Sunday, May 18, 2008

"The German Bride"

Joanna Hershon's short fiction has been published in One Story, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Post Road, the literary anthology Brooklyn Was Mine, and was shortlisted for the 2007 O. Henry Prize Stories. Her novels include Swimming, The Outside of August, and the recently released The German Bride.

She applied the Page 69 Test to the new book and reported the following:
Berlin, 1863. After two Jewish girls sit for a portrait painter in their father’s Berlin parlor, Eva--the youngest of the two—begins a secret and illicit affair with the mercurial (and gentile) painter, which results in tragic consequences--not only for Eva but her family. Tortured by her secret, in addition to her bottomless grief, she quickly marries the charismatic Abraham Shein, a successful merchant living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who has returned home to Berlin, in search of a bride.

Page 69 is a remarkably representative excerpt of The German Bride. We find Eva and Abraham—along with their wagon driver Tranquilo-- on the Santa Fe Trail, which may as well be the edge of the earth. Eva has retreated into the freight wagon and fallen asleep in the porcelain bathtub, which goes on to play a pivotal role in the story. This scene sums up not only the persistent guiltythought-loop of Eva’s life, but evokes the isolation that now defines her. It’s this struggle against isolation that shapes the novel, and how, in the face of our fears, what most defines us—maybe more than our choices-- is our desire. So here is p. 69 in its near-entirety:

Had Heinrich set his sights on Henriette, by now Eva would not be risking her life in a shoddy wagon on the open frontier, but instead in her father’s comfortable home enjoying afternoon coffee and cakes, perhaps recalling that brief period of time when the painter came daily—the painter who was so very serious, so keen on Henriette. Eva somehow did not question that had she not been with Heinrich, her sister and her nephew would be alive. She took comfort right then, if only very briefly, from her own secrets. If there was little rectitude at her core, then there was certainly familiarity. Never had she so recognized its virtue.

In what seemed like only moments, the sun shone brightly. She could feel the heat coming through the floorboards, how the dust that wasn’t in her throat was spinning like tinsel through shards of light. Eva emerged from the cool tub, drew the heavy leather aside, and at first only noticed that Abraham still slept. It was strange to see him on his back, on the ground, exposed. For a moment she felt as if she were dreaming when she saw what lay beside Tranquilo, barely a horse’s length away. She didn’t scream when she saw the wreckage of oxen and wagon, petrified as ruins against the morning light. She didn’t wail when she saw what she realized were hundreds of envelopes scattered about like remnants of muddied snow: all those letters—she would think of them later—all those sentiments left unexpressed, aborted on the trail. She couldn’t find breath to gather sound in her throat when she saw two bodies splayed like kindling. Two men, scalped. She knew the word but until now she hadn’t fully understood the meaning. She turned away but in the other direction were the ashes of another man. He had been tied to a tree and burned. He was naked. She needed water. She called out but the only sound she heard was Tranquilo’s low man. These men would need to be buried. She felt the earth closing in over their heads, filling up her own dry mouth.

They had, unknowingly, slept on the site of a massacre.

Abraham sprung up, clutching his gun, and pointing it in her direction. His eyes were wild and when they met hers, there was no trace of recognition.
Read an excerpt from The German Bride, and learn more about the author and her work at Joanna Hershon's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue