In and Out of the Garden:
Literature and History Converge in the Post Holocaust World
Contemporary fiction is obsessed with the representation of war and its effects…It is the Second Word War…and especially the Holocaust, that dominates and overwhelms the contemporary imagination. Anne Whitehead
After the murder of six million Jews and approximately five million others by the Nazis in World War II Europe, the literary view of the natural landscape, once romanticized by writers such as William Wordsworth, and later by neo-romantics like W.B. Yeats, was again seriously challenged. Where, in the context of a world aware of Auschwitz, for example, can one find comfort in nature? At first reflection, it perhaps seems even blasphemous to suggest that any degree of comfort, or any future hope for the prevention of the malevolence of humanity could so be easily summoned. Even so, a look into the works of a variety of postwar writers and researchers tells us that, even now, after everything that has happened, some writers still seek inspiration and sustenance from the natural world.
In the works of canonical writers of the Holocaust, such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, we witness the horror experienced by those whose relocations to death camps during the war removed them entirely from the natural world, dumping them into a manmade hell from which there was no escape. Their stories tell of the pain and separation suffered by human beings living and dying in the unnatural world created by the Nazis – a chilling world where abominations never executed in nature are common.
Accordingly, in these writers we see the consequences of this loss, but not yet any large degree of restoration, of finding their rightful places back from the depths. That would not have been possible for them; the war and their camp experiences were still too fresh, too much a part of their conscious and unconscious view of the world – which had lost its luster and become a never ending “night,” as Wiesel so aptly stated.
In the many seasons that have come and gone since the end of the Nazi terror; nature has continued its rounds, and new writers like Joseph Skibell, Markus Zusak and Meg Rosoff, who did not witness the Holocaust but still strive to understand its legacy on the world they have inherited, have begun to seek romantic restoration of the natural landscape in their works. These contemporary writers follow Wiesel and Levi in a logical progression. They argue that recovery isn’t easy; finding comfort in nature may not be immediately apparent or possible, but that doesn’t mean the opportunity to unearth it doesn’t exist everywhere – both outside the human mind in what it grasps of external nature, and inside the mind where it uses the immediate experience of a glorious natural object, or the remembrance of it, to deal with individual emotional problems or cataclysmic human crisis. While some modern writers have retreated from romantic lyrics which “imbue the landscape with human life, passion, and expressiveness” (Abrams 8-9), we still see a consistent yearning by contemporary authors such as Meg Rosoff, Joseph Skibell, and Markus Zusak to reconcile our human position back into the natural Wordsworthian world.
Written in 1804, Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” expresses a typical romantic view of the power of a “host of golden daffodils” to provide pleasure, even bliss, which can be called upon at will anytime through a “flash upon that inward eye” to transform a despondent moment to a joyous one. In the last stanza, the speaker tells of the “wealth” brought to him by the one sudden moment when he gazed upon a field of “ten thousand” of these beautiful flowers:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils. (Abrams 206-7)
Yeats, a neo-romanticist, writing eighty-two years later, echoes a yearning for Wordsworth’s natural landscape, one that he perhaps sees melting away in “The Stolen Child”:
Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lives a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
These lines can be interpreted as having been written for the children of his day who were being taken further and further away from the natural world, a place they left partially because they were growing up, away from their natural innocence, and partially because the world around them was changing, becoming more the domain of civilization and less of nature. The end line, with the luxury of hindsight, containing the poignant note of warning about a world “full of weeping,” strikes the modern reader as almost prophetic.
Wordsworth’s poem, once memorized by scores of schoolchildren, may seem ridiculously innocent to a modern world which has just witnessed one of the most brutal centuries in human history, and Yeats’ poem a lovely, cautionary, but still naïve imaginative romp. Escape to nature holding hands with a faery? This is not a course of action likely to be taken seriously by many jaded twenty-first century readers.
It would seem much more logical that as a result of horrors such as those inflicted during the Holocaust, literature would reject this romantic ideal and continually grow to reflect more and more of a dissonant traumatized break in the association between humanity and nature. Certainly, Joseph Warren Beach, would say that this is exactly what has happened. Writing about the demise of romanticism in a work that is now fifty years-old, The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth Century English Poetry, he says:
In twentieth-century poetry the term and concept of nature have virtually
ceased to appear. […] The romantic concept of nature has not been able to
withstand the impact of modern critical thought. But the acute suffering of
many earnest souls—a state of malaise which is almost universally manifest
in contemporary literature—shows how great a loss they have suffered in
giving up the inspiring concept of nature. […] The heart of nature-poetry
is the sense a man has of his identity with the other manifestations of this
living force, and with the living force itself—his envelopment by and
absorption in nature. It is thus that he penetrates deeply into the comforting
warmth and mystery of things. […] It is hard to comprehend how, with no
increase of religious faith, the poets—spokesmen of man’s emotions and
aspirations—should have so completely given up this consoling concept of
nature after no more than two centuries’ trial. (Beach 8-9)
Beach wrote this almost immediately after World War II. Perhaps he was too close to the event, too lost in the aftermath of the war and the hopelessness of the contemporary literature of his day, to see that his own obvious devotion to romantic themes could not be an isolated case; that it must be shared by others, or, at the very least, that it would be shared again. As we will see through an examination of Holocaust and post-Holocaust literature, ending with a decidedly modern young adult novel about a fictional World War III, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, romanticism is not dead, and this is despite, and possibly even because of, the terrors of the recent century.
In the western religious tradition, everything began in the garden. Biblical doctrine tells us that human disobedience to God created aging and death, and ever since then, death has been an uncomfortable and often elusive aspect of the human experience (We don’t tell our children “Grandfather died;” we say he “passed away” or “went to a better place”) – yet we all know that death is an inescapable consequence of life in the natural world. Literature has never avoided the topic of death, but treatment of the subject has varied over time. With Wordsworth, it may be said that his close affiliation and identification with nature brought him a kind of immortality; therefore, even though he understood the nature of death as the end of life for the body, it was not the end, really. This pantheistic view that god is nature and all things in nature are in god can be seen in his poem “Lines: Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey…”:
…And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of the setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. (Abrams 154, lines 93-102)
The psychological ideas behind these romantic lines is discussed in a journal
article by Robert Walz:
In these lines the “presence” is “interfused” in both the external world and
the inner (“the mind of man”). The poet’s declaration that he feels this
presence in both the whole of the external world and his own mind is in
part, apparently, an attempt to achieve an absolute sense of self. Not only
particular natural objects, but also the poet’s ego shares in the immortality
and infinity of the whole. In these lines, nature is not a detached and distant
object to the ego; it is an extension of the self’s feelings of its own
limitlessness and immortality. (Walz, par 6)
If Wordsworth’s view of nature was in part created by the death of his mother (he was traumatized by this loss and created a vision of the world which united him with everything, thus giving him an unlimited source of love and support), which is what Walz proposes, then the use of nature in post-Holocaust works takes on a new light. In effect, this would mean that Wordsworth’s romantic vision of nature was a result of personal trauma and his attempt to rebuild a meaningful construct for his life is not at all unlike the task of modern writers who are dealing with a whole world traumatized by war and threats of all types of losses, including even the loss of large parts of the natural world, such as rain forests and polar ice caps. Add to that the fact that all fiction which deals in any way with the Holocaust must be considered to be “trauma fiction,” a form which is particularly suited to “contemporary historical studies [that] have simultaneously engaged with questions of narrative and memory, which have traditionally been regarded as the preserve of literature,” and you have literature which “arises out of and is inextricable from three interrelated backgrounds or contexts: postmodernism, postcolonialism and a postwar legacy or consciousness” (Whitehead 81). To this list I would add romanticism, for, I contend that the roots go back that far, and continue even to this day.
