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History in a Minor Key : STONES FROM THE RIVER, By Ursula Hegi (Poseidon Press: $23; 507 pp.)

March 20, 1994|Michael Dorris | Michael Dorris's first collection of essays, "Paper Trail," will be published by HarperCollins next month

"Stones From the River" reminds you what a novel is supposed to be: epic, daring, magnificent, the product of a defining and mesmerizing vision. It is a long book that you don't want to end because once you begin, every page is a sure step along a path, a milestone that simultaneously evokes where you've been and brings you further toward a conclusion you have to reach. It is a book you yearn to read all night but don't because you choose to save it to savor tomorrow. It teaches us, broadens our experience, entertains, challenges our assumptions and confirms our deepest intuitions. It is, in a word, remarkable.

Ursula Hegi, whose fine first novel, "Floating in My Mother's Palm" (1990), announced her as a major novelist writing in a minor key, is a German who came to America when she was 18. Clearly, she continues a process of mining the profound, paradigmatic and paradoxical questions that arose for her during childhood: How could the holocaust have come about? How could otherwise "good" people coexist with it? What are the lingering effects on those who watched silently, passively, following implicit cultural orders not to make a fuss, not to protest, not to notice?

Hegi tackles this daunting question--as relevant to the contemporary world of Bosnias and Burmas and Somalias as it was to central Europe half a century ago--by confining her attentions to a tiny but exquisitely meticulous canvass. Bergdorf, a typical small town, is the site of both her books, and under her guidance, we come to know intimately its geography and populace.

The central intelligence of "Stones From the River" is Trudi Montag, a woman Hegi follows from birth through early middle age. Born in 1915, Trudi's life coincides with the traumatic period of German history that culminated in the rise and eventual fall of national socialism. Through her sharp, intelligent eyes we watch the incremental impact of Nazism on a disparate group of ordinary townsfolk: hat designers and grocers, farmers and librarians, well-do-to and poor, Christian and Jewish, male and female, young and old. With an impressive narrative sweep, Hegi creates indelible individuals, people so well realized in the undramatic minutia of their daily lives that by the time they become actors on a larger stage--perpetrators of horror, its witnesses or its victims--we care about them, are as shocked by or proud of their deeds as if they were our own neighbors. This hard-to-achieve technique has an enormous payoff: We are not absolved by the distance of time and must therefore ask ourselves the hard, impossible questions. . . . What we would have done in their place?

Trudi happens to be a dwarf, a zwerg , and as such she is an ideal ethnographer. By nature an outsider but linked inexorably to her community by kin and history, she achieves her status not by beauty, marriage or motherhood but by self-consciously becoming the central repository of gossip. She is the person to whom people bring their scandalous tales, and she alone decides when and with whom to share the secrets with which she has been entrusted. It is the reader's great good fortune to be her principle confidant.

Obviously, because of its time frame and the affliction of its protagonist, "Stones From the River" invites comparison with Gunter Grass's "The Tin Drum." Of this issue, only two points need be noted: 1--In its quiet way, it's every bit as good; and 2--Trudi's gender perspective and personality render Hegi's novel completely original and unique. "Being a zwerg ," Trudi explains, "means carrying your deepest secret inside out--there for everyone to see."

Trudi, as heir to Bergdorf's pay library, sits at the crossroads of the book's many plots. As she vicariously follows the vicissitudes of parents, friends, enemies and lovers, a chorus of stunning magnitude arises. The intermingled voices of two generations argue among themselves, shifting and balancing morality and safety, greed and kindness. In Hegi's hands, nothing is predictable and yet, in retrospect, all personal choices seem somehow inevitable. Fate and character are inseparable, and bonds of love--of country, of family, of self--are neither easily broken nor mended easily.

"Stones From the River" deals with grand themes, with war and peace, guilt and absolution, but it never succumbs to didacticism or facile coincidence. The novel succeeds so brilliantly precisely because of its jumbled complication--but for the same reason its "story" is difficult to summarize in a review. In the most simple synopsis, Trudi Montag evolves from being the adored child of a kind, widowed father, through a bitter and disappointed adolescence, into a formidable and passionate woman. She suffers more than her share of betrayals, but through them learns to rely on herself, trusting implicitly her innate sense of right and wrong. No matter what she confronts, she is ultimately too smart to be fearless, too tough to be a coward, too empathic to be cruel.

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