In her tales, author Ronee Henson’s birth in June, 1937 is joyous for a few minutes, until her boy twin dies. Within days, so does her eldest brother — of diphtheria. From then on Mother often sighs, “Ach, ja,” and Father becomes enraged for no reason. Instead of drawing together for comfort, each person in the family mourns in their own way. Henson writes, “Only I, the baby, prattle happily to the sunbeams that find their way into my buggy when it stands in the garden.”
Plot of Faces From Another Time
What Henson has to “prattle” about is the normal, happy childhood, good upbringing and education she had against all odds. It is an ironic book because she is growing up with a brutal war all around her and an abusive father in her own home. The village is suspicious of strangers yet absorbs a multitude of refugees
- She starts from a focal point in the church graveyard, followed by a walk, and lets the names and buildings she sees revive her memory. The book darts back and forth in time.
- The big crisis in the middle arises when ‘LittleOne’ can’t stop Father from killing Liesl, her pet rabbit and best friend, to make soup. That same night Father beats her brother severely. Both children develop fevers. Mother confronts him, makes him face up to what he has done and makes him help her wrap wet rags around them so they will get better
- The anecdotes and characters are unified by a theme of compassionate community. Of several role models (e.g. her Mother, Oma and teachers) one is more poignant and powerful than the next. The deep pathos of the soldier’s story is the climax just before the end of the book
- The book ends with a wedding feast in 1997 where Henson revels in taking part in her childhood friends’ big celebration, with children of their own who have grown up to be good people. The justice of the peace makes the guests promise to support the young couple so they will do well too
- In the epilogue, the family moves to the United States in 1949 and Henson has lived happily and compassionately for 68 years after, so far.
Style & Structure
- Gifted with a phenomenal memory, Henson pictures the story in her mind, then sketches in facial features, gestures and minute details of surroundings
- Deft economy of words propels the action with the reader totally involved
- She uses the device of pathetic fallacy beautifully. It is an excellent way to express her theme. For example, “the old intimacy of sea, wind and salt air still wove its magic for me” and “the wind roars across the countryside… like many voices crying.”
The War Setting
- The North Sea’s North Frisian coastal flats in northeastern Germany, full of beaches, tides, marshes and meadows, have been inhabited since the Stone Age
- When world war two breaks out in 1939 Father, being multilingual, gets a job monitoring the BBC News for the German army from a post in the fishing and farming village of Schobüll (pop. 500.) The family’s house is on the main street
- Heavy troop-filled trucks roll by them headed towards Denmark all the night of Apr. 8, 1940
- ‘LittleOne’ dives into their backyard trench whenever sirens sound an alert that Allied planes are flying over. She sees a crash and explosions; the earth shakes
- Refugees from east Prussia and every other variety of dispossessed people turn up on their door step; some steal all their garden vegetables at night
- Villagers crowd in around their radio to hear the BBC confirm the rumor the day Hitler dies. The obligatory portrait of Hitler has already been taken down from the wall
- Everyone suffers from severe food and fuel shortages. They wind rags around their bicycle wheels and walk on wooden clogs or bare feet
- Returning soldiers in terrible shape straggle back. Mother is insulted and ‘LittleOne’ is bullied when the British Tommies come. They apologize; an officer comes for tea
- The refugee flood escaping to the “free” north peaks after the Russians invade on the eastern front and Berlin falls
- Residents revert to the churning, grinding, foraging and clothes-making methods of feudal and primitive ancestors
- Shops are empty and money is worthless until the currency reform in 1948
- Authorities cram two more families into their house. Everyone is malnourished. Diseases and intestinal parasites spread. They are inoculated at a clinic.
I have read this book three times and can highly recommend it. Each time I learned something new and appreciated Henson’s literary talents more. I hope it will be made into a movie because, with all the human interest and minute details recalled by Henson, the director has half of his or her work already done expertly.