But let’s look now at one of the postwar legacies Whitehead mentions — the survivor narrative. In these first-hand accounts, death is, very realistically and appropriately, often portrayed as a dismal end to a horrendous ordeal, as in narratives such as Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, or Elie Wiesel’s Night. These books do not seek to soften the sorrow of the suffering or mask in any way the horrendously degrading ways that people were killed during the Holocaust in order to protect the sensibilities of the reader, nor should they. These books are memoirs written by Holocaust survivors; they reflect their own truth, and they are important documents that add to the historical as well as literary documentation of that time. These books do not focus on the natural world, yet that world consistently makes its presence known, often in striking contrast to the artificial structures created by humans.
In Auschwitz, Primo Levi describes the synthetic rubber factory that ironically “never produced a pound of synthetic rubber”:
[…] The Carbide Tower, which rises in the middle of Buna and whose top
is rarely visible in the fog, was built by us […]. We all feel, and the
Germans themselves feel, that a curse – not transcendent and divine, but
inherent and historical – hangs over the insolent building based on the
confusion of languages and erected in defiance of heaven like a stone oath
[…]. But today the eternal puddles, on which a rainbow veil of petroleum
trembles, reflect the serene sun. […]. Today is a good day. (Levi 72-3)
The rubber factory is an abomination. Many “Haftlinge” (“prisoners”; 27) have died in its erection, and it has never even served the purpose that its Nazi creators have intended. It stands as an “oath” to God and the natural world – useless, ugly – utterly without value. Yet, the eternal puddles reflect a sun that is serene. The puddles are eternal, as God and nature are, and the sun is serene because it knows that it will always exist to light the earth, regardless of any current folly of humanity.
Levi, while not focusing as much on the natural world as he does on the artificially constructed world of Auschwitz, describes situations where nature clearly has the upper hand, and is not always benevolent. For example, lack of natural heat during the cold Polish winters cause the starving and poorly clothed Haftling increased suffering, illness and death, while the advent of spring both uplifts the spirits of the Haftlinge and causes them great pain – because it reminds them of the beauty of the world which is denied them and which continues despite their own hopeless situation and the loss of their loved ones. Levi describes the first warm day of spring:
Today the sun rose bright and clear for the first time from the horizon of
mud and when even I felt its lukewarmth through my clothes I understood
how men can worship the sun. (71)
But now, precisely because the sun has broken through the fog:
A row of low hills could be seen, green with forests: and our hearts tighten
because we all know that Birkenau is there, that our women finished there,
and that soon we too will finish there; but we are not used to seeing it. (72)
So in this case the sun/nature reveals the travesty of man. But it can also step in to help, as when an accident of nature partially saves Levi in the end. He becomes ill enough to be hospitalized, but not ill enough to be selected for the gas chamber. During his hospitalization, Levi and his fellow Haftling patients are left behind by the retreating SS because of the advance of the Russians. If they had been well enough, they would have been forced to go on a death march towards Germany, and most of them would have died during the last days of their captivity. But in this case, nature has intervened for Levi. He got sick at the right time.
Levi records his first look outside after the German departure: “On the dawn of the 21st we saw the plain deserted and lifeless, white as far as the eye could see, lying under the flight of the crows, deathly sad” (162-3). In the remains of the camp, birds, often a symbol of freedom, become instead symbols of death as they arrive in flocks and surround the dead bodies that have been left to decompose in a ditch. None of the Haftlinge have the strength to bury their comrades. “The pile of corpses in front of our window had by now overflowed out of the ditch” (169), and the following day: “Outside the great silence continued. The number of ravens had increased considerably and everybody knew why” (171).
