Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Above All Earthly Powers: Exciting Conclusion to "Songs in the Night"

Above All Earthly Powers, by Jack Cavanaugh, brings the International Historical Fiction series "Songs in the Night" to a conclusion. The first two books, While Mortals Sleep and His Watchful Eye, told the story of German Christians living in Nazi Germany during the 1940s, up to the end of World War II. Now we revisit the Schumacher family and the "Hadamar Six" children -- over 15 years later, in Communist East Germany.

A strong beginning – August 13 1961, when the Berlin Wall went up – introduces us to the East German characters and their lives in the post-war years. Elyse is now grown-up, and along with her mother (Mady), and Lisette, work in a Soviet-run shoe factory. Elyse and Lisette are vacationing on the west side when the wall goes up, and hence have their first meeting with Park (Colonel Parker, met at the end of the previous book). The scene’s ending seems unexpected and disappointing at first – after all, what East Germans, finding themselves on the free side when the wall happens to go up, would choose to go back behind the wall? Instead, the author tells a story of life behind the wall, which of course requires that the characters return to where the real action is. Still, the story returns often to those moments of freedom -- the great contrast between care-free West Berlin, characterized by CafĂ© Lorenz and its sweet confections, and the oppressive life of East Berlin.

We soon meet up with the Hadamar survivors – blind Tomcat, Down’s syndrome Viktor, club-footed Hermann, and Annie and Marlene – now residing at the government-run K-7 facility, under the watchful care of Herr Otto Witzell. Through some interesting plot developments, Tomcat and the others are reunited with Mady, Lisette and Elyse. Soon an even greater reunion of family and friends sets the group on a new mission: escape from Soviet-controlled East Berlin, a life no better than what they had in Hitler’s years.

None of the characters individually stand out as the main character, and we never get a look at strong character development, of really getting inside of one character’s head. Instead, we see the camaraderie between the old friends and their interactions, as the story alternately tells a little about each one. Much like a family reunion, none of the major characters are new, and all the minor characters have direct connections with the original group. Like true family, the reunited characters pick-up right where they left off. Most surprisingly, the younger Hadamar group, parted from the Schumacher family over 15 years before (when they were no more than 5 years old), still clearly remember everyone from those early years.

In keeping with this reunion-type theme, though, we see plenty of relationships resolved – Lisette and Konrad, Mady and her father, and even Mady and Park. We also see new relationships formed, particularly among the younger generation, including Elyse and Tomcat. Before the 1960s story ends, we have met up with all the surviving characters from the previous two books, including brief scenes with Gael, as well as Ernst and his French wife Rachelle. Willi, Konrad’s evil brother, is back for a stronger and even more menacing role.

Despite lack of character depth, the action plot and suspense keeps the story going, and neatly ties up all the loose ends. After wrapping up the 1960s story (1961 through 1963), the overall story of 1989 also has some surprises, and concludes the rest of the story (begun in the first pages of While Mortals Sleep when the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989). Unlike the typical prologue in historical fiction novels, this story directly ties in with the past events, and so through the trilogy we follow the characters over the span of 50 years (1939 to 1989). Above All Earthly Powers brings the focus back full-circle, to the original vision of freedom and hope, of their beloved friend and mentor, Josef Schumacher.