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Heart in the homeland

Leeway Cottage A Novel Beth Gutcheon William Morrow: 432 pp., $24.95

June 05, 2005|Jane Ciabattari | Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short story collection "Stealing the Fire."

In April 1940, the Nazis occupied Denmark, setting up what Adolf Hitler considered a "model protectorate," leaving the king and government in place. When Danish resistance became widespread toward the end of World War II, the German occupiers cracked down and called for a roundup of the country's Jews. Because of the heroism of ordinary citizens, most of Denmark's 7,000 Jews escaped.

This history lends gravitas to Beth Gutcheon's seventh novel, "Leeway Cottage," which traces several generations of a family that summers in Dundee, Maine, and the changes that come when socialite Sydney Brant marries Laurus Moss, a young Danish concert pianist.

Gutcheon has a talent for capturing telling details of class and historic period. In her first novel, "The New Girls," five teenagers experience the tumultuous '60s as students at Miss Pratt's, "where good manners mattered more than good ideas." For "Leeway Cottage," Gutcheon returns to the setting of her 2000 novel, "More Than You Know" -- Dundee, a summer colony where Sydney's grandmother, Annabelle Brant, established the family home. "The Elms was built in 1889 by Mrs. James Brant, a wealthy widow from Cleveland who had been to Newport and to Bar Harbor, and knew what she wanted," Gutcheon writes. "This turned out to be a vast stone villa with Tudor pretensions, formal gardens, a carriage house, a boathouse, and a sort of hospital wing for the comfort of her daughter Louisa, who had 'never been right.' "

There, Mrs. Brant casts herself as "a mixture of Lady Bountiful and the Queen of Sheba, occasionally (and sometimes jarringly) interrupted by portrayals of the Blessed Virgin in devotion to her sacred child," her son James, Sydney's father.

In the summer of 1941, a year after the Nazis occupied Denmark, Sydney moves with her new Danish husband into nearby Leeway Cottage in Dundee. Sydney is excited to have a place of her own to furnish and decorate after being raised at the Elms by an overbearing mother and grandmother. Laurus, whose mother is Jewish, is worried about his brother, sister and parents in occupied Copenhagen. "His body was in America, and he was too polite to impose his own preoccupation on others, but as he came and went in this peaceful village, he never ceased to be a man whose homeland had been invaded."

By December 1941, Laurus returns to Denmark to help build a resistance movement. Shortly after he leaves, Sydney realizes she is pregnant. During their four years apart, Sydney's experience is domestic, Laurus' is based on the progress of the Reich. In a dramatic, fast-paced narrative, Gutcheon manages an effective counterpoint between the two. For instance, at the beginning of August 1943, as Sydney and her friend Gladdy "are putting up as many jars of raspberry jam as their sugar rations allow, Sweden finally cancels the right of transit across its borders for German troops. Lines drawn in sand in 1940 are being kicked apart."

That month, Danish saboteurs blow up Copenhagen's largest exhibition hall, the Forum, which had been turned into a German barracks. Within days, the German occupiers overpower the Danish military and declare a "state of emergency." By the end of September, the Danish resistance is tipped off that transport ships are speeding toward the harbor and Nazis will begin rounding up the Danish Jews on a Friday at sundown. In a stirring sequence of events, narrated at split-second speed, Gutcheon describes how the country mobilizes and how ordinary Danes -- doctors, ministers, teachers -- hide Denmark's Jews and help them escape the tightening noose.

Laurus' parents eventually flee by boat to Sweden. His sister Nina, who stayed in Copenhagen to help children escape, is captured by the Germans and deported to Ravensbruck, a women's concentration camp. Her experience there is horrifying enough to haunt her for the rest of her life; she never speaks of it. Decades later, after her death, we learn what happened to her on the threshold of the gas chamber. Gutcheon's flawless integration falters at this point, giving us Nina's tragic story in an isolated chapter just before the novel's end.

The story of Sydney and Laurus' marriage continues, seen through the eyes of their grown children, two sons and a daughter, and through entries in the Leeway Cottage guestbook. But it is the World War II saga that anchors the novel, giving it resonance beyond the family dramas Gutcheon tells so well. Her extensive historic research, including many firsthand accounts, gives a sense of authenticity. For this, Gutcheon credits in part her childhood friend Sanna Borge Feirstein, daughter of comedian and classical pianist Victor Borge. (Borge was a founder of "Thanks to Scandinavia," through which Jews offered scholarships for Scandinavian students in gratitude for heroic actions in the fall of 1943.)

Why did a nation's citizens rise up to rescue Jews? Laurus is asked by Sydney's friends in Maine. Danes love peace, he explains.

"And they love comfort, and they'll sacrifice a lot for them. But they cannot enjoy peace and comfort while behaving badly. Also, they have great respect for each other. They trust each other to behave. So when they saw that they had to, they all acted the same way out of simple pride, and assumed their fellow Danes would do the same." *

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