In Night, Elie Wiesel’s autobiographical account of his arrest at age fifteen and subsequent survival at Auschwitz, we are first introduced to a group of people who can’t believe in the Nazi atrocities, even though they’ve been warned by one of their own, Moshe the Beadle, a fellow Jew who once resided in their little village of Sighet, Transylvania. They can’t imagine that the story this survivor tells them is true for several very important reasons: first, it is too horrifying; second, Moshe is still alive; and third and most important; they don’t possess a postwar consciousness. They cannot comprehend how terrible things can really be.
Moshe’s story was this: Toward the end of 1942 he had been part of a train full of deportees taken to Poland – that once there he and the others had been driven in lorries into a forest where:
They were made to dig huge graves. And when they had finished their
work, the Gestapo began theirs. Without passion, without haste, they
slaughtered their prisoners. Each one had to go up to the hole and present
his neck. Babies were thrown into the air and the machine gunners used
them as targets. This was in the forest of Galicia, near Kolomaye. (4)
Moshe had survived “miraculously,” was left for dead, and made his way back to his village to warn the others (4). But none of the Jews of Sighet believed him. After all, there was:
“Good news from the Russian front […] No doubt could remain now of
Germany’s defeat. […] The trees were in blossom. This was a year like any
other, with its springtime, its betrothals, its weddings and births…”. (5-6)
Yet within days, Wiesel tells us “German army cars had appeared in [the] streets” (7).
The blossoming trees of springtime are linked to the civilized rituals of new life within the community. In this way, we still see the romantic and neo-romantic influence of writers such as W.B. Yeats. The sudden juxtaposition from peace and natural beauty to fear and disaster could well remind us of Yeat’s warning line “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand .” Wiesel returns to the same technique a few pages later:
On the Saturday before Pentecost, in the spring sunshine, people strolled,
Carefree and unheeding, through the swarming streets. They chatted
happily. The children played games on the pavements. With some of my
schoolmates, I sat in the Ezra Malik gardens, studying a treatise on the
And then he tells us that on the very same evening it was announced that deportations would begin. After that there are no more scenes of the beauty of nature in Night, because the transports take the Jews of Sighet to Auschwitz. Arrival in Auschwitz turns Wiesel’s life “into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed” (32).
Auschwitz is unnatural, a place Anne Whitehead, author of Trauma Fiction, a psychological study of the effect of the traumatic events of history in fiction, calls a “non-place,” one that cannot evoke natural images in the memories of its survivors (49). This idea of Auschwitz as a “non-place” was echoed in an interview I had recently with a Holocaust survivor. She had just returned from a trip to Poland where she went back to Auschwitz, the place she had been imprisoned as a Hungarian Jew in 1944, and the place where her parents and little sister died. While there, she also visited mass graves in a forest. She was surprised to discover that she was more viscerally affected while on a guided tour into the forest than she was within the famous gates of Auschwitz. The forest site was one of the places where there had been mass shootings, such as the one described by Moshe the Beadle in Night. Before the development of the more “efficient” gas chambers, “About one-quarter of all Jews who perished in the Holocaust were shot by members of the SS mobile killing squads” (Berenbaum, 95-6), so there are many such places throughout lands once invaded or occupied by the Reich. While visiting this place in the forest where so many had died, Mrs. Firestone said, “I felt the suffering and I heard the screams of the people.” She paused. “I could hear them. It was much more real than Auschwitz.” (Firestone)
Perhaps this haunting experience can be partially explained by German-born American literary critic, Geoffrey Hartman, in observations “of his own writing, which encompasses critical readings of Wordsworth and his more recent work on trauma and the Holocaust, that it is brought together by his interest in place and its relation to memory and identity.” (Whitehead 49) At age ten, Hartman was sent on a Kindertransport to England in order to escape Nazi persecution. He spent the war years on the estate of James Rothschild with nineteen other boys. He emigrated to America after the war where he earned his Ph.D. at Yale, and taught for nearly forty years before retiring as Sterling Professor of English and Comparative Literature (Fortunoff).
