Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From the Archives #19: The Ark by Margot Benary-Isbert


I found The Ark to be an oddly pleasant story about a family trying to survive in post-war Germany, not the subject of too many YS novels.   And even thought it was originally written and published in Germany in 1948 under the title Die Arche Noah, and not translated and published in English until 1953, I felt it qualified for a That's The Way It Was Wednesday post..  Some of the books content comes from Benary-Isbdert's own experiences in Germany at the end of the war.

The Ark center's on the Lechow family: Mother, eldest son Matthias, 16, Margaret, 14, Andrea, 13 and Joey, 7, but is, for the most part, Margaret's story.  It is October and the Lechow's have been refugees for a long time, after fleeing west from their home in Pomerania just ahead of the Russian Army at the end of the war.  Now, after two years of living in refugee camps, they have finally been assigned two rooms in the home of elderly Mrs. Zerduz, and though she can't do anything about it, she has made it clear that Mrs. Lechow and her children are not welcome.

Little by little the Lechow's settle into their new, more stable home.  Joey is finally enrolled in school, where he immediately meets a best friend and fellow adventurer Hans Ulrich, an orphan.  Andrea is offered a full scholarship at a private girls school, Margaret stays home and helps with the house and shopping (she doesn't want to return to school) and Matthias is assigned to work in construction, where he meets a best friend and fellow musician, Dieter.

And Mrs. Lechow uses her considerable skill as a seamstress to make some additional money.  All in all, life has take a turn for the better for the Lechow's.  Even Mrs. Zerduz begins to feel very attached to the family.  But they still haven't heard from Dr. Lechow, a POW in a Soviet labor camp; Matthias would rather be an apprentice to a gardener than work in construction; and animal-loving Margaret would rather work on a farm.

Just before their first Christmas in their new home, the children, with Dieter, go out caroling and end up at the lovely Almut farm.  One thing leads to another and pretty soon Matthias is taken on as an apprentice and Margaret as a kennel maid.  Both of them are ecstatically happy with this arrangement, plus they get to live in an old railroad car that Mrs. Almut had purchased many years ago.  They fix it up into a lovely home that can sleep eight people and pretty soon find themselves with both human and animal visitors. For that reason, Margaret decides to christen it "The Ark"

The Ark is an easy to digest novel about the hardships people faced after the devastation of war.  Yet, there is no real mention of Germany's recent Nazi past and what went on under their domination, with one exception where it is made known that the Lechow family did not support this government and its policies.  On the other hand, Benary-Isbert does not ignore the realities of life too much either - there are abundant shortages with rationing is still in effect, so there is hunger, homelessness, people die, animals die, and children don't always thrive.  Margaret, for example, had a twin brother Christian whose war related death always left a void in her life.  Yet, there are also pockets of happiness and kindness and the idea that we can create our own areas of contentment and satisfaction even in the midst of chaos and ruin.

The Ark was one of the first books to be published as a way of dealing with the aftermath of Hitler's Reich.  Benary-Isbert handled the topic well, considering there was probably still a lot of anti-Germany sentiment around and many other countries were still in the throes of recovery from the war as well.  The story takes place in an unspecified town in the Hessian area of Germany under the control of the Americans, whose short appearance in the novel in not particularly flattering, but, oh well, I probably wouldn't much like my occupiers either.  There had been an underground arsenal of weapons in that area during the war and it had sustained considerable damage in the last days of the war when bombing caused the arsenal to explode.  Many of Benary-Isbert's post war descriptions reminded me of that area.

This is almost an overly sentimental story, and people always seem surprised by how much they like the novel, despite that.  I also found that to be true and, it turns out,  there is a sequel to The Ark called Rowan Farm, which I am now looking forward to reading.

This book is recommended for readers 12+
The book was borrowed from a friend.

9 comments:

  1. I wonder how I missed this. I was born in 1948, so I was a little young when it was first translated into English – but you would think I would have come across it in the intervening years. I’m sure I’ve seen/heard about or read Rowan Farm in the past but not the ark. It’s now on my TBR list.

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    1. Barbara, I had missed it too although it was on the WW 2 bibliography I have been working on. It was lent me by a friend and should have been just the kind of book I would have read growing up. She also lent me Rowan Farm, which I just haven't gotten round to yet.

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  2. Another good book Alex. You think Benary-Isbert wrote the book because of anti-Germany sentiments?

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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    1. Zohar, I don't think Benary-Isbert wrote it because of anti-Germany sentiment, but more because it was similar to her own experience. In the early fifties, she moved with her husband to this country and lived her till she died. She's written many books, not all about Germany.

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  3. Very interesting review, Alex. Not so much is written about the experiences of children in Germany and the countries to the East who were very young when the war ended and experienced things like massive hunger in the population, the trek to the West in many cases, the absence of many fathers in Russian camps for years after the war. Children were no doubt living and surviving from day to day not thinking much about what happened in Hitler's Germany that brought them to this point. Their mothers (usually mothers) were largely occupied in finding food and shelter for their families. I know some people whose childhood was spent in this time, and one of their main memories is the incredible strength of their mothers! This book strikes me a very interesting document of the time.

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    1. Dorothy, what you write is very interesing. The Ark has more than one strong mother in it. At first I thought Benary-Isbert was writing a very sanitized verison of post-war Germany, but I realized as I went along that everything we have ever heard was in the book, just not graphically detailed. Writers didn't do that in kids books back then. But it is, as you say, an interesting document of the time.

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  4. I have never heard of this book, but now I want to read it! The story sounds interesting and I loved the information you provided about the time perod. This review was well-writteen and helpful. Thanks!

    ~Stephanie

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    1. Thanks, Stephanie. This does seem to be one to those obscure but interesting books. I found it to be very informative about some of what people were facing in post-war Germany.

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  5. This is a wonderful book that I have been looking for for several years. Of course I had the title wrong and I only knew the authors initials were M B-I. I though it was Blue Farm. I am thrilled to identify it.
    Thank you for the review.

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