inhabitants of East Prussia, both Polish and German, have their lives shattered like Januta’s palace. After the war, East Prussia, like the amber palace, disappears. It no longer exists as an entity on the map, but is divided between the USSR, Latvia and Poland.
Wartime scarcities and absence and Nazi indoctrination at school affect the children, but the worst comes in 1944-45 when the war turns against the Germans and the Russian Army is moving westward. Like many German inhabitants of East Prussia, the Hahlbrocks and the Schippers set out on arduous journeys to escape the Soviets. The two families do not know each other, even though Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad) is the nearest city to both of them, and their flights are separate. Focussing primarily on women and children, Segovia creates (mostly) sympathetic characters who show heroic initiative and determination to survive as families. Despite the best of efforts, chance often determines who lives and who doesn’t, and often the innocent are the victims.
During the Soviet invasion, Arno Schipper and his mother hide out in a partially-bombed-out mansion in Konigsberg, where Arno salvages firewood, explores other wrecked buildings and discovers a cupboard containing some amber jewellery and tear drops. He feels guilty about taking them, but the deceased home owner owed his father money. Later, Arno uses an amber medallion to get to Hamburg, and eventually, on his wedding day, gives an amber drop to his bride.
Janusz, the oldest of the “children” in the story, whose story ends when he is twenty-two, flees with the Hahlbrocks because he promised Herr Hahlbrock to keep the family safe. Being Polish, he might have looked upon the Soviet troops as liberators, but he is loyal to the Hahlbrocks because he has no other family, and because Ilse is like a little sister to him.
The odds seem to be against Arno’s father’s survival. Karl Schipper, a carpenter, is both a fully rounded character but also a useful vehicle for conveying the changing perspective of many Germans as time passed. As a young man, Karl blamed his old father’s generation for Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1918, and the subsequent harsh peace settlement at Versailles. In 1938, he supports Hitler. After Kristallnacht, though, when hired to repair Jewish homes and businesses, he finds it hard to imagine that Jews are now “the enemy”, for the Jewish community has been integral to Konigsberg for centuries. When Jews start disappearing, he regrets his naivety about Hitler.
Although Karl has four children under thirteen and a wife with a heart condition, he is conscripted, and when Hitler invades the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, he is shipped from the Konigsberg training camp to the east. During the German siege of Leningrad, his job, as well as machine gunner, is to build officers’ quarters outside the city. The German army, the besiegers, fail. They are under attack from the Soviet Army and lack the necessities for winter survival. What keeps Karl sane are the many pairs of woolen socks that his young daughter, Helga, gave him when he left.
Karl next appears in a military hospital in Konigsberg, with a bullet lodged in his chest, and an addiction to opiates. Back home, he seems a shadow of himself to Arno. Karl has barely time to recover and start working again before he’s called up a second time. The older children are reluctantly away from home, involved in Nazi youth programs for the war effort, so nine year old Arno and his mother are left home on the farm, a prey to renegades.
Sent westward to fight the American forces in the Ardennes forest, Karl’s unit soon surrenders to the Americans, and Karl becomes a prisoner of war, possibly to be shipped to a camp in Texas. At the end of the novel, reunited with some of his family, he is too worn out to do anything but live on his soldiers’ pension. Arno’s dream of a father and son woodworking business is never to be. Instead, Karl urges his son to go to school and learn about the machines that fascinate him.
Sofia Segovia uses interior monologue, an excellent technique for showing readers what goes on in characters’ hearts and minds. Sometimes, though, the time shifts in a character’s thoughts make the story hard to follow. In some sections it takes careful reading to distinguish between the recent past and the less recent past. Segovia could have put the wartime parts of the story in the present and the older characters’ memories in the past, but perhaps use of the present would have spoiled the story’s “once upon a time” quality.
Throughout the novel, Segovia piques the reader’s interest with “flashes forward” to Ilse’s and Arno’s post-war lives. It is reassuring to know that they have a future while we are turning the pages to see how they get there. Overall, Tears of Amber is an engaging historical novel which enlightens readers while entertaining them.
In her author’s note, Sofia Segovia says that the novel was “inspired by” the story of Ilse Schipper, an accountant, and the late Arno Schipper, a mechanical engineer, who established a factory in Monterrey, Mexico, where Segovia lives.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s historical novel, Votes, Love and War (Ottawa, Baico, 2019, email@example.com) shows the impact of World War I on everyday Canadian women at home.