Speaking of his important work on Wordsworth in its relation to the Holocaust, Hartman has commented:
There is a clear separation between these subjects. But once I had engaged
with questions the Holocaust raised for me – how do I take this into
consciousness, what can I do about it, is this in any way thinkable, and is it
representable – once I had gone along that path, my interest in
Wordsworth’s understanding of the memory process did come in. I sensed
a loss of memory place, of the Wordsworthian memory place, after the
Holocaust (qtd. in Caruth, 1996b:645; Whitehead 49)
The idea of a strong connection between nature and human memory is compelling. It makes sense in the context of a Wordsworthian philosophy that a living forest, a place where many of the same trees stand today that stood during the mass shootings of World War II, would hold more residual traumatic affect than a group of man made buildings or memorials would. In this way, we see that nature is capable of surrounding us and permeating our senses with both beauty and violence; it can either be a place of solace and birth or a place of despair and death. In fact, it is both.
Literature views nature and death in many ways, of course, as does humankind, and one important alternate view is in evidence in such contemporary works as Joseph Skibell’s A Blessing on the Moon and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. In novels such as these, the focus on nature becomes, at least in the beginning, a focus on death. And in these books, death takes on a persona; it can be a comforting friend, a spiritual guide, or even a parent.
Death is the narrator in The Book Thief, the story of a young German girl living during World War II. Liesel’s father, a Communist she barely remembers, is nonexistent in the plot. He has never been a part of her life. Her mother, who has always struggled because of her husband’s Communist agenda, is a vague character who gives Liesel to foster parents, the Hubermanns, because she is ill and poor and cannot care for her daughter. Liesel never sees her again, and though the reader is never given any direct evidence, it is implied she is most likely dead. Liesel’s younger brother, Werner, is dead also. His death occurs at the beginning of the novel, and it is at his death that Death, the character and narrator of the story, meets Liesel Meminger. Death, itself, becomes the powerful force that watches over Liesel, comments on her mistakes and her successes, understands her and cares about all of her feelings. Death becomes, in effect, the parent of the protagonist, Liesel Meminger, linking her life to the lives of all others, in all times and places. Death is there for all of us in the end, and if it is Liesel’s parent, then it must be our parent, too – an inherent part of the process of all living things returning to the earth and becoming part of all things in nature.
The crow rabbi in A Blessing on the Moon is also a figure of death. In the final moments of the novel, the rabbi, who appears to the dead narrator, Chaim Skibelski, as the same type of bird as a raven, a traditional symbol of death, transforms back into a man, taking him in death and then transforming once again, this time into Chaim’s own mother. Here we see that Skibell, like W.B. Yeats before him, moves nature to the realm of the symbolic and mythic. In this final scene, nature comes full circle as Chaim’s mother cradles him as he returns to his infant state:
Beneath this large woman’s caressing hands, I forget my children’s names.
Even their faces leave me. I no longer recall how I earned my living or
why I died. I’m floating, free from detail, although I find I can still,
without difficulty, remember my name. Chaim Skibelski. “Chaimka,
Chaimka,” the woman sings, “look at the moon. Can you see the moon?”
My small body is flooded with well-being. I gurgle in her lap. With her
large fingers, she carefully turns my head and the light of the moon fills my
eyes, until it is all I see. (Skibell 267)
Skibell’s novel clearly points out the destruction that comes from humanity’s dreams of building unnatural societies. The release of the moon from its grave under the skeletal remains of the murdered Jews finally sets nature back in its proper order, releasing the world from the perpetual night created by the Holocaust, and only then can Chaim find peace.
Midway through the story Chaim considers whether he has found the “World to Come” when he reaches a magnificent place called the Hotel Amfortas. At the hotel, all of his needs are met, he is reunited with his deceased wife and children, and his health is restored. But still, something isn’t right. Chaim reasons,
…If this were the World to Come, wouldn’t all the dead be here and not just the recently murdered? As I say, I had hoped to see my mother. And I had heard, for instance, that one encounters Adam and Abraham and, very usually, the prophet Elijah, none of whom are here. Otherwise, surely, they would have been called upon for speeches. (165-6)
Chaim’s reasoning leads him to suspect the artificiality of the Hotel Amfortas, and he is correct. He soon learns that the place is a symbolic fabrication of the Nazi regime’s Master plan to rid the world of Jews. The hapless victims are promised massages, but receive instead a trip to the ovens.
Again we see the disastrous effects of a people cut off from nature, entrapped by a manmade fabrication of comfort that can only offer deceit and loss, never truth and healing. Those familiar with Carl Jung’s Psychological Types and Richard Wagner’s Parsifal may recognize and appreciate the appropriateness of the word “Amfortas,” the name Skibell chose for his manmade hell in disguise. In Jung and Wagner’s works, and in Skibell’s A Blessing on the Moon, we find the paths of history, psychology and literature intertwined through this “Amfortas’ wound”:
“Briefly put, […human beings] suffer from [an] internal split as from an
ever open, never healing wound—like the one that tormented the Grail-
King, Amfortas – and we long for the uniting principle Jung calls ‘symbol’
and ‘transcendent function.’” (Haule)
In A Blessing on the Moon, Chaim Skibelski not only visits the Hotel Amfortas, he also suffers from an “ever open, never healing wound” of his own. He often leaves trails of blood in his path. Added to the richness of the text is the reference to “Wagner’s priest-king of the Grail Kingdom, [who] acquires his wound while doing battle with Klingsor and the forces of evil” (Haule), just as
Chaim has been wounded through a symbolic battle with Adolf Hitler’s forces of evil. Using the Grail-King myth in his work, Jung:
[…]Speaks of Amfortas and his woundedness in several places in his
published writings, always relating it to unconscious, brutish barbarism and
to “the Faustian split in the Germanic man.” (Haule; Jung 1938: par. 70).
And doesn’t that just hit the nail on the head? Joseph Skibell has done his research.
When Chaim is able to elude the Nazi “bakers” who have already burned so many of his people, and is then able to hide for an indeterminate period of time, he is “saved” from this second death, which we fear would truly be the end of his soul, a permanent removal from the natural world where his body would become useless ashes. This is where the beauty of nature returns, contrasted with the “dilapidated shell” that was once the Hotel Amfortas. Now, magically, Chaim is
“standing in the middle of a green and sunny field. The air is fresh and
fragrant. The birds, indeed, are singing… The earth is alive and green, the
wind is cool, but pleasant.” (Skibell 195)
Again and again, nature waits to comfort and heal the wounds of humanity. In her critique of another post-Holocaust book, Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces, Anne Whitehead says we find a:
vision of nature [which] is profoundly influenced by kabbalism, a mystical
tradition of Jewish philosophy which is primarily concerned with the role of
the Jews in the world and the meaning of the condition of exile. At the
heart of kabbalism lies the notion that it is with nature, rather than with
God, that the Jews are to reconciled; material nature, in spite of its fallen
state, is the sole source of divine knowledge. Healing or redemption comes
through the contemplation of nature, which contains within it the scattered
sparks of God’s attributes or divinity. (Whitehead 58)
Awareness of the natural world and curiosity about our place in it is inescapable. Wherever you go, there it is. In spite of all attempts by humanity to distance itself from this source of life, no matter how many highways are built or how many skyscrapers – the sun, the moon, the trees, the oceans – all of these things remain vital. Literature tells us that the solace of nature is available to everyone who chooses to look. To quote Wordworth again:
“My Heart Leaps Up”
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety. (Norton 207)
Nature was also of great importance to the most famous teenager of the Holocaust, Anne Frank. Frank, like Wordsworth’s child who is truly the parent, because she is closer to innocence in her “continuing responsiveness to the miracle of ordinary things” (Norton 207), also adopted a romantic philosophy, even while in hiding from the Nazis. Frank explains her belief in the restorative qualities of nature this way in her diary:
The best remedy for those who are frightened, lonely or unhappy is to go
outside, somewhere they can be alone, alone with the sky, nature and God.
For then and only then can you feel that everything is as it should be and
that God wants people to be happy amid nature’s beauty and simplicity.
As long as this exists, and that should be forever, I know that there will be
solace for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances. I firmly believe that
nature can bring comfort to all who suffer. (196)
Frank’s only view of the beauty of nature was through a dirty window; yet she had a rich memory and a vivid imagination of the natural world which was denied her, perhaps that’s why she understood.
Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, published in 2004, will offer us one last example of postwar fiction with a decidedly Wordsworthian bent. This is a young adult novel, a Printz Honor Award book for excellence in YA fiction. In this book, we see a combination of the anger of youth at the loss of the garden, post-war consciousness, and the redemptive powers of nature. Throughout the story, young people are forced to face the consequences of their predecessors.
As the novel opens, the world is on the brink of World War III. The main character, Daisy, a fifteen-year-old anorexic girl, is starving literally for food and symbolically for love. In a quest for the garden, Daisy leaves New York City and winds up in an idyllic English country estate where she finds temporary sustenance in the company of her young cousins. In an obvious allusion to heaven, the estate is significantly named Gateshead. It is through these gates where Daisy will encounter the proverbial garden. And Gateshead does indeed contain a beautiful garden where “in one corner there’s a stone angel about the size of a child, very worn, with folded wings” (7). The child angel in the garden suggests the permanence of the relationship between humanity, innocence, and the beauty of nature. The stone is worn, but solid; the wings are folded, not raised to fly away. The children are in their rightful place.
There is also a love relationship that quickly develops between Daisy and her first-cousin Edmond. The innocent sexual intimacy of Daisy and Edmond is reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the garden, both created of the same rib; and indeed, at the end of the book, it is in the garden where the two lovers are reunited. But no matter how ideal life may seem at the estate, residual events from the previous World Wars and threats from a new one are always present. Daisy and her cousins are only supervised by adults briefly.
Within a few days of her arrival in England, Daisy says:
…[Aunt Penn] put her hand up very gently and pushed the hair off my face
in a way that for some reason made me feel incredibly sad and then she said
in a regretful grave voice that she was sorry but she had to give a lecture in
Oslo at the end of the week on the Imminent Threat of War and had work to
do so would I please excuse her? She would only be gone a few days in
Oslo and the children would take good care of me. And I thought There’s
that old war again, popping up like a bad penny. (15)
Aunt Penn never makes it back. When the new war closes in, Daisy and her cousins are split up and taken at first to reside with foster families or group homes, but these sanctuaries are soon invaded by the enemy and the children are forced to spread out across the countryside in an effort to survive on their own. Though they are heartsick and footsore, the natural world is gentler to the children than are the stark realities of war. They are able to survive on food found in nature, and they find simple joy in its beauty.
When Daisy and Piper find a spot to camp one night, Piper goes “out picking flowers to put in our new home like we were going to stay there for years,” and when Piper discovers hazelnuts while out picking the flowers, a symbol of the spiritual sustenance of nature and the physical sustenance of nature are combined – beauty and food. Daisy says, “we smashed [the nuts] open on a rock and ate as many as we could without throwing up and I found myself wondering why hazelnuts weren’t everyone’s idea of five-star cuisine” (124).
There are also animals to commune with in their world, and the animals are depicted very like the children – there are no scary predators, this is England after all, a place of green pastures dotted with gentle creatures such as lambs and cows, the same England that Wordsworth immortalized in many of his poems. Jet, the intelligent and talented Border collie that handles their cows, symbolizes the friendliness and interdependence of nature with the children. They sleep together with “Jet a little separate from Piper and with Piper’s hand around his front paw for security and me with my hand around Piper’s front paw also for security and that’s how we slept” (151). Piper, I’m sure you noticed, has been given a metaphorical paw in the previous quote, another echo from Wordsworth that reminds the reader of the inherent virtue and similitude of children and animals – the strong link all living creatures are meant to share in the world, but which is often broken.
And Piper cannot only direct Jet with hand gestures and whistles; she also has conversations with him. Daisy says, “I came across Piper deep in conversation with Jet one afternoon and when I asked her what they were talking about she shrugged and said Dog Things” (161).
There is also Ding, the sweet baby goat who is “exactly as nice” as her cousin Piper (13). This goat, like the stone angel in the garden, never reaches maturity. It starves to death during the war, because it is domesticated, left behind, and locked up in a stall – dependent on humans who are too busy fighting one another to feed it. So the children and the animals, and the entire countryside, are all victimized by the war – the mistakes of the adults who are in charge of the world and who have been since time began.
When the girls return to the estate for the first time, they encounter ghosts that now inhabit the main house. Piper refuses to go into her bedroom. Daisy notes:
[…] She was adamant that she wouldn’t go, in the way little children are
adamant that there might be something hiding in the closet in the dark. I
guess she was scared of the ghosts that were creeping all around the house
and I couldn’t blame her. (153)
The war goes on for years. In the end, after many struggles, the children, now grown, move back into the house. They learn to deal with the ghosts, those that inhabit their world and those that abide within each of their own psyches. Daisy believes that Edmond, who witnessed a massacre, “will never silence those unspeakable voices. He heard how people killed, and how they died, and their voices infected him, coursed through his body, poisoned him” (193). He is, in effect, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – an ever-open never-healing wound. This is evidence again of the lasting effects of unspeakable experiences. Rosoff doesn’t trivialize the war with a simple resolution; to do so would be irresponsible and unethical. She makes it clear that there is still a lot of work to be done “running a farm and staying alive in a country deformed and misshapen by war” (194).
Daisy says, “I became a gardener, of sorts” (192). She eventually reaches Edmond’s heart and helps him deal with his trauma through her own simple compassion, as did Parsifal for King Amfortas’ never-healing wound, and “with hard work and the feel of old tools, and with fat bulbs buried and waiting deep in the rich soil” (192).
Daisy reverently memorizes the names of the plants that “saved [her] life. Corylus avellana. Hazelnuts. Rubus fruticosus. Blackberries. Agaricus campestris. Field mushrooms. Rorippa nasturtium-aquaticum. Watercress. Allium ursinum. Wild garlic. Malus domestica. Apples” (192-3).
The natural world has now become Daisy’s Bible, and the names of the life-giving plants, her psalms. She has eaten the apple, and been allowed to return.
This analysis has shown that themes of war and the loss of a romantic ideal of nature often blend together in what Anne Whitehead calls “trauma fiction” and that these themes have filtered through the works of canonical Holocaust authors and continue to metamorphose in some surprisingly hopeful, even romantic, ways in important works of literature today. No matter where technology or culture take us, the natural world, it seems, is forever enmeshed with the human experience. Humanity isn’t a separate entity abiding on the planet next to nature. Humanity, rather, is an element of the larger natural world. The relationship is symbiotic and reciprocal; what happens to people affects nature, and visa versa. If we are to preserve ourselves, we must believe that we are connected to the natural world around us and protect that, too.
Whether we live among millions of people in huge cities or alone in diminishing forests, we must remember what the earth always remembers – our own place in the natural world and the sometimes horrific mistakes that we make. It is through remembering, and sometimes listening to the sounds of nature – water tumbling down a rocky stream, wind whispering in the trees – as Wordsworth did centuries ago and writers like Rosoff do now, that we learn how to navigate the darkness. Humanity may have been expelled from the Garden of Eden, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a way back. We have a rich legacy of literary history and a limitless supply of new imaginative writers to lead the way.
©Rachel Lorene Pohlman, 2013. Lake Arrowhead, CA